We live in a world filled with distractions. While at work, our social life calls to us through websites like Facebook and the constant connectedness smart phones afford us. While at home, our chores and family obligations call to us, and that pesky smart phone reminds of us the work e-mails we’re receiving. Amidst all of this, it can be very difficult to find a moment for yourself, but it’s important that you do.
In the mental health field, the process of tapping into how you are feeling at that precise moment is called mindfulness. Mindfulness is essentially turning the auto-pilot off and really examining how we are feeling physically, socially, and mentally. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends mindfulness as a treatment modality for those who suffer from recurrent depression. The psychological benefits of mindfulness are not exclusively for the mentally ill, though. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone. One of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness is through meditation. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous includes prayer and/or meditation as step 11 in the 12 step process.
Meditation sometimes gets a bad rap for being some sort of esoteric practice for spiritualists, but it’s not just for monks and yogis. This relaxing and mindful practice has real world benefits. An eight-week study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that meditation could actually help improve areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress.
Dr. Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and one of the greatest minds in meditation says:
We’re wired to think we’re always on our way somewhere–the next thing to ask, say, or do. We frequently worry about what will go wrong. We can break this process once we learn to pause and bring a gentle, mindful attention to what’s happening inside us.
We need to reconnect with the life of our bodies, to feel our hearts. That’s the sacred pause. At any time, we can take a few breaths, relax, pay attention.
Find a comfortable seat with your feet flat on the floor. Put your arms on the armrests or in your lap. Lying in corpse pose can also be great, but if you’re prone to falling asleep, you might want to sit upright.
Close your eyes.
Begin paying attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it at first, just observe where you are. Slowly, begin breathing from the diaphragm through your nose. Think of the breath flowing into the bottom of your belly until it fills your chest, reverse this with the exhale. A good tempo is a 4 second inhale with a 4 second exhale. Your inhalations and exhalations should be equal or your exhalations should be a little longer. This will help you to begin relaxing.
When you find yourself in a comfortable place, start doing a scan of your body starting at your feet. Work slowly. Imagine every muscle relaxing as you move up to your calves, your thighs, your back, your chest, even your facial muscles. If you’re lying in corpse pose, you can actually tighten each muscle before letting it fall to the floor completely relaxed (this looks particularly interesting when you get to the muscles of the face).
Now that you are completely relaxed and breathing rhythmically, try to only think of your breath. Thoughts will try to enter your mind; my suggestion is to think of these distracting thoughts as coming toward you single file. Mentally reach out and place them on a shelf to deal with later–you’re not forgetting them, you are choosing to wait to deal with them. Continue this clearing of the mind until you find your focus is exclusively on your breath.
At first, it will be difficult to “shut off” your mind. You will probably not start out with 45 minutes of meditation as Mrs. Brach does each morning. However, even 5 minutes of meditation will pay huge dividends. If within that 5 minutes you are only able to achieve a clear mind for a moment, you might feel discouraged. Remember, though, that is one more distraction-free moment than you currently have and, as always, practice makes perfect.
Written by Chris Branam, Community Health Educator