As you may or may not know, May is National Mental Health Month. And there’s no better time to pick up meditation than right now. Here at SELF, we are big fans of meditation. We’ve dabbled with apps, experiments, and even monthly get-togethers for the staff to try out meditation in our conference rooms.
Meditation can help with everything from falling asleep faster to preventing panic attacks to even moonlighting as couples therapy. An analysis of 47 studies published in JAMA concluded that mindfulness meditation was shown to have moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain. (Meditation wasn’t better than standard treatments such as exercise, medication, or behavioral therapy, according to the study. The authors also noted that meditation had no adverse side effects.)
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), part of the National Institutes of Health, says that meditation can improve symptoms of several health conditions. “Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions, and there’s evidence that it may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may help people with insomnia,” according to the NCCIH. The NCCIH also cautions that meditation should never be a replacement for treatment by a health care professional.
If you’re really looking to geek out over the benefits of meditation, researchers are currently exploring how meditation practices can change your brain’s gray and white matter (the part of your brain that’s in charge of all muscle control, sight, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control). A review of 21 brain imaging studies published in the journal Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews found moderate evidence for changes to brain areas that regulate awareness, memory, and emotions, as well as communication between the hemispheres of the brain. One big limitation, however, is that the studies involved only about 300 meditation practitioners, partly due to the difficulty finding participants with adequate meditation experience.
As someone who’s tried different forms of meditation, I am currently obsessed with Headspace, an app and Web site designed to get more people meditating. It specializes in 10 minute-a-day meditations, whether it’s focusing on building your foundation; or getting more specific and working your way through a series of meditations about relationships, performance, and even sport. The British voice behind the app definitely helps. So we reached out to Headspace to get tips from whoever voiced the soothing guided meditations, and it happens to be cofounder Andy Puddicombe, who has studied meditation and mindfulness in Asia and is now ordained in both the Burmese and Tibetan traditions. Here are his top 10 tips to get you started.
1. Be clear about your intention.
Before you even begin, you’ll want to think about what you want to get out of your meditation sessions. “Want to sleep better? Want to feel less stressed or anxious? Want to improve your focus at work or on a sport? Overwhelmed with parenting? In physical pain?” asks Puddicombe. “The reasons to meditate are so broad and subjective, but it’s important that you enter this practice by being clear about your intention and having the right attitude of mind.”
Once you know what you want to accomplish, it can be easier to find the meditation that’s right for you, plus you’re able to constantly revisit your goal, so the end result can take care of itself, Puddicombe says.
2. Make it a morning meditation.
We all know that the early bird gets the worm, but does that help with meditation, too? Puddicombe says yes. “Meditate first thing in the morning if possible–it’s a great way to begin the day starting on the right foot, with the right mental attitude. It also means you’re more likely to be mindful throughout the day.”
If you’re more likely to hit the snooze than roll out of bed to sit in stillness, that’s okay. Just be sure to set aside time for your meditation at some point. “Schedule it the same way you would any other meeting. You’re making an appointment for your mental well-being. What could be more important?”
3. Take it day by day, moment by moment.
In reality, you’re not going to meditate once and immediately feel calmer or more Zen. You might! But just like anything, it often takes practice and patience.
“Your mind isn’t going to stop whirring just because you’ve started to meditate. Take it session by session, day by day, moment by moment,” Puddicombe says. “The magic only happens when you sit down and close your eyes regularly, or even better, daily.”
4. Remember that meditating is easier than you might think.
While it may seem counterintuitive, you don’t have to try really hard to meditate. Just setting aside the time to do it and completing a session is worthy of a high five. “The biggest obstacle for most people when learning to meditate is trying too hard. But this is the one skill where you don’t have to strive to achieve something; it’s a place where no effort is required,” Puddicombe points out. “All you need to do is sit there and see what happens.”
5. Observe your breath.
The easiest way to calm your mind during those initial moments of your practice is to pay attention to your breathing. “Make no effort to change it, simply observe the rising and falling sensation in the body. Notice where these sensations occur—be it your belly, your chest, your shoulders, or anywhere else,” Puddicombe explains.
It can be helpful to try to count your breaths. “One, as you inhale; two, as you exhale; three, on the inhalation, and so on, up to 10. And then start again at one. The breath is what anchors us to the moment whenever distracting thoughts or emotions arise.”
6. Don’t try to stop your thoughts—it’s OK to let your mind wander.
“A common myth is that meditation is all about stopping thoughts, when it’s actually about learning to step back and witness them,” Puddicombe says. It’s normal for your brain to be all over the place when you first start, since it’s not used to having all that free time. “In the same way we can’t train a roped wild horse to be still overnight, we can’t expect a busy mind to find a restful place just because we sit to meditate. We’re teaching it to be still. It’s why we practice.”
7. Be kind to your mind.
One of the main aspects of meditation that can be hard to wrap your brain around (pun intended) is the process of stillness. There’s more time for you to sit and focus your attention on everything that is going on in your life, which might be difficult if it’s the first time you’re letting yourself think about that criticism from your boss, or the hurt you felt when a friend ditched you.
“Remember, you are trying to sit with the mind as is, no matter what arises,” Puddicombe says. Watching where your mind goes when you sit still is a learning experience. No matter if you spend the 10 minutes thinking about your day, or focusing on your breath, it’s all good. “There is no ‘good’ or bad’ meditation—there is only awareness or non-awareness.” Wherever your brain goes, just redirect your thoughts back to your breath each time.
8. Don’t be afraid to experience a day’s worth of emotions while you’re mid-meditation.
One thing Puddicombe promises is that you’re going to encounter obstacles as you meditate because you’re just sitting with your feelings. “When those obstacles arise—feeling out of control, uncertain, overwhelmed, scared, sad, tearful, anxious, bored, sleepy–you now know you are not alone. Such obstacles are extremely common, and many Headspacers sit through them and happily come through the other side.” Just keep breathing!
9. Recruit some friends to make it easier.
Having a partner in crime to sit down and meditate with you can help you to not skip any days of practice. The Headspace app knows that, which is why they created the buddy feature. “You don’t have to meditate together, or at the same time. But when using the app, you can select up to five buddies and track each other’s [journeys], allowing you to give encouraging nudges to strengthen each other’s commitment.”
10. Work to carry this awareness with you everywhere.
You may find that it’s easy to squeeze in 10 daily minutes of meditation, but what’s harder is keeping those vibes that you feel during the session going throughout the day. You might start the day in total Zen mode, but then your boss needs 10 ideas yesterday, your partner can’t cover childcare duties, the washing machine breaks down, and all hell breaks loose.
“The idea is to carry this awareness with us. This is meditation in action, otherwise known as mindfulness,” Puddicombe says. “Touch base with yourself throughout the day to try and re-experience those moments of clarity and focused attention, when on the train, in line for coffee, or when sitting at your desk.”
Now you’re prepped and ready to take on that first 10 minute meditation, no matter where you are sitting (or standing!).
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