When we work on our health, we tend to think about our bodies first. We think, "I’m sure I’ll be happy once I have shredded abs!”
There may be some truth to this - the benefits of exercise on mental health are undeniable. But we can’t always jog our problems away. Stress has a way of catching up to us, no matter how hard we run.
It’s important to remember though, that people have always felt this way. Granted, they may have had to worry about things like man-eating tigers instead of the stock market, but there’s a reason that meditation mantras have been discovered from as early as 1700 BC. If the stress of being a human is universal, then you may find the solutions are too.
Meditation can be a great tool for wellness.
The benefits have been proven: more focus, lower anxiety, deeper empathy, improved memory and a more positive self-image are just a few.
However, if you have no experience, the idea of meditating can be intimidating. Every time you try to think about nothing, you think about that dumb thing you said when you were fifteen and cringe deeply to your core. But almost everyone starts there. As with any journey, it’s about taking that first step.
Part of the reason meditation can feel overwhelming is that it is often tied to religion. For practicing Buddhists and Hindus, meditation isn’t a tool to fix stress. It’s a path to a higher spiritual state or, enlightenment.
In this way, it is similar to yoga, which was brought to the west in a repackaged, more secular form decades ago. But this is no coincidence. The original purpose of yoga was to prepare a person for meditation.
Whether your goals are to manage your stress, or take the first step on a deeper path, the basic techniques are the same across the world.
Having your first meditation be guided can help immensely with focusing on what’s important. There are a wealth of guided meditation apps (such as Headspace or Waking Up), as well as podcasts and videos that are free and easy to use. But if you’d like to try a meditation all on your own, here is a simple practice that is popular around the world.
“Mindfulness of breath,” while loosely based on Buddhist traditions, is a common practice among secular wellness programs. You need nothing but a bit of time and a comfortable place to sit.
First, set a timer for your desired length of meditation. No reason to go overboard at first. Try just a few minutes. Then, sit up on a chair or comfy pillow or a rolled up blanket with your back straight. Shut your eyes and breathe through your nose. Bring your mind to the feeling of air moving through your nostrils.
If your thoughts stray, gently refocus your mind back to your breath.
And… that’s it.
Easy, right? Well… if you’re anything like us, your thoughts ping-ponged from your grocery list to endless work worries and on and on...
For most of us, it’s difficult. You will probably get frustrated. But this is normal. Don’t self-judge, and don’t self-judge for self-judging. Just notice your thoughts and gently return to your breath. Remember: there is a reason it’s called a "practice.” It will get easier!
One meditation is not better than another. You may start with breathing, and journey into other techniques. It is all about working with yourself and discovering what works. Here are a few others:
Mantra is similar to mindfulness of the breath. The practitioner focuses on a small word or phrase, ideally one that is positive and easily repeatable. Choose a relaxed seated position and repeat your phrase silently or out loud in rhythm with your breath. Some repeat their phrase ten times silently then ten times out loud. There are many variations here, including Transcendental Meditation, which was introduced to the west in popular classes decades ago. But there are even more, such as Metta, where the practitioner repeats a phrase that evokes kindness and love for themselves and others.
Focus is similar to mindfulness but involves gazing outward at a specific point in space. Again, the goal is not a blank mind but rather resisting the temptation to react to thoughts in your head.
Mindfulness in everyday activities
Mindfulness involves redirecting your focus to ordinary, common activities, noticing every step and detail of the act. Slowly drinking a glass of water, and noticing every detail in the surface of the water, the curve of the glass, the sensation as it passes along your lips and so on.
Yoga is common for athletes, and for good reason. But using yoga to prepare the body for meditation can be immensely helpful. Practicing it begins to focus the mind on the body and calms down racing thoughts. We would recommend beginners take guided classes or watch videos as yoga poses are very specific.
If you have any interest in meditation, there are a wealth of techniques, communities, books and classes to help you. Similar to yoga, a teacher can be extremely useful for your first steps.
Ultimately it is a journey and you shouldn’t go into it expecting a quick, instant fix. The goal is to bring your focus into the present, away from fears and worries, towards a more positive perception of yourself, others and the world.