As science and spirituality continue to merge on many fronts, one of the more interesting discoveries is that meditation is being “discovered” as a treatment for many psychological disorders. Not only are people with serious problems benefiting from this practice, many people with everyday issues like anxiety and overeating have seen benefits. In addition to that it has been shown to slow some of the effects of aging (Epel, 2009 and Turner, 2010).
Now, stay with me here, I’m not going to tell you that you have to sit in the lotus position and say OOOvHHHMMMNnnnn for hours on end. Meditation, or as it is referred to in the scientific literature, mindfulness, can be achieved just by ignoring your brain for a while. The definition of mindfulness is generally thought to have two parts: focusing on the present moment and accepting what is without judgment (Coffey, 2010 and Bishop, 2004).
The key to all of this is that you must make this moment the most important moment. Worrying about the future, fretting about the past, planning what you need to do next, rethinking upsetting conversations, must all take a back seat. The moment of meditation needs to be the most important moment–while you are doing it. You can get back to worrying about what you are going to do if you happen to run into someone that you don’t like, or whether or not you should buy a dog or two cats–later. For now, recognize that everything is OK and that you do not have to do anything or plan anything for the next fifteen minutes. You may find that you do not want to go back to worrying when you are done.
In order to meditate you must sit, walk, run, swim, bike, lie down or ski. Well anything that you can do that allows you to disengage your mind. Walking in heavy traffic, for instance, would not be suitable because if your mind was not engaged there is a good chance that you would be pulled back into thinking about your surroundings pretty quickly and abruptly. The key is that it needs to be an activity, or no activity, that allows you to “turn off your brain”.
I am not going to tell you that you have to stop that word generating part of your brain that has nothing better to do than jabber all day about this and that and all of the things that you have to do and what happened several years ago at the beach when that large….but I digress. What you need to do is not pay attention to those thoughts. When words come into your mind (and we both know they will) simply observe them and pay no further attention.
It can be helpful to visualize the words as bubbles that float to the surface and pop, or as cars speeding down a highway off into the distance, or any other visual that you may find useful. What we are trying to avoid here is paying attention to the words. So, if you suddenly remember that you haven’t fed your pet fish, recognize that it won’t matter in the next 15 minutes. You will remember again. If you start to think about how angry the clerk made you at the store, see the words individually, don’t get pulled into the story, just observe that you had a thought and let it fall away.
The key is to just be aware of the fact that your brain is generating words and to not care about what they are saying. Right now, in this moment, it is not important. It can be helpful to focus on your breath and keep bringing your attention to your breath. If you are moving during this time you might focus on each step or each stroke. You may just pay attention to all of the sensations coming from your body and the words being generated by your mind. Just accept them and do not engage with them. Do not criticize yourself for thinking, just notice and bring your attention back to your body or your breath or your movement.
The next step is to start to notice other things. How does your body feel? What are the sounds and smells around you? Is it cold, hot, midlin? Take note of these things, but don’t get engaged. For instance if you realize it is too cold, it is not the time to get a sweater. You can wait until you are done, you won’t freeze to death in 15 minutes (not in a place that you’ve chosen to meditate in anyhow). This is a great exercise in learning to observe your thoughts in a way that allows you to see how transient they are and that they occur even when you are paying attention to something else. But, more on that at another time.
So to recap, you want to be focused on the moment and to accept it for whatever it is–even if your fish is starving to death. Meditating in this way for 15 minutes a day is all that it takes. What is there to gain from doing absolutely nothing for 15 minutes everyday?….well, a lot actually. Meditation, or mindfulness, has been shown to decrease stress, depression and illness. It has been shown to slow the aging process and it is key in helping to break bad habits such as smoking or gossiping. So, by taking the time each day to recognize that the most important moment is now you can improve your life. Now that is easier than dieting or exercising wouldn’t you say?