Have you ever been on a long-awaited vacation, or even just enjoying time off, only to be interrupted by your mind sporadically bouncing around from work tasks, to-do lists, conversations with a coworker, an individual who cut you off on the road the prior week, etc.? As remarkable as the human brain is, some days we all wish we could be a goldfish, focused solely on the task of swimming in a tank without being bothered by thoughts of other things.
Research shows a link between chronic stress and worsened health outcomes, cognitive decline, and mental health issues. Stress, however, is an integral part of life and living. Learning to cope with the uncertainty of life and regulating our wandering minds are useful tools to prevent stress and anxiety from taking over our lives. Although I was brought up as a Theravada Buddhist and meditation was an integral part of my childhood and adolescence, demanding years in medical school, medical training, clinical practice, and the untimely death of my father led me astray from my meditation practice. However, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, after some forced self-reflection, I took some mindful steps to get back into the practice of meditation and mindfulness. I will share my tips for mindfulness and meditation here. One size does not fit all, and I encourage you to modify them to your needs.
How Does One Begin a Practice of Mindfulness and Meditation?
Whether you are a Buddhist or not, the four foundations of mindfulness will help set the stage for your mindfulness practice. The four foundations include: contemplation of the body, contemplation of feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), contemplation of the mind, and contemplation of the “Dhammas” (Buddha’s teachings on qualities that hinder or are conducive to realization). I will focus on the first two foundations as these are the key to regulating an unruly mind, regardless of one’s practicing faith.
The most traditional way to begin meditation is to focus on the body by focusing on the breath. This could include sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on the counts and quality of inhalations and exhalations. Some find it helpful to count to ten on the rise and fall of the abdomen during breathing. This is not a forced inhalation or exhalation, it’s simply paying attention to the natural process of breathing. Once this is achieved, one can then do a body scan from head to toe, focusing on the quality and physical sensations of each part of the body. As your practice deepens, another practice is to pay attention to the position of the body throughout the day, making a mental note of the body sitting, standing, or lying. All these techniques aim to reduce the meandering of the mind and discursive thinking.
As you start any meditation or mindfulness practice, self-compassion is the key to success. It is natural for the mind to wander and think, no matter how much we try to grit our teeth and focus on our breaths. Even the most advanced monks have this human experience. But the goal of meditation is not to get rid of our thoughts and emotions, it’s to be aware that they are happening without being carried away by them. If thoughts or positive and negative emotions pop in, recognize that they will always be there and re-focus on the breath or the body scan process. Training of the mind is akin to exercise. The more repetitions we do, the stronger the mind becomes.
What Are Some Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation?
Being mindful of the breath and the body may seem insignificant in the vast context of human suffering. Some days it may seem like a waste of time when intrusive thoughts dominate our meditation practice. But the techniques we learn from focusing on the breath often seep into our reactions to positive, negative, and neutral events. Studies show meditation and mindfulness help in reducing work-related stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and pain. Moreover, these mind-body practices show benefits in controlling diabetes and high blood pressure while improving quality of life. Studies have been done with small groups of people with diabetes assigned to regular walking on a treadmill or doing walking meditations on a treadmill. Although both groups had better fasting blood glucose levels, those doing walking meditation had lower hemoglobin A1c, less arterial stiffness (i.e., better vascular function), and lower blood cortisol (stress hormone) levels. In addition, those who practice mindfulness often apply these techniques to assess and reframe difficult emotions and conversations, which allows for more patience, less anger, more openness, inclusivity, and capability to have clarity and control amidst chaos.
What Types of Meditation Techniques Are the Best, and How Long Should I Meditate For?
Any length of meditation practice will do. I think as a beginner, start small with a 10-20 minute practice for several months before sitting down for an hour-long session. Despite my background in Buddhism, I still cannot sit for a whole hour for meditation, but notice the benefits of even a 10-15 minute meditative exercise. When I am pressed for time in the morning, there is a wonderful guided six-minute meditation by Plum Village (see resources below) that helps me appreciate my morning cup of coffee and all the people who brought it to me.
If you tend to hyperventilate when focusing on the breath, another very beneficial meditation technique is the “metta” (aka “loving kindness”) meditation, where sending compassion and good tidings to yourself and others helps promote self-compassion, reduce anxiety, and help strengthen your social interactions. Active forms of meditation like walking meditation, yoga, tai-chi, or qigong are perfect for people who may feel restless with sitting or suffer from pain issues. One of my favorite activities to reground myself is to go on a lonesome walk (sometimes with my dog and sometimes without) and count my steps to ten and then start over. Some days I force myself to leave my phone at home to avoid listening to a podcast, which distracts me from paying attention to the present moment. Walking meditations are very nice in the morning with a hot cup of coffee or at night before bed.
Benefits of Meditation I Have Observed
Since getting back into a regular practice of meditation, I’ve noticed I am less irritable and angry at situations and people. I am also mindful of the moments that I am living through, which has allowed me to be an engaged participant in my life, rather than trying to rush through life. Since I have been worrying less, my sleep has improved considerably, and there are fewer late-night awakenings with ruminating thoughts. On occasions when I do randomly wake up in the middle of the night, it is a lot easier for me to fall back to sleep by practicing some mindful breathing or doing a body scan. Overall, I feel lighter and unencumbered.
- Plum Village – Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master, poet, and peace activist created the Plum Village near Bordeaux in France. There is a free Plum Village meditation app available for iOS and Android
- Headspace Radio – daily free podcast
- Headspace app – subscription often required
- Ten Percent Happier podcast by Dan Harris (prior ABC news anchor). There is a paid subscription-based app as well with more meditation resources
- Calm: Calm is a meditation, sleep and relaxation app, available in both the App Store and Google Play store
“The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation