NEW YORK — Despite its emergence into mainstream culture and its enthusiastic adoption by single name celebrities such as Oprah, Seinfeld and Madonna, there remains a mystique around meditation — the second of our 12 Healthy Habits for 2014.
Many still view meditation as something engaged in only by spiritual seekers in search of a super-hero like calm and focus. However, having practiced various forms of meditation inconsistently myself over the last 25 years, I can vouch for the value returned on the effort spent making meditation a habit, as well as the challenges in establishing that habit.
Let's begin with a reminder of what meditation is — and isn't. (You may also be interested in my previous columns about the topic — a general primer on meditation, and a roundup of yogic forms of meditation.)
Meditation is not about shutting out the world, it's about paying attention to what really matters.
Meditation is not about "tuning out" or withdrawing from your life. Instead, meditation is choosing to focus on what is relevant now, in this very moment. It is allowing yourself to sink deeply into a fuller presence in your life, letting go of irrelevant distractions. Meditation is also not just about the mind. It has many positive physiological effects including decreases in oxygen consumption, heart and respiratory rate and blood pressure. Essentially, it is the opposite of the stress response.
You may decide that what is relevant for you as you sit still for the next 10 minutes is something narrow, such as your breath or a mantra. Or you may choose to mindfully train your attention on something wider, such as a series of yoga poses, or a daily activity like walking which might otherwise escape your full awareness. With practice, you’ll find that your enhanced ability to maintain a relaxed and alert focus translates into greater ease and clarity across your life. This ability is cultivated by both traditional seated meditation as well as daily mindfulness.
Style No. 1: Formal Seated Meditation
Many teachers recommend first thing in the morning as the ideal time to meditate since the mind is still relatively quiet as you leave the sleep state. Until recently, however, my need for caffeine within moments of opening my eyes ruled out an early morning practice for me. Immediately following yoga or exercise, or in early afternoon as my energy dips, have proven to be better options for me, and may be for you, too.
A good rule of thumb is to add five minutes to whatever length of time feels comfortable. At first, I couldn't imagine sitting still for more than a minute or two so I started by setting a timer for 7 minutes. As you practice you'll gradually increase your time. These days I find I can sit comfortably for 20 minutes and I no longer set a timer.
Whatever time you have decided, start your practice by sitting upright in a chair, on a cushion or against a wall for support, with your spine straight and your muscles relaxed. Rest your hands in your lap and close your eyes to direct attention inward. Mentally scan your body from the top of your head down to your toes, letting go of any tension you find with an exhale. Then direct your attention to the object of your meditation.
Before you begin, ask yourself your intention in your meditation: Is it to improve your physical or mental well-being, to manage stress better for improved relationships? Setting a clear intention for each session will help keep you motivated.
If your breath is your chosen focus, simply pay attention to the sensations as you breathe. Notice your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. Or focus instead on a body part involved in breathing such as the rise and fall of your belly or chest. To help anchor your mind you can silently label each part of the breath as it happens: inhale, exhale or rising, falling. Don't try to control your breath in any way. Just note the sensations as you feel them. Is your breath raggedy or smooth, even or lopsided, warm or cold, wet or dry? When you notice that your mind has wandered, note without judgment that your thoughts have drifted and gently draw your attention back to your breath. This will occur many times throughout your meditation and it is the central work of the practice. For a mantra meditation, try this simple so hum meditation from Yoga Journal.
Meditation Style No. 2: Informal Daily Mindfulness Practice
You can also try expanding on your meditation practice while you're engrossed in your daily activities.
You can try it at the gym: take out your ear buds for a few minutes and hone in on the sensations of your body as muscles contract and stretch, and breathing quickens and slows. On your way to work, make it a point to notice something pleasant about your commute: the sunlight, the rain, the face of a child, the feel of the wind at your back. Consciously inhabit your space and surroundings.
During the day, slow down for a moment and notice your breath. Become aware of any tension in your body and use your breath to release it. Notice tightness in your jaw and face. Exhale it away and allow a smile to bloom. Note any changes that occur in your mental state as you do this.
While walking, notice the quality of your steps. Are they soft or harsh? Turn a walk to the bathroom into an opportunity for mindful rejuvenation.
I find that these two practices, formal seated meditation and informal daily mindfulness, feed and support each other. It’s easier to apply daily mindfulness when you’ve been sitting regularly as well. And when you miss a few days of sitting, devoting some time during the day to mindfulness eases the return to the habit of sitting. Ultimately, your whole life can become a moving meditation.
What healthy habits are you trying to adopt this year? We'd love to hear your journey:
We'll see you next month for the third of our 12 Healthy Habits.