If the thought of sitting silently in a cross-legged position for 30 minutes or more a day makes you cringe, I have good news. You don’t have to! Eventually, you may want to but meditation doesn’t need to be challenging. I promise. You may have heard by now that meditation is good for you, but you may not even really know what it is. Let’s start there.
If praying is talking, meditation is listening.
For the sake of a little background information, the spiritual practice of meditation dates back several thousand years and is practiced by most, if not all, major religions in the world. We often think of meditation associated with eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but it is also practiced in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Yes, even Christianity. For example, while meditation in Buddhism is associated with the path to enlightenment, in Christianity it may be reflecting on a bible verse to find its meaning to you as an individual. So there you have a very abbreviated background on meditation and spirituality. Now to the very real, easy-peasy practices that I promised!
One form of meditation that is increasingly popular today (and super easy to begin practicing) is mindfulness. No one can argue that it is so easy to get caught up in the head spin of today’s complex and fast moving world, so we need to actually practice not only slowing down but taking purposeful pauses throughout our day. So what does mindfulness mean?
Mindfulness means being present and aware in the simplest to the most complex situations.
Let’s talk about two important words here, present and aware. Being present means just that, being fully present in the moment. For example, if my child is reading to me, I’m fully engaged in listening to her. I’m not watching television, I’m not checking my phone, I’m not thinking about where we are going for dinner. I am listening intently to her reading. It’s not even thinking about my child and how just last year she couldn’t read at all, or that I need to start saving more for her college. It is simply just listening to her read (and of course giving encouragement and other positive feedback). It’s also important to not watch the clock during these moments. Set a timer if you need to, but keep your focus on the present. I often find that during moments of being present time seems to slow down. The second word is aware, aware of what? Aware of self. During some of the practice exercises listed below, really focus on being aware of your body. How does it feel? Are you carrying tension in your face? Is there a pain that has become so chronic that you no longer think about it, but it’s still constantly distracting you on a more subconscious level? What emotions are you feeling? Practicing this level of awareness brings us more in tune with ourselves, but it also helps us to engage at a deeper level with others. As I spend more time becoming aware of self, I am better able to differentiate what is me and what is not me. For example, do you spend time reading tragic news each day and find yourself taking on the emotions of the person/s in the story? This is very common among parents, especially when it comes to reading about the suffering or death of someone else’s child. We often go beyond empathy and can experience the same level of prolonged emotion as if this happened to us, when it didn’t.
Knowing what is me and what I’m experiencing vs. what is you and what you are experiencing is critical to our well being.
Mindfulness allows us to be fully present and engaged with another human being without constantly carrying excess emotional load with us. This is particularly helpful for caregivers, such as healthcare providers. Spending a large portion of one’s day caring for others can take a huge emotional toll on our well being. Not being able to differentiate between self and others will typically lead to one of two things…..burn out or callousness. Mindfulness helps prevent both.
Here are some really easy mindfulness practices you can begin right now, chose one and just start doing it:
- Hand washing – The next time you wash your hands, focus on that task and that task alone. Feel the temperature of the water, pay attention as you lather up the soap, notice any skin irritation or other sensations that you are feeling in your hands. Focus solely on this task from start to finish. If you feel your mind start to wander, just bring the focus back to your hands. This is a great practice for doctors and nurses!
- Breathing – Set a timer of 60 seconds and focus on your regular breathing. You don’t need to change your breathing, just notice each breath. When you inhale is it shallow, does it reach your belly? When you exhale, is it a sigh, is it through your nostrils or mouth? If you mind begins to wander, just bring it back to the breath.
- Walking – Start small, next time you are walking from the living room to the kitchen notice each step. How does your foot hit the floor, toes first or heels first? Is the sound of each step loud or soft? Do you feel pain anywhere when you walk?
When you start practicing these mindfulness techniques regularly, they become easier. A 60 second exercise in mindfulness during hand washing becomes mindfulness during your daily shower. Mindfulness of breath for 60 seconds, becomes mindfulness of breath after a traumatic event. Practicing trains the mind to quiet and focus when you need it to. It allows you to fully engage with each moment you chose as you journey through life. It also gives you the framework and confidence to expand your meditation practice or at the very least, hopefully no longer makes you cringe at the word!