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The positive power of meditation has made the news once again. Research from Carnegie Mellon University states that practicing mindfulness meditation for 25 minutes per session for three consecutive days can alleviate psychological stress. An analysis of previous studies compiled earlier this year showed this type of meditation—which involves paying attention to your surroundings while concentrating on your breathing—to be “moderately” effective in battling depression, anxiety and pain.
“One of the most important benefits of mindfulness meditation is the ability for us to more fully live our lives,” states Janice L. Marturano, executive director of the Institute For Mindful Leadership and the author of "Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership." “We become more skillful at noticing those times when we aren't present for our lives, and, more importantly, we know that we are able to redirect our distracted mind.”
And if you’re assuming that the act of meditating means needing to clear your mind of every worry, every judgment and every item on your to-do list, think again. “It’s not necessarily about quieting the mind, because the nature of the mind is to think, analyze and compartmentalize,” states Ashley Turner, a California-based yoga and meditation teacher. “It’s normal for our minds to be overactive, so because you’re thinking and taking in the sounds around you doesn't mean that you’re doing meditation wrong. It actually means you’re doing it right! The goal is to create more focus.”
Here’s some more soothing news—chanting for hours on end is not required, either. Turner advises to start small, at just five minutes a day, and add one minute per week until you reach a time that fits best with your lifestyle. “It is better to meditate for a short time each day than it is to meditate for an hour on Saturday,” adds Marturano.
And like any other type of challenge, it takes practice. Both Marturano and Turner compare training the mind to working out. “It’s like flexing any other muscle in the body—doing a bicep curl or a hamstring curl—except you’re building focus to tone the muscle of the mind,” explains Turner.
Here’s how to start living in a more controlled yet blissful state of mind:
Turner advises designating a specific area in your home that’s just for your meditation practice, like perhaps sitting at the foot of your bed or in a cozy chair. Once your place has been established, find the most comfortable position for your body. “There is no need for meditation cushions or sitting in a lotus position,” adds Marturano. “Sitting, standing and lying down are all options.” She also suggests choosing an object (or two) that may enhance your session, such as lighting a scented candle or playing relaxation music.
Become an observer
Close your eyes and take in everything you are thinking and feeling in the moment. “Notice the sensations in your body, paying attention to the warmth, the coolness, the tightness or the pulsing,” states Marturano. As for your mind, don’t ignore your thoughts—even if they’re the out of control, negative ones—but acknowledge them. “What you’re actually doing is developing what is called the ‘witness mind,’” explains Turner.
As the thoughts swirl around your head, select each one and post a label on it. For example, a few headings can include catastrophizing thoughts (assuming the worst is going to happen), critical thoughts (focusing on the negative about a person or situation), worrisome thoughts (concentrating on your current fears and stresses) and random thoughts (trivial items, like wondering if your package from Amazon will arrive in today’s mail). “You want to develop a more neutral approach about your different states of mind,” explains Turner. “So instead of getting wrapped up and believing in everything your mind is thinking, insert a moment of pause and say to yourself, ‘My mind is being extra critical today.’” In other words, don’t suppress anything—let the thoughts be as they are, identify them, then let them go.
Think about your breath
Focusing on each inhale and exhale can be one of the most powerful and simplest relaxation techniques, states Turner. “That’s because you can do it everywhere—it’s always with you—and you can only be in the right now when you’re focusing on your breathing,” she says. And even though the mind tends to jump to thoughts that can bring about emotions of anger, sadness or regret, we free ourselves from these feelings—even if it’s just for a moment—by taking a deep breath in and slowly releasing it. Continue to do this for about five minutes, if you can. “In fact, it’s one of the reasons why the ancient mystics taught us to use the breath,” she adds.
Learn to be still throughout the day
“I like to tell people to weave mindfulness into their day,” says Turner. For example, she suggests taking in three deep breaths when you’re in a go-go-go mentality, like before walking into a meeting, hopping on the bus or sitting down to eat a meal. “By inserting this moment of pause, you will begin to realize that you don’t need to be on automatic pilot all the time,” she explains. “A colleague of mine came up with the term ‘mind strength.’ It comes down to awareness—being aware that your thoughts are all over the place, yet also being aware that you can focus and choose your thoughts.”
Marturano refers to this practice as “purposeful pauses” and advises taking in a routine moment, like brushing your teeth. “Pay attention to the taste of the toothpaste, the sound of the water, the feeling of the bristles,” she says. And when your mind drifts, redirect it back to the sensations of brushing your teeth. “Being in the present moment is a way for the mind and the body to take a break from the constant worrying,” she adds. “So take a break and be present for your life!”