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When you think of meditation, the first image that comes to mind might be that of a Buddhist monk, Indian-sitting with the tips of his pointer fingers touching the tips of his thumbs. And of course, the proverbial sound (reportedly the first sound the universe ever made), “Om.” But meditation doesn’t have to be so stuffy and traditional. In fact, this mindfulness exercise has been adapted over the years to become easy for people of all ages to do. And if you’ve been overwhelmed or stressed this quarantine, meditation just might be the key to finding your groove again.
Meditation helps to calm the mind because it trains you to become more self-aware. It gently nudges you to filter away distractions, but it also trains you to be forgiving when the mind wanders. Our brains are restless beings—we don’t become calmer by forcing them to shut down. We become calmer when we acknowledge what captures our attention, then let it go.
If you’re a beginner, the app Headspace is a great place to start. They’ve repeatedly touted the science-backed benefits of meditation, from better sleep to improved focus, reduced job strain, higher levels of compassion, and more. Once you’ve downloaded the app, all you have to do is choose a meditation course, then follow the guidelines (whispered by the app’s soft-spoken founder and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe). Here are some tips for you to get the most out of your meditation session.
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Pick a place where you can sit or lie down without being disturbed. It could be your bed, on a chair on your condo’s balcony, or even outdoors if that’s what you prefer. Meditating can take a little as three minutes or as long as 20, so make sure you’ve got a place you can sit undisturbed for that long.
Back when humans were cavemen who had to forage for food and evade predators, having a wandering mind was key to survival. It allowed us to be instinctive and think on our feet. But now, that same wandering mind can stop us from being one with ourselves during meditation. However, it’s important to accept that that’s just the way the mind works. “Mindfulness isn’t about stopping these unique and remarkable cognitive processes through sheer force of will,” says Dr. David Cox. “What mindfulness teaches you to do is spot when your mind has wandered off down one path or another, and be able to bring it back to the here and now. The more you practice doing this, the quicker you’ll notice when it’s wandered, and the easier it will become to get back to experiencing the present moment.”
So when you’re meditating and catch yourself thinking about your to-do list, or fixating on a work thing, stop, acknowledge the thought, then let it go. Then return to focus on your breathing.
Speaking of focusing on your breathing…well, that’s the main exercise you’ll be practicing during a meditation. By focusing on your breath, you allow thoughts and emotions to take a backseat, all so you can savor the present moment. It’s a little unnerving to be doing nothing—and that’s exactly the point. Humans have become so overstimulated that the idea of not doing anything can often be foreign and undesirable. But the effects of taking time for yourself everyday, as one would do in meditation, are well-recorded.
As your eyes are closed, you can count the breaths as they pass, counting only from 1 to 10 each time. This will help filter out thoughts if you’re a beginner. You don’t have to breathe deeply or in any special way. Just breathe normally, count your breaths, and keep going.
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You might be pressured to make sure your meditation goes a certain way. If you spent your entire session thinking about work, you might be hard on yourself for “not doing it right.” But it’s okay. That’s why meditation is referred to as a practice—you are forever learning to train the mind, so of course it won’t come easy. “So, when your mind keeps wandering, don’t beat yourself up about not seeing any improvement—you are improving, precisely because you’re noticing that it’s happening. You’ve already taken the first step on the journey to a healthier happier life,” says Dr. Cox.
For the long-term results of meditation to take effect, you’ll need to carve out time to do it every day. With every session, you’ll become more at ease with the quiet and more masterful at focusing on your breathing. And the ensuing calm you feel after every meditation? That’s going to extend to your everyday life, making you a happier, calmer person. Meditation, you see, also benefits the people around you. The more calm and centered you are, the better of a human being you can be for others.