Dr. Beth Gershuny, PhD
Meditation: A Practice and Workout that You Cannot Fail
Research and anecdotal reports abound about the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness on physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being. Meditation even changes the structures of our brains in ways that make us more thoughtful and less reflexively reactive!
What is meditation?
Meditation involves a variety of types of practices in which one’s attention is focused on specific experiences (for example: breathing, hearing, seeing, imagining) or intentions. Examples include:
Guided Imagery Meditation: focused visualizations typically pertaining to healing, wellness, and relaxation; often customized for one’s personal preferences
Loving-Kindness Meditation (aka Metta Meditation): repeated phrases of love, compassion, and ease for oneself and others
Mindfulness Meditation (aka Vipassana): focused attention without judgment on present moment experiences such as breath and sounds
Meditation is a practice
Meditation is a practice – a workout for the brain and mind. And it’s a practice and workout that is impossible to fail; there’s no such thing as not being good at it.
As a beginning (or even as a well-practiced) meditator, we notice repeatedly that when we try to focus our attention, our minds wander. We think about errands we need to run, an argument we had earlier in the day, work deadlines that are fast approaching, the food we hope to eat for dinner, and so on. When our mind wanders, this is when opportunities arise for deeper practice and for our brains to get a challenging but good workout. Noticing when and where our minds wander and then consciously bringing our minds back to focus on whatever we are trying to focus on (for example: breath, sounds) is akin to lifting weights to try to strengthen muscles – but in meditation, the “weight” is our wandering mind, the “lifting” is our recognition of the wandering and then bringing our mind back to focus, and the “muscle” is our brain. Back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth again – mind wanders and brings the mind back to focus again and again and again. So the more we notice our minds wandering, and the more often we bring our minds back to our object or experience of focus, the stronger and more flexible, and healthier our brains become. We become better able to “go with the flow” when confronted with stress and challenges, and in turn, respond with less anxiety and less sadness. Over time and with practice, we become better able to be present in the moment, recognize what we are feeling and thinking, and then respond with thoughtful calm. And because our nervous systems become more flexible and accommodating with this practice, we also become able to better respond to medical illnesses and heal more quickly.
Find a comfortable place to sit, lie down, or take a walk for a period of time (for example: 10 minutes, 20 minutes).
With either eyes closed or open, try to focus exclusively on your breath (for example: the feel of the movement of air in your nose and mouth as you inhale and exhale; the feel of your chest and stomach rising and falling as you inhale and exhale) or on particular sounds or on sights surrounding you in nature.
As you try to focus, also notice when and to what your mind wanders… without judgment or self-criticism. Simply notice.
Give the wandering a name (for example: stress, grocery list, sad, itch, deadline, a hodgepodge of indiscernible thoughts), and then consciously and actively remind yourself to refocus on your breath or sounds or sights; and do this again and again.
If your mind wanders 100 times, notice it each time, and then return your focus.
And voila - you’ve meditated!
It is the recognizing of when your mind wanders and the bringing it back to focus again that gives your mind and brain the very important workout that will protect and enhance your health in myriad ways. This also can be accomplished in brief moments throughout your day…
Take mini mindfulness meditation breaks
For one minute or less, stop whatever you’re doing, and notice all scents.
When hugging someone you love, linger in the hug longer, and notice the scent of hair, the feel of skin, the rhythms of breath.
During a walk, notice all surrounding sounds including the sounds of your feet connecting with the earth, the songs of birds, the scuffling of animals, the cars traveling on the road.
Take a brief break from whatever you’re doing and notice the rhythms of your breath and the feel of the air as you inhale and exhale.
Take a few minutes to repeat loving-kindness phrases to yourself: “I am filled with compassion and love. I am strong. I am safe. I am at peace.”
No matter how busy we are, finding even brief moments throughout the day to meditate enables us – with practice and over time – to better handle stress, experience greater calm, and heal more quickly from illnesses.