still the mind
"When we are still and quiet, we create space to listen
to that all-knowing intuitive voice within us that has all the answers."
We all have innate awareness and intrinsic wisdom. And when we unearth this inherent wellspring within ourselves, we are empowered to create durable, contagious happiness for ourselves and others. As my teacher, Dr. Joe Loizzo, director of the Nalanda Institute of Contemplative Science puts it, "what if instead of being stuck in a movie, we learn to become the writer, editor, and director?" This is what meditation offers us. This is what appealed to me most when I first started to explore meditation as a busy and often stressed New Yorker seeking an oasis in my stimulus-dependent and often unpredictable daily existence.
In our millennial, digital-age, and increasingly attention-deficient society, many of us cannot help but to feel stressed out, distracted, and even discontent with our lives. We are constantly consumed by changing focus and a need to be extroverts. Whether it's our smartphone, Facebook, Instagram, email, or television, the constant demands on us to read, speak, write, and listen are distractions that keep us from being present. And, unfortunately, when we are most stressed, we turn to coping mechanisms that lead us to tune out rather than tune in. It could be alcohol, food, drugs, cigarettes, sex, social media, [fill in the blank]. Inner peace requires that we slow down, reflect, become present, and cultivate stillness.
Many may associate meditation with bearded men spouting abstract truths or a seemingly impractical but social media-savvy counterculture. But let us start by seeing meditation as a practical tool for managing stress and improving interactions with the world around you, like a tonic for what ails you. Through modern neuroscience we now know that the brain is constantly reorganizing itself, forming new neural connections throughout our lifetime. This concept is known as neuroplasticity. A type of meditation called mindfulness mediation and a program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) have gained popularity in recent years and there have been several studies conducted looking into the effects of this type of meditation on the brain. Using MRI scans of the brain researchers have shown that, after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight, flight, or freeze” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This "primal" region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The take away is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability respond thoughtfully to our experiences and environment, rather than react out of fear and anxiety. While short bursts of adrenaline can be fun and even beneficial, chronic high stress is associated with increased inflammation in the body, high blood pressure, sleep problems, poor digestion, depression, anxiety, heart disease, just to name a few. There is even research being done on the impact of meditation on the physical manifestations of our DNA and how certain genes get turned or turned off (epigenetics), which could be huge in helping prevent certain diseases. Imagine billions of dollars per year spent on chronic disease medications and office visits, for which similar effects can be achieved in your own living room. If that isn't enough, think about your improved looks and interpersonal relationships thanks to less stress and the release of health-enhancing hormones. Hopefully you are enticed by the benefits and are wondering how to get started. For those who are ready to start on their own path to personal happiness, I have included some helpful tips for gaining some momentum behind your practice based on my personal experience.
How to get started?
First of all, there is nothing magic about meditation. Making it a daily practice is often the hard part. I am well aware of that from my personal experience. For as long as I can remember, sitting still has not been my forte. In fact "not sitting still" stands out as the most common feedback on my report cards as a child and a diagnosis of ADHD in high school came as no surprise to anyone. So you can imagine my initial resistance to meditating. Everything, even cleaning up, seemed like the perfect excuse not to sit. Thanks to a little trial and error, a bit of commitment, and advice from great teachers, I was able to develop a practice that works for me.
Tips to get started (based on my personal experience):
1. Let go of expectations and be patient.
The truth is that while there are some initial benefits that come with sitting in meditation, it takes consistency, practice and a bit of commitment to reap the ultimate benefits. As an ADHD millennial, I was used to instant gratification and expecting to have some transformative experience after meditating once. It was only when I enrolled in a meditation teacher training that required a consistent meditation practice and daily journals that I understood and noticed the subtle benefits of the practice in my daily life. Many people feel that their initial reaction to meditation is frustrating, in part because the thoughts and feelings that arise initially can be unpleasant. But with patience, you will soon see meditation as a process to return you to your natural self, and part of that requires a natural purging and acceptance of pent-up negativity.
2. Don't judge yourself.
As I mentioned, it was difficult for me to maintain a consistent practice at first. I thought I was lazy and other people were more disciplined. Beating myself up didn't help. Comparing myself to others didn't work. It just made me feel bad. Over the years, thanks to my teachers, I've learned non-judgement is the key to mindfulness. A little bit goes a long way, so congratulate yourself for the times that you do sit on the cushion. Don’t berate yourself for the times that you don’t.
3. Right time. Right place.
In my experience is best to get it done in the morning. Not only does it set the tone for the day, but I am able to be more consistent because I have less excuses in the morning. If you go out to dinner with friends and have a glass or two of wine, are you really going to want to meditate when you get home? Probably not. That being said everyone is different and evenings might be more beneficial for you. For example, meditation at night can settle the chaos of the day and prepare your mind for restful sleep. Moreover, studies have shown that much of our complex mental and emotional processing occurs during sleep. A regular nocturnal meditation practice has the potential to lead to deeper insights when you wake. No expectations of course!
4. Make your mental hygiene as important as your dental hygiene.
Think of your meditation practice like brushing your teeth. You wouldn't leave the house without brushing your teeth would you?
3. Take a shower first
In the beginning, I had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning to meditate, but if I waited until the end of the day I would never actually get around to meditating. One of the things I have learned about people who meditate is, they are an extremely practical bunch. One teacher told me to get up, drink some coffee, and take my morning shower before meditating. Duh. Why didn't I think of that?
4. Set a timer
This one might be obvious. I use an app called Insight Timer. It's cool because you can choose the sound from different singing bowl tones, keep a journal, and see how many other people using the app were meditating at the same time as you. However, any timer will do. Start with an achievable goal. It might be 10 minutes to start, but you can increase to 20 or 30 minutes as you get more comfortable.
5. Find a comfortable position
Sitting cross legged on the floor is not the only position for meditating. It can be done lying down, sitting in a chair, and even standing. When I began practicing regularly I struggled with not wanting to get up earlier, but needing to get out the door to work on time. So I made a deal with myself, which turned into my own meditation ritual. I set my alarm 20 minutes early, but I allowed myself to get back into bed after showering to do my 20 minute meditation lying down. Knowing that I could get back into bed made it easier to get up earlier. Before my meditation practice, I constantly struggled with getting to work on time. I thought adding meditation to an already chaotic morning routine would make it more stressful, but I actually leave the house feeling more at ease now.
6. Guided meditation can be useful to get started
There are so many resources available on the web and through apps, I encourage you to explore what is our there. I have included a guided mindfulness meditation that I recorded to help get you started with your meditation practice below.
This meditation practices comes from a Buddhist tradition, but there are many other types of meditation out there and I will post about these in the future. It may be useful to stick with one style of meditation for awhile to decide if it is right for you before dabbling in other traditions. Guided Mindfulness Meditation: Link
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