Think more clearly, breathe more freely: learn to meditate
In spite of its increasing popularity, meditation is still widely misunderstood in Western culture. In the words of news anchor Dan Harris, “it suffers from a towering PR problem”.
I hope to change that.
Setting aside the religious trappings and new-agey doublespeak that sometimes accompany it, meditation is simply a unique, potent form of exercise for your brain. It creates space in your mind between stimulus and reaction; providing you with just enough time to stop, evaluate your options and then make a conscious choice.
This is intensely valuable for several reasons. For starters, our world is overrun with distraction. Imagine sitting down to work at 9 AM in the morning. You get four or five minutes in and oh, there’s an incoming email; you reflexively move to open and read it. Twelve minutes later, your phone buzzes; you quickly swipe right to check it. Shortly thereafter, you become swept up in a conversation in a neighboring cube. What’s more, your thoughts constantly intrude: I’m hungry; what’s for lunch? Indian food … mmm, I love Indian food.
Distractions of this sort occur dozens of times throughout the day. Finally, eight hours later, you’ve gotten astonishingly little done; but how? Where did your entire day go?
In each of these examples, becoming more mindful of the given trigger (assuming that it can’t be eliminated altogether) will help you to avoid reacting, and rather to make a conscious choice; is this really what I want to be doing right now, in this moment? Of course, I could easily write about dozens of others examples, or speak in terms of being at home instead; again, distraction abounds.
We are similarly triggered in our relationships with other people as well. Your partner does something which rubs you the wrong way; your child interrupts you when you’re in the middle of something important; a co-worker says something offensive; another driver cuts you off. Again, when you are insufficiently mindful, you tend to simply react; for example, lashing out when it would genuinely be in your best interest to respond differently. We all do this (granted, some of us more than others); meditation helps you to short-circuit such behaviors and make them less automatic.
Beyond helping you to become less reactive, there is a growing body of scientific research which suggests that meditation confers many other valuable benefits. It reduces blood pressure, anxiety, depression and stress levels and may improve cognitive performance. Our military is using it to improve performance in combat; maximum-security prisons teach it to help prisoners cope and reduce violence amongst inmates. Researchers have discovered that meditation literally rewires the brain, producing changes in alpha and theta waves as well as structural changes which are detectable on MRI scans.
In other words, there are very few silver bullets in life, but a daily meditation practice might just be one of them. Of course, it won’t eliminate all your problems; news anchor Dan Harris wrote a great book about his experiences and called it “10% Happier”; that’s a good way to think about it. But regardless of whether your number is 8 or 20, it’s time well spent in service of your most important goals in life.
There are many forms of meditation, but the one we’re interested in today is Zen, or mindfulness meditation. Absolutely anyone can learn to meditate; here’s how it works.
- Begin by sitting comfortably in a quiet room. I sit in an armchair; you don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (and in fact, if you lack flexibility and core strength, I encourage you not to). I also fold my hands in my lap and cross my legs at the ankles, but really, just be sure that your spine is reasonably straight and that your shoulders aren’t slumped forward.
- Breathe slowly, in and out; simply observing what each breath feels like as it fills your lungs. You might find that it helps to direct your attention to a simple phrase — such as “breathing in, I breathe in; breathing out, I breathe out” — or just try counting your breaths.
- Finally, whenever you catch your attention wandering — and it will wander, particularly when you’re just starting out — just acknowledge yourself and gently return your attention to your breath. It’s very difficult to clear your mind of all thoughts; the entire point of this practice is to faithfully catch your mind wandering and then to come back to your breath, again and again.
That’s it! No, seriously; that’s it. Mindfulness meditation is that simple. In fact, like so many important but unsexy little things in life, it’s deceptively simple.
When you first begin, you will notice little difference, but as time goes on, you will see improvement, even in areas in which you did not expect it. I encourage you; try not to become frustrated with any apparent setbacks you may initially experience, whether that’s difficulty in forming a new habit, boredom or whatever. In fact, meditation entails simply observing any and all of these thoughts, without self-judgment, and allowing them to be; not having to “overcome” them or change something about yourself.
Like so many things, the benefits are derived only in sticking with it over time. I recommend you start small — say, for five minutes each morning — and then work your way up to 10 or 15 from there.
What would your life look like if you could become ten percent happier or less reactive? There’s only one way to find out.