Not long ago, the mere mention of meditation to me would have conjured kumbaya-like images of contorting the body into awkward positions to attain some elusive state of Zen for hours on end. Oh, I’d heard the miraculous claims. I even read a book or two and downloaded some apps. Meditation is often cited as one of the most effective ways to live a happier life. However, when attempted, rather than discovering a state of pure tranquility, I only found frustration. Convinced that meditation was a farse, I gave up and cursed the time wasted. Can anyone truly stop the relentless torrent of thoughts and find genuine peace amid the constant chaos around us?
One day I heard a concept that changed my entire perspective. The point of meditation is NOT to stop or quiet our thoughts. The point is simply to learn to give our thoughts direction. At once my vision of dreary confinement to my inner sanitarium, was replaced with a focused excursion through Terra’s brain gym. No longer fighting myself to stop fidgeting for torturous hours on end, I simply recognized when my mind wandered off, and gently…without judgement…brought it back.
Even better I discovered that despite my hurried life, progress could be achieved in short spurts, squeezed in a few minutes at a time. These erratic, short pauses and quick reflections became a welcome part of my days and like any exercised muscle, strength developed over time. Little by little, this practice cultivated a skill that I could call upon in a stress-filled time of need.
Below are a few additional techniques I found helpful:
- Mind - This can last a few seconds or as long as you need.
- Start with a few deep breaths. While inhaling envision being filled with strength and positivity and while exhaling allow yourself to physically soften.
- Select a single aspect of your breathing to focus on. When your mind wanders, gently acknowledge it and bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Counting to a changing or predetermined number while inhaling and then again as you exhale, may assist in maintaining your focus. For example, breath in to a count of 3 and out to the same, then to a count of 6, and then deeper and slower to a count of 9, repeating this cycle a few times.
- Body - Become aware of your other physical sensations beyond breathing.
- What do you hear? Is there a familiar scent in the air? Can you feel the cold tile against your bare feet? Are your shoulders tight?
- Progressive muscle relaxation exercises offer an excellent way to create awareness of different parts of your body, including physical indications of mental or emotional stress.
- Spirit - Take a moment to authentically explore what you are feeling.
- Observe and take notice. Do not cast good nor bad judgement on yourself, your thoughts, or emotions. Replace judgments with descriptions of your observations. For example, you may find yourself thinking something like, “I recognize that I am worrying about my appointment with the doctor next week.”
- Acknowledge and accept your current thoughts or worries, then move on. “There is not RIGHT way that I SHOULD be thinking or feeling about this. How I am genuinely feeling is enough.”
- When you’re ready…draw your attention back outside of yourself and engage in the present moment around you.
My practice of and journey through mindfulness taught me more life skills than any destination could. Mindfulness counteracts the persistence of unhealthy stress with an opportunity to re-center our mind and body, even as the world around us continues to swirl at warp speed. When struck by anxiety, rather than bury my head in the sand, I can halt the escalating worries by pausing to take a few deep breaths and allowing my thoughts to come and go judgment free. By doing this, I bring myself back to reality, and can sincerely participate in the present.
The RIGHT way to be mindful is whatever way works best for you! Something is better than nothing. Start where you are, then add more as you see fit. Choose a daily, regularly occurring cue as your reminder to take a moment for your ever-important training. It could be brushing your teeth, standing in a line, or letting the dog out. Establish your new habit by stopping to experience a well-deserved pause.
Remember, the goal is not to quiet our thoughts or emotions, but to bring awareness and direction to them. The habits you nurture will foster mentally healthy reflexive responses, ever so urgently needed today’s stressful world.
Please share with me your mindfulness journey and/or coping strategies you utilized during challenges of the past year and beyond.