Meditation for the rest of us
Over the past year or so I’ve become increasingly meditation curious. “Do you meditate?” I ask friends and new acquaintances. (I’m always surprised by who says “yes.”) My interest was sparked last July when I spent a weekend with two close college friends. We had a gray-shingled beach house to ourselves—no husbands, no kids, no pets. We talked, we walked, we cooked, we laughed, and, two of us meditated while the third (yours truly) flipped through the pages of an outdated People, wondering what she was missing.
That weekend piqued my interest in meditating mainly because these friends are far from the New Age hippies I had previously associated with the practice. No yurts, no chanting, no sanctimony. What they described as meditation was not the grueling, hours-long punishment we were introduced to in Eat, Pray, Love. This was meditation for the rest of us—a deliberate dedication to mindfulness for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Finding more joy
I grilled my girlfriends over glasses of rosé. Why had they started meditating? How did they learn? What I heard was compelling. Each had learned from another college friend of ours who, after learning to meditate in India, now runs weekend workshops on Vedic Meditation in his Manhattan walk-up. Due to their daily practice they felt calmer, slept better, and were more in control of their hectic lives. One of them, a native New Yorker who manages high-end restaurants, described feeling lighter, happier, and more open to people since she started meditating. She claims “more joy in everyday life, more patience with my children, less anxiety about the future,” and finds it “easier to live in the moment than it used to be.”
A native New Yorker who manages high-end restaurants, described feeling lighter, happier, and more open to people since she started meditating.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Ancient Indians were the first known civilization to meditate, with Taoist Chinese and Buddhist Indians developing practices around 1,000 years later. Interest in Buddhist thinking blossomed in the West in the 1960s but it took 50 or so more years (and numerous celebrities) to bring meditation into the mainstream. What was once a mentally and physically intense exercise meant to connect individuals more closely to the sacred and spiritual has become a tool for reducing stress and promoting better health.
Mantras for memory and mother-in-laws
When it comes to proving the health benefits of meditation, the data isn’t conclusive. Much of what we believe about meditation is anecdotal. Studies have shown, however, that daily meditation eases depression and anxiety, can help with insomnia, may be beneficial for people with high blood pressure, and may help people quit smoking. Meditation and other mind-body therapies have been credited with reducing incidence of the flu, and relieving symptoms of menopause.
More recently, studies show that meditating may actually change brain functioning in positive ways: “M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.”
Meditation practice takes many forms, usually categorized as being either “focused attention” or “open monitoring” meditation. According to the National Institute of Health, the many different types of meditation have four elements in common: “A quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions); a focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath); and an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).”
Tara Brach, author, psychologist, and meditation teacher explains the goal of mindfulness meditation in a nutshell: “The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to become mindful throughout all parts of our life, so that we’re awake, present and openhearted in everything we do.”
“The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to become mindful throughout all parts of our life, so that we’re awake, present and openhearted in everything we do.” - Tara Brach
Transcendental Meditation (TM) uses mantras which are given to an individual by a certified instructor and are supposed to remain secret. A neighbor who practices TM describes the benefits she gains from sitting quietly for 20 minutes each morning repeating her personal mantra, namely, feeling less anxious, not worrying so much about the future, and feeling more at peace during visits with her mother-in-law.
Prioritizing your meditation time
Why, with numerous people I respect and admire singing its praises, had I thus far resisted meditating for real? I suspected that a lack of instant gratification was part of the rub for me. Like many disciplines that are good for us (healthy eating, exercise) learning to meditate takes time. You don’t meditate and instantly feel like a new person. Then, too, there’s always something else I can do with those 20 minutes a day–walking the dog, responding to an email, running a load of laundry–that feels more likely to induce calm than sitting alone with my thoughts.
But what if meditating negates the need for obsessively checking email or ironing the cloth napkins? What if a mindful 20 minutes could redirect my thoughts and lessen the demand for constant activity and accomplishment?
Picking up the habit
There are many ways to embark on a meditation practice, from weekend retreats to online classes. Myriad apps from Calm and The Mindfulness App to Headspace and buddhify are available to coach you through meditation exercises. Most feature free, guided meditations and some can be customized to suit your particular goals, such as better sleep or technology detox. Some apps like Insight Timer offer access to its community of users for inspiration and encouragement in person and online.
For anyone thinking about starting a meditation practice, perhaps the most helpful piece of advice is to first work on establishing the habit of meditating, without worrying about perfecting the practice. Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher and author of Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation, advises choosing a meditation corner where you won’t be disturbed (i.e. no phone, no kids, no dog) and meditating in that spot at the same time every day. Says Salzberg, “Formalizing a time to meditate will enhance your sense that this is a deeply important activity.”
Other meditation insights I’ve picked up along the way include:
Use reliable triggers to establish your meditation practice, things that happen every day to signal it’s time to begin.
Be realistic in the beginning. Start meditating for two minutes a day and slowly build to a longer session.
Don’t be afraid to flex your practice to what works for you. (A friend practices her own version of mindfulness every day—drinking a cup of tea while sitting in her favorite armchair.)
Meditate alone, with a partner, or with the support of a larger group, whatever approach is most appealing to you.
Learn how to meditate by taking a class in person or online, or teach yourself the fundamentals by reading or listening to podcasts.
Let your practice evolve over time–from two minutes a day to thirty, from once a day to twice.
The bottom line is, if you’re curious about meditating there are many ways to approach a practice. What works for one person may not work for you. As with many pursuits these days, technology can help, you can customize your practice to best suit your lifestyle, and you can take it as far as you choose.
One moment of mindfulness at a time
It must be said that until now my meditation experience has been sporadic at best. If you count dozing off in child’s pose at the end of a yoga class or using guided meditation apps to will my daughter to sleep then I’m perhaps semi-literate.
A few days ago I found myself sitting upright in a chair, listening to my breathing, working hard to quiet my mind. My thoughts ricocheted around my brain for a while, revealing my concerns and worries: deadlines, car alignment, dinner. After several minutes, however, I felt more able to just…be. It may be my imagination but the rest of that evening I felt a teeny bit less frantic and more able to focus. It’s possible these feelings came from having finally taken a small step toward a goal.
I’m not sure if I’ll find enlightenment, peace of mind or a deep connection to the sacred if I keep meditating. It’s too soon to know if I’ll achieve the kind of life-changing effects so many people have raved about. One evening of mindfulness isn’t a lot to go on. But I’m optimistic, which, in and of itself, is progress.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.