The Beginner Babe's Guide to Meditation
When’s the last time you took a deep breath? Go ahead, give it a shot. Deep inhale through the nose, pause briefly at the top, then long exhale through the mouth. Felt great, right? Do it again, but with your eyes closed. Instant mood boost, every time.
With that simple in-out, you just completed the first step of mindfulness meditation, no cushion or cross-legged position required. In addition to the physical benefits of deep, intentional breathing, the best part about those deep breaths is the fact that your brain got to hit the pause button for a few seconds. You likely weren’t thinking about anything but inhaling and exhaling exactly the way you were instructed.
If you just bristled at the word meditation, I feel you. It’s a word that makes people picture a room full of Buddhist monks, possibly chanting, definitely sitting in lotus. If you told me a year ago I’d be writing about the power of meditation, I would have laughed in your face. And yet, here I am. Consider me your millenial guide to busting all the meditation myths out there, and an advocate for all the reasons you should consider giving it a try.
Just like you, I have a lot on my plate, and I haven’t always been the best at balancing it all. It may have looked like I had it all together externally, but there was always a lot of emotion bubbling at the surface: anxiety, dread, rage—you name it. I was living the life of an elastic band, stretching myself further and further until it became inevitable that I would snap. Dan Harris’ “10% Happier” found its way onto my Kindle at the exact right time, and his sarcastic personality and relatable backstory had me hooked. I needed to try meditation for myself.
As he explains, there are several types of meditation, including metta (Pali for loving-kindness) and body scanning. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll start with vipassana (Pali for insight). Although insight meditation comes from Eastern philosophy (with Buddhism taking most of the credit), this practice can be totally secular. Take it from the atheist writing this article: you do not need to believe in a higher power to capture the benefits. Before we get to the perks, let’s squash some stereotypes.
You do not have to sit in a cross-legged position on the floor to meditate. You can sit in a chair or lie on the ground, if you prefer (or if you’re simply inflexible). I prefer a seated position on the floor only because it’s comfortable for me—where you meditate is up to you.
You do not have to dedicate an inordinate amount of time to this practice. Remember even five to 10 minutes can be beneficial. Your lunch break could be the perfect time to work this into your day.
You do not have to turn your brain off. The idea is to become more acutely aware of your thoughts—and their sources—instead of trying to stem the flow of thoughts altogether. Frankly, that would be impossible. This is what trips up most people: the belief that if they’re still thinking during meditation, they’re doing it wrong. You don’t have to be in a totally silent space, free of distractions. Just like we want to become more in tune with our thoughts and feelings, we want to become more aware of our surroundings. If your dryer is running, and you find yourself listening to it while you meditate, really listen to its rhythm instead of trying to pretend its not there. Guided meditations are available for free all over the place, which further proves that silence is not a precursor for a successful practice.
You won’t reach enlightenment overnight. (Or maybe ever.) Think of meditation practice as lifting weights at the gym. You get slightly better with each attempt, and that’s especially true if you do it consistently. Just like you can’t really ever be “finished” with strength training, you shouldn’t be expecting to reach some arbitrary finish line with meditation.
Meditation is a massive stress-reliever. By giving yourself five, 10 or 20 minutes a day to simply sit down and focus on your breath, you’re decreasing cortisol hormone levels in your body, which leads to better sleep, elevated mood, reduced blood pressure, higher energy levels and the ability to focus.
Vipassana meditation also encourages self-awareness, by forcing you to ask yourself probing questions. If I feel anxious during my practice, I have to ask myself why, and find the source of that feeling. Once I find it, I have to dig deeper, asking why this particular person or event or deadline is provoking anxiety. Am I worried about rejection? Disappointment? Confrontation? Once I identify the emotion I’ll hone in on that particular fear and its origin point. Am I just worried about rejection because I was once rejected in a similar office scenario? Am I worried about grad school because I don’t want to disappoint my parents? The more I focus on a specific thought or feeling, the less tangible it becomes. It starts to disintegrate right before my closed eyes, because I realize a great deal of that emotion was created by my own brain—and thus can be dismantled by my own brain. These deep-dives into our subconscious bring us clarity of mind and highlight our ability to reframe any situation by giving it new context.
Simply noting occurances during meditation can also be helpful. If you hear a dog bark outside, silently say “hearing” to yourself. If your shoulder blade itches, silently say “feeling” to yourself. If you notice you’re lost in thought about an upcoming trip, silently say “thinking” to yourself. By labeling each and every impulse of your brain, you become more aware of how fleeting they all are. They come, and they go. Headspace (a meditation app) likens this to sitting on the side of the road watching cars go by. The cars are allowed to pass you, and you’re allowed to observe them, but you quickly realize how unnecessary it is to jump into every single vehicle that passes.
Ask any experienced meditator what they do when they get lost in thought, and they’ll likely say, “Just return to the breath, and begin again.” Simply focusing on your inhale and exhale (or even where you feel it in your body, such as your belly, your chest, or your nose), can force you to stay present in the current moment. It’s so easy to obsess over something you did two weeks ago, or dread something that may never actually happen in the future. By gently returning to right now, over and over, you’re flexing your focus muscle and lengthening your attention span.
Overall, meditation has been paramount in bringing my default mode to a calmer, more pleasant state. I’m able to approach decisions and emotions with a level head, no longer as quick to anger or panic. I feel much higher levels of gratitude, because I’m acutely aware of the impermanence of everything. I’m also so much more in tune with the root cause of my emotions because I’m able to lean into them instead of constantly trying to outrun them.
In the midst of your next busy workday (or as you enter the abyss of the Sunday Scaries), give this mindfulness practice a shot—and watch as your stress lowers and your productivity shoots through the roof.
Sara works as a full-time admissions counselor at Flagler College in St. Augustine and runs a wellness Instagram to connect with other foodies. When she’s not in the kitchen, you can find her at the gym, reading a book, planning her next trip, or re-watching Game of Thrones episodes with her dog.