If you are someone who still thinks that meditation is a new-agey, hippie-dippie activity, then please take a moment to read this Forbes article that discusses how meditation can actually change the brain. On the other hand, you may be like many who believe that meditation is a good idea, but just don’t know how you could ever fit it into your already busy lifestyle. Well I am here to tell you that even you can squeeze a little meditation into each day. Yes, you. 🙂
The terms mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, but while they are similar, they are not exactly the same. Meditation is the practice you use to exercise your brain so that you can become more mindful in your day-to-day experiences. Being mindful means being fully aware and present in every moment. This is not easy. We all carry a flurry of thoughts in our heads at any one time. Sometimes we’re mulling over the minutiae of the day: what to wear, what to eat, where to be by what time, and so much of that detail that Thoreau said “frittered away” life. Sometimes there are bigger thoughts that lie heavy on our minds: will I ever get out of debt, will I ever get healthy again, will there ever be world peace. And sometimes there is endless negative chatter: rehashing an argument over and over in your head, criticizing yourself, criticizing others, mentally responding to others’ criticisms of you.
If you’ve never meditated before, you may be surprised at just how much is going on up there. How many times have you opened the refrigerator to find you forgot what you went there for? Obviously, you were thinking about something else at the time. And while you are lost in thought (and let’s not even talk about being lost in your cell phone), you often miss the raison d’être: the beauty of life itself, the small moments of wonder that allow us to relish the very fact that we are alive. Whether its appreciating the rhythm of a spring rainfall on your roof, or noticing the way your daughter’s eyes sparkle when she is telling you a joke, meditation helps you become mindful so that you can enjoy these moments more fully.
Becoming more mindful helps you to realize what you have to be grateful for. It makes you aware of what thoughts continue to bog you down and helps you cut through the clutter in your mind. It makes you more aware of what is really worth worrying over, where you can take steps to improve your situation, and how to accept things that you may not be able to change. As you become more mindful it becomes easier to find Zen in the every day.
You don’t have to study Tibetan or Zen Buddhism (although I find it fascinating). You don’t have to light incense or place flowers on an altar. You don’t even have to sit in lotus position (although you can if you want to). And it only takes ten minutes (although you could obviously go much longer if you are so inclined). Ten minutes before or after your morning coffee. Ten minutes before or after your morning commute. Or you could even do it in your car in the parking lot. No one has to know that you aren’t just taking a ten minute shut-eye. 😉 Ten minutes after you kiss your kids goodbye at the bus stop (or before they come home again). Ten minutes before or after your evening commute, before or after dinner, before or after the gym, before bed. You get it. Meditation is the best thing you could possibly do for your mental, psychological, and emotional well-being, and its totally free. You can (and you should) carve (at least) ten minutes out of your busy routine to give your mind a much-needed break, a refresher, a vacation. Commit to it, set an alarm to remind you, and do it.
You could also start right now with one of these five meditation exercises below.
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Five Meditation Techniques You Can Practice Right Now
To get started, find a comfortable spot that is also fairly quiet. You can sit in a chair, with your feet planted firmly on the ground, and your hands resting on your thighs. If you are a yogi, you can sit in lotus position. Just make sure you are comfortable, so that you are not fidgeting throughout the exercise.
Choose an exercise and read through it a couple of times so that you don’t have to refer to it later. Set a timer for ten minutes (hopefully one with a nice chime at the end, instead of a jarring alarm). Then, begin the meditation with eyes in soft-focus a few feet ahead of you, and taking several deep breaths. After a few breaths, close your eyes and begin focusing on the exercise.
If you are new to meditation, don’t worry if you can’t stay on task right away. It is normal for your thoughts to drift onto something else. Gently pull your thoughts back to the exercise. You are not trying to change your thoughts. Just acknowledge them, then let them go. The more you do this, the better you will get at staying on task. Some days will be better than others. If you are tired, you may have a harder time staying on task, but you may find that you feel less tired after the ten minutes, anyway. Good luck!
1) Mindful Breathing
This is the most basic meditation practice and is a great place to start.
Begin the meditation with eyes in soft-focus a few feet ahead of you, and taking several deep breaths. Imagine breathing in through your right nostril and out through your left. After a few breaths, close your eyes and continue breathing in through your right, and out through your left. With each inward breath imagine how this very moment is completely new from the last breath that you took. With each outward breath imagine that you are cycling out the past. Each inhalation is a new start. Each exhalation lets go of unwanted, negative thoughts releasing any heaviness in your mind and body.
If you have trouble staying with the exercise, you can count each breath. Count to ten, and that start again at one. Meanwhile, simply say to yourself “this is an in-breath”, “this is an out-breath.” Once you feel that you are staying on task, you can go back to focusing on newness with inhalations and letting the past go with exhalations.
2) Body Scan
This is a great overall relaxation technique for anyone, but is especially useful for people who have chronic pain or symptoms, or who don’t feel in tune with their body. See Tina’s post on how mindfulness meditation can help alleviate pain. You can actually lie down for this one if you want (be careful not to fall asleep!), but it works just as well while sitting, too. You can begin with your feet, or with your head. I like beginning with my head, because this is usually where I am most active during this time, but feel free to turn the exercise upside down if it suits you better.
Begin the meditation with eyes in soft-focus a few feet ahead of you, and taking several deep breaths. After a few breaths, close your eyes and beginning at the top of your head, slowly “scan” through each and every inch of your body. Notice your scalp, your ears, earlobes, the backs of your eyelids, your nostrils… notice how each of the parts of your body feels. If you find a part of your body with tension or pain, stay there for a few breaths, and with each exhalation imagine relaxing that particular point of tension.
Move on to where your neck meets your head, then your throat, to your shoulders, again scanning each body part to see how it feels. Take note, if it feels good, great. Or maybe you notice a change from the last time you were aware of this region. Take note. And again, wherever you meet pain, resistance or tension, stay there for a few breaths, imagining releasing the tension with each out breath. Continue this exercise throughout your entire body, all the way down to your pinky toes. Do each arm and leg separately.
If you find that you’ve completed the body scan before your ten minutes is up, you may have gone too fast. Or your body is in good shape! Either way, if you’ve reached your toes, and you still have some time left, you can imagine a ray of light (a yoga teacher I had in the Phillippines once called it an “emerald green light”) moving through your body — from your toes up to your head, relaxing everything on its way. When you get to your head, cover your entire body with this light and imagine everything relaxed in this big halo of light.
3) Insert “Mantra” Here
Meditating on a mantra is a very common practice, and some claim you can will whatever you want this way, even accumulation of riches. I don’t know about that, but I do think it’s a good practice for anyone that is struggling with specific issues in which they need an extra boost of self-affirmation. You may know that telling yourself something over and over often makes it true: ‘I’ll never be able to…” Well the same is true if you use positive affirmation, and a mantra, simply a phrase that you recite over and over, is a great way to do this.
The most well known mantra is the simple sound of Om, believed to be the vibration of the universe and that which connects everything together. You may also have heard the hare Krishna chant, which although often associated with hippie culture, is actually Hindu in origin, and praises Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lashkmi, thanking for them for all they have given in life. When I was ordained as a Buddhist nun (yes, I did just say that), we learned all kinds of Sanskrit mantras that evoked world peace and the end to human suffering. I loved being “in tune with the universe” and “at one with nature.” But as a beginning meditator, I would encourage you to be a little less selfless and use a mantra that can help you in specific areas. After all, self-care is important, too and only after taking good care of yourself, can you really begin to help others.
When I was still getting used to public speaking I would use the mantra “I’m confident, smart, and personable” in a ten-minute meditation to help calm the nerves just before entering center stage. It might seem a little Jack Handy-ish, but it worked! If you are struggling with controlling your eating habits, you might want to use a mantra like “I have strong willpower;” if you are struggling with body-image issues, you might want to use the mantra “I am beautiful.” If you are struggling to find the positive in life, you could recite “I am grateful for what I have, even if its not perfect.” If you really want to try it, you could recite “I can accumulate wealth,” you never know! It might at least give you the confidence that you are capable of being successful, even if you don’t necessarily win the lottery.
Take a moment to think about what you are struggling with most on a daily basis, and write down a mantra that is specific to your needs. If you need a little more help, choose a phrase from our inspiration board on Pinterest.
Then, as with the other meditations, begin with your eyes in soft-focus a few feet ahead of you, and taking several deep breaths. After a few breaths, close your eyes and with each breath recite your mantra. Whenever your mind begins to stray, gently pull it back and continuing reciting your mantra.
4) Visualize Blue Sky
Visualization is another meditation technique that is adaptable to just about any situation. It is often used to help attain a certain goal. Sports professionals will visualize perfecting their golf stroke or their baseball pitch. You could visualize a thinner, healthier version of you. If you want to be a better artist, you could visualize paint colors streaming from the universal consciousness into your head out through your hand and onto the canvas. You could also visualize a $10 million dollar check like Jim Carrey did, but again, don’t count on that one coming true, unless you have the talent of Jim Carrey. 🙂 Just like with your mantra, if there is something in particular that you believe needs extra focus, you can create your own visualization.
Visualization can also be used a little more generally, such as visualizing light relaxing the body, like we did in the body scan, above. One of my favorites is visualizing “blue sky”, which Andy Puddicombe from Headspace first introduced me to. I always fall back on this one when I am meditating and my thoughts feel particularly jumbled, heavy or just overly busy. I think its also great if you are new to meditation to see how simple it can actually be to rise above your “cloudy” mind. As soon as I visualize blue sky, I can literally feel my brain activity move to a higher point in my head and both my body and brain feel much lighter. Take a minute to watch the video:
Now begin as with your other meditations, eyes in soft-focus a few feet ahead of you, and taking several deep breaths. After a few breaths, close your eyes, then begin visualizing “blue sky.” You can do this in so many ways. You could picture yourself in an airplane floating above the clouds (as in the video); you could be an eagle soaring above the earth with clouds far below; you could be atop a mountain looking above the morning fog. Or come up with your own mental image of how you would rise above the cloudy brain below.
Its ok if your mental image is not that clear in the beginning. If you begin to stray from your visualization, focus on your breath, and with each inhalation, conjure up your image again. Feel free to you use some words or recite a mantra to help the image materialize, as well.
5) Loving-Kindness Meditation
I already mentioned this meditation practice in my post on finding Zen in the every day, but its one of my favorites and worth repeating.
The idea is to send loving and kind thoughts out to your circle of friends and family, and just by feeling the love toward others, you release negative emotions and strengthen loving bonds. The reasoning is that if your heart is filled with love, there is no room for hatred. You can either visualize the person in your head as you send them loving feelings, you can reflect on their positive qualities, or you can recite a mantra such as “I’m sending you love and kindness”. There are 4 steps to the process.
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Step 1. Start by sending loving and kind thoughts to yourself about yourself. If you are someone who constantly berates yourself, you may have to practice this many, many times, before you are able to go on to step 2.
Step 2. Send loving and kind thoughts to the ones you love. This is usually pretty easy if you have several special people in your life, and will really escalate your positive feelings inside. Be sure to single each one out in thought.
Step 3. Send loving and kind thoughts to a “neutral” person. This would be the cashier at the grocery store, the mail person or the bus driver. Someone who doesn’t hold a special place in your heart, but is still deserving of love and kindness.
Step 4. Practice love and kindness toward an “enemy” or someone whom you have a troubled relationship with. This is the hardest, and if you can do this on regular basis, you should consider yourself a Zen master!
How did you feel after the exercise? If you felt more calm and more clear, try to carry that feeling with you throughout the rest of the day. Did you notice some heavier thoughts, or some recurring thoughts that you wish weren’t there? Try to be aware of your thoughts as you are going throughout the day and if you encounter them again, acknowledge them, see if there is anything you can do to reconcile them, then gently usher them out the door, just like you did in your meditation. Once you have ushered them out the door, then you return to being in the present. Try to be aware throughout the day of what you see, smell, hear, feel in each and every moment. This is being “mindful,” and becomes easier the more you meditate.
Need more inspiration?
The Headspace App, started by Andy Puddicombe, whom I mentioned before, has great guided meditation for beginners. Then, once you’ve trained for thirty days, you can unlock more advanced meditations. It also lets you set reminders to make sure you do it! I use it practically every day.
Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This is a great book for beginning meditators. You can start with the first meditation and work your way through to the end. I like opening it to a random page and using whatever appears as the thought of the day on which to meditate. It includes a CD with 5 guided mindfulness meditations.
A Life Worth Breathing by Max Strom “teaches us that by healing our past emotional wounds, silencing the inner critic that cripples us, and cultivating a yoga and breathing practice, we can elevate ourselves from the mindset of a reactionary victim to an authentic life of meaning, health, and joy.” Definitely worth the read.
Do you have a favorite meditation, mantra or mindfulness exercise you practice? Please share! Or tell me what’s holding you back from starting your practice?