What image comes to mind when you think of meditation? A Google image search for the word “meditation” yields countless photos of young, fit, blissed-out individuals sitting in full lotus position on mountaintops and beaches. Unfortunately, such cultural stereotypes have perpetuated a number of misconceptions about this ancient practice and lead many to assume meditation just isn’t for them. The truth is, meditation can be helpful for anyone who has a human mind!
Consider these signs that you’re in the ‘struggle zone’ as a human, and see if you recognize any of them:
- Paying ATTENTION in a scattered way or failing to attend to what matters most to you;
- Getting caught up in negative THINKING and believing your thoughts tell you how things really are;
- FEELING tense and overwhelmed or numb and disconnected;
- PERCEIVING your distressing thoughts and feelings as ‘the real you’ and letting them determine what you do next.
Chances are, you’ve experienced all of these from time to time. That’s because they’re a universal part of the human condition. What does this have to do with meditation? Meditation can be defined as a systematic mental training designed to challenge those habits of ATTENDING, THINKING, FEELING, and PERCEIVING. So it directly targets the natural but unhelpful tendencies of the mind, to free you from the ‘struggle zone’ and help you thrive.
The best part is, meditation works! And thanks to major advances in neuroscience over the past few decades, we now know how. Regular meditation practice changes the very structure and function of the brain at the neurological level. The enhanced connectivity and flexibility associated with new neuronal growth and branching in specific regions of the brain in response to meditation confer a host of empirically supported benefits. Here are just a few:
- Improved focus
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Better mood
- Enhanced sleep
Now, as with all healthy habits, including exercise and nutritious eating, a consistent commitment to the practice of meditation over time will yield the greatest benefits. (Notice the phrase “systematic mental training” from the definition of meditation presented earlier in this post.) It can be helpful to think of meditation as taking your mind to the gym to foster mental fitness, just as you would take your body to the gym to foster physical fitness. Going only once is unlikely to produce results, but going several times a week or even daily will put you on the fast track toward achieving your personal goals.
Many new meditators have trouble sticking with the practice. Some common concerns include not knowing if they’re “doing it right”, feeling like they don’t have enough time, being unsure about where to start, or believing they have to empty their mind of thoughts. These concerns are perfectly normal, and I’ll address each of them in a future blog post. For now, it’s important to note that a wide variety of readily available tips, tools, and techniques exist to set up even the most inexperienced of meditators for success. Let’s start with the fact that meditation doesn’t have to take a lot of time. As little as 3 minutes per day has been shown to begin the neurological restructuring of the brain. Try the following 3-minute mindful breathing meditation as an example. It will help you feel more grounded in the present moment while you practice noticing the sensations of breathing and allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go in the background.
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How was that for you? What did you notice? Don’t worry if you had a hard time focusing on your breath. The untrained mind is like a puppy. It doesn’t sit still and stay for very long. But with gentle encouragement and regular training sessions, it will gradually learn how to settle, and you might even find it to be a welcome companion.
By Stephanie Best, PhD – Licensed Clinical Psychologist