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Have you been meaning to start meditating for, like, two years now? Well, now is the time!
No pretzel legs, no chanting, no transcendence or whatever else you’ve heard about meditation. The specific practice I’m talking about is called mindfulness meditation. And it’s been proven to help lower stress, manage chronic pain, and curb negative thoughts.
Here are the basics to help you start a mindfulness meditation practice today.
What is mindfulness?
According to mindful.org, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” So, when you meditate, you simply are aware and you notice. Notice what? Your breath. Your thoughts. Sounds. Sensations in your body. Whatever. The point, though, is to just notice–without judgment, reaction, movement, or anything–and move on.
Separating your noticing self from the thoughts and feelings you experience helps you realize that you are not your thoughts. Especially the limiting, negative, painful, hateful ones.
How do you meditate?
What position should you be in?
To meditate, you traditionally sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight in a relaxed yet upright posture. You can sit on a chair, cross-legged on the floor, or on a special meditation cushion. You can also lay down if you are sure you won’t fall asleep.
How long should you meditate?
The ideal length of time to meditate, according to mindfulness experts like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Sharon Salzberg, is twenty minutes. If that’s too long for you at first though, you can start with just five minutes (or even just one!) and work your way up.
Meditation is a cumulative practice though, which means you don’t really get anything out of any single meditation session. The benefits of meditation come in doing it every day and thus retraining the way your brain operates. So ideally, your meditation practice should consist of a twenty-minute session daily.
And what exactly are you doing during meditation?
Traditionally, during mindfulness meditation, you focus on your breath. Let me explain what this means in a little more detail.
As mentioned above, the point of mindfulness is to be a relaxed, nonjudgmental, and totally aware and present observer. Instead of getting lost in thought, memories, and plans that involuntarily bounce around in our brains at a pretty much constant pace, your job during meditation is to focus on the in-flow and out-flow of your breath. You are not trying to control or regulate your breath in any way, like slow it down and deepen it into relaxing, therapeutic breaths for instance. No.
All you are doing is noticing each inhale and each exhale. Just watching it as if you are an alien noticing human breath for the first time in your life and being utterly fascinated with the process. If some breaths are shallow and others are deep, if some cause a whistle in your nose, or some turn into a giant yawn, it’s all the same to you. You just notice the inhale followed by the exhale, over and over again until your timer goes off.
What if my mind wanders?
If you get distracted by a thought popping into your head, which will absolutely happen about a zillion times, your task is to not engage in the thought. You simply notice that a thought has captured your attention, without any judgment or evaluation or engagement, and then bring your attention back to your breath. You don’t berate yourself with, “Damn it, my mind won’t shut up! I screwed up again! FOCUS. ON. BREATH. IDIOT!” You just sit there as if you are watching your breath and your thoughts on a television screen. When a thought pops up and blocks your “view” of your breath (Oh crap! I forgot to call my mom!), you just say to yourself, “There’s another thought. Back to the breath.”
Then after half a second when you have another thought (My left kneecap is so itchy. These jeans are tight. Do I need new jeans? I wonder if my paycheck–) you say to yourself again, “Another thought. Back to the breath.” Even when you don’t catch yourself right away and come to only after a full two minutes of writing out an entire email to your supervisor in your head, you react the same way. No judgment. Just notice that you were caught up in thought and, you guessed it, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?
Why would anybody put themselves through this and start meditating daily? A regular meditation practice has several benefits, just a few of which are:
- Become the master of your thoughts, which means you become less reactive.
- Get better at quieting your ego and connecting with your true self.
- Improve your ability to focus and concentrate.
- Live in the present moment more comfortably, even when that means living in pain or grief.
And, of course, there are different, more unique benefits that people may experience once they start meditating too. Some people may feel more relaxed or energized once they start a meditation practice. While there are too many variables right now for me to say confidently, I think my meditation practice is helping me sleep better. (Any fellow night grinders out there? My poor enamel!)
Some resources to help you start meditating right now!
Two great books on meditation are Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, which I mentioned earlier, and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Both of those books explain everything you need to know about mindfulness and give you a practical plan to follow to start your daily meditation practice.
If the thought of sitting in silence sounds like torture, try a guided meditation.
Here is a five-minute mindful breathing meditation on YouTube, narrated by one of my past meditation teachers.
At mindful.org, you can listen to guided meditations of various lengths, including five, ten, and fifteen minutes.
And finally, if you are in the Los Angeles area and want to take a class on mindfulness, check out UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC). When I first learned about mindfulness about ten years ago now, I took a really affordable introduction to mindfulness class that met every Saturday morning for something like eight or ten weeks. In fact, my meditation teacher is the one speaking in the first video I posted above! UCLA’s MARC has a bunch of workshops and classes and retreats now that are led by experts in the field. They even have some online sources, so take a look.
If you any tips or experiences with mindfulness meditation to share with us, or any questions, let me know in the comments below! Now start meditating!