There’s plenty of info in my blog about making long-term, fundamental changes that will undoubtedly improve your health and general quality of life. But most of these transformations take a moderate amount of planning and willpower to execute. The following recommendation does not. Ready? Here it is:
I was hesitant to put the word “meditation” in the title because it’s so quickly dismissed as feel-good, overly-spiritual pseudoscience.
I don’t use meditation as a path toward “enlightenment,” nor do I use it as a vehicle under the umbrella of any religion. I use it as a practical tool that helps me – a normal guy with a job, a family, responsibilities, and not enough time – lead a happier, more productive life.
Meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce stress by putting the brakes on the production of cortisol, a hormone that gets secreted whenever we feel anxiety, panic, fear or exhilaration. Cortisol is designed to be released in bursts when we need instant energy now – like when a tiger jumps out from behind a bush, or when a dump truck jumps out into the intersection.
However, our modern lifestyle and all its stress sources (kids, finances, traffic, relationships, work, etc.) tend to give us a low, constant drip of cortisol instead of just releasing little spurts every once in a while when needed. This impairs everything from our decision-making skills to our metabolism to our sleep cycles.
Meditation gives us the power to neutralize this drip and feel focused and empowered in our lives.
If you’re new to meditation, I urge you to just try it once. If you absolutely hate it, at least you can say you’ve tried. But stick with it, and you’ll be surprised at the clarity, direction and mental strength that meditation provides.
Here’s how to do it (it’s easier than you think, promise):
- Sit in a quiet place where you feel comfortable, either sitting or reclining.
- Set a countdown timer on your watch or phone for 15 to 20 minutes. (I love the free app Insight Timer, but any countdown clock will do. I like to have an audio alarm at the end of my session so I’m not wondering in the back of my head how long I have left.)
- After setting your timer, just try to relax and be still. In the first minute or so, you’ll probably have to swallow saliva or scratch an itch as you habituate to meditating. That’s fine. Adjust to your surroundings and your body. You can either close your eyes or leave them open – your call.
- Here’s the hardest part, and the bulk of the meditation. Clear your mind. Try to be thoughtless and idle. Note how I said try. It’s hard not to think at all, and takes some training. Some people get it right away; other need a little more practice.
- Ding! Time’s up, you’re done!
Some people recommend concentrating on your own breathing – deeply in and smoothly out – to get in the meditative groove. Others like to recite a chant called a mantra. “Om” is a popular one, said to be the “sound of the universe” in Hinduism, though I like to just let my mind sit idly and drift.
Invariably, thoughts will pop into your head, and you’ll automatically chastise yourself for thinking. And then you’ll realize that your chastising is a thought too, and you’ll get stuck in this negative loop of non-meditative self-punishment, and dishearteningly think, “I just can’t get it!”
Here’s how to get around this problem.
Rather than concentrating on not thinking, notice a thought as it becomes conscious and let it drift away on its own. Imagine the thought as a leaf in a river as you sit on the bank. The leaf floats in, comes close, then floats away. You don’t have to force it.
I started to notice the positive mental effects of meditation after just one week. I prefer to meditate in the morning, as I feel it helps get my entire day started on the right foot, but I know people who like afternoon or evening sessions better.
Though I’ve been meditating on and off for almost a year, but I’ve only consistently dedicated myself to doing it every day within the past few months. And I’ve found that the more regularly you can stick to a daily schedule, the larger the rewards. It can seem tough to carve 15 or 20 minutes out of a hectic day, but the way I see it, the crazier your life is, the more meditation will serve you.
After roughly a month of solid meditation, I started to have a much tighter, cooler control over my emotions and motivations. Little things that would usually upset me, like getting cut off in traffic, didn’t faze me. I felt more grounded and centered.
Perhaps the best analogy I can give is that before meditation, it felt like my brain was an Internet browser with too many tabs open. There was simply too many thoughts, worries and pressures stirring around up there for me to have the kind of direct, meaningful focus I desired.
In hindsight, it’s amazing what sitting still and doing literally nothing can do for your psyche and sense of wellbeing. Meditation’s power has been praised for centuries, and now given the scientifically validated support that it relieves stress, there’s really no reason not to give it a whirl.
Have any questions about meditation? Comments? Lemme know below!