• Stress management tip: Get grounded with meditation

    March 15, 2017 | curtrosengren
  • [Back to How to stop stressing so you can change the world]

    Picture, if you will, a Catherine Wheel, that firework that spins around a stationary central hub and throws sparks in all directions.

    For many of us, that’s a great visual for what life is too often like. Spinning in high-speed circles, we spend a lot of energy that doesn’t take us anywhere. Instead, it just depletes and drains us.

    If you’re going to be an everyday activist for the long haul, some kind of grounding practice is vital. Something to slow down the spin and bring you back to center.

    There are a bazillion or so grounding practices you can explore, like meditation, yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong, etc. I encourage you to explore and find what works for you.

    In this post I’m going to focus on meditation.

    Why meditate?

    For the last 4 ½ years I have meditated every morning without fail. It’s a non-negotiable part of my day. The reason it’s non-negotiable isn’t because I am blessed with an iron will (I’m definitely not). It’s because it has had such a positive impact on my life.

    It has had such a positive impact that a while back I realized that, if I were ever faced with the horrible decision to choose between my morning coffee and my morning meditation, the meditation would win hands down. And I love my morning coffee!

    That anecdotal positive impact is backed up by a solid body of research. This article on the research-backed benefits of meditation spotlights a wide variety of benefits, such as:

    • Increased positive emotion
    • Decreased depression
    • Decreased anxiety
    • Decreased stress

    Why it’s OK if your mind won’t shut up

    “Quiet my mind? Oh, that’s so easy!” – said no beginning meditator ever.

    One of the most common refrains I hear from people dipping their toes in the meditation pool is, “I can’t meditate. My mind won’t stop talking.”

    They don’t realize it, but what they’re really saying is, “I can’t meditate because my brain does what it evolved to do.”

    Neuroscience researchers have discovered that the brain is actually incredibly active when we’re “at rest” without any external, goal-directed task occupying our attention. They call that active resting state the brain’s default mode.

    Here’s a good article that describes the default mode more in depth, but in a nutshell when you’re not focused on external tasks, there is a network of regions in your brain that dives into thinking and remembering. And the star of all that activity is primarily you. Your mind thinks about the past, the future, yourself, and others (often as they relate to you). And it happens with everybody!

    So it’s patently inaccurate to say that you don’t have what it takes to meditate because of all that chatter you hear in your mind. If that were the case, nobody would ever meditate.

    Here’s a helpful shift in how you approach your meditation. Instead of trying to force your mind to be silent, make that wandering mind the focus of the practice.

    1. Focus your attention on your breath. Find a physical location where you notice it most, maybe as it enters and leaves your nose, or your throat, or your abdomen as it rises and falls.
    2. Let go of whatever thoughts are up. This looks suspiciously like the “quiet your mind” instructions, except you’ll do it with the understanding that the resulting quiet is inevitably temporary. Keep focusing on your breath.
    3. When you notice that your mind has started to wander (and it will!), just acknowledge it and let go.
    4. Come back to the focus on your breath.
    5. Wash. Repeat.

    In this simple meditation, the goal isn’t non-stop silence in your mind. It is simply to notice when it wanders, let go, and come back to your breath, over and over again. Notice, let go, and return. Notice, let go, and return.

    Not only does this work more naturally with how your brain evolved, it also trains your brain to be more aware of that wandering mind and to let go and come back to the present moment.

    Here’s a short video taking a look at meditation and your brain’s default mode:

    Make it easy

    For many people, their good intentions around developing a meditation practice has all the life span of a New Year’s resolution. That is to say, not long.

    There are many reasons for this, but one of the big ones is that people aim too high with it right out of the gate.

    Rather than trying to have a fully formed meditation practice from the beginning, start by making it small and easy. Plant the seed and allow it to grow.

    Your goal is to create a regular, frequent, sustainable habit, not to have a deep meditation practice right away. Five minutes every day for a month is infinitely better as a foundation for a long-term practice than thirty minutes once or twice a week.

    The more you do it, the easier it gets. When I first started meditating, I started with five minutes every morning. Over time it started to expand, not because I was making an effort to meditate longer, but because it did so naturally.

    Over and over, I have seen this approach work well with clients as they resolve to develop a meditation practice. Taking the friction away early on and make it as easy as possible to do consistently for the long term raises the odds dramatically that you’ll stick with it.

    Book suggestions

    Meditation Made Easy

    Wherever You Go, There You Are

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