Editor’s Note: This story is part of 5 Habits Changes You Can Actually Make In 2015. Check out the full list here.
Like most people with a brain and a pulse, my life can feel pretty stressful.
We may be lying to ourselves about how busy we really are, but the stress we feel from our always-on lives is real.
And while “mindfulness” has become more of a cliché than a real call to action in the business world, the core message to quiet your mind and focus on the present sounds like the perfect solution for a more productive workday.
The concept of occupying my mind with only one thing was especially appealing to me. I’ve wanted to try and tame my monkey brain and reduce stress levels for some time now. And when my friends started commenting on how unpleasant I can be when I’ve got too much on my plate, I decided to give mindfulness meditation a try for a week.
We challenged readers and ourselves last week to spend 20 minutes a day meditating, with the proposed benefits including better working memories, more divergent thinking, and my favorite, less anxiety. So each day I spent 20 minutes practicing mindfulness meditation, which has been found to temper anxiety. There are several approaches to this practice, but here’s what I did:
I perched myself on my bed away from distractions like my laptop, phone, and TV, crossed my legs, and leant my back against a wall, straight but not rigid.
I rested my focus on my breath, not making any particular effort to breath deeply or slowly. I simply sat and observed my breathing.
As I began to notice my mind wander, I tried to gently bring it back to my breathing and the wall in front of me without forcing myself to stop thinking completely. The point of mindfulness meditation is not to make our minds blank slates, but rather to accept everything as it is. The difficulty in this is recognizing and labeling our wandering thoughts, but in a non-judgmental way.
I found this meditation to be extremely effective at quelling my anxiety. Throughout the day life’s stressors would often quickly signal a churning in the pit of my stomach and shorter breaths, but after I started meditating I gradually found over the week that my triggers took less of a hold on me. I was able to face things like looming deadlines, wedding planning, and general money-budgeting with more ease than usual. Everything was still real and in-focus, but the negativity associated with each was less oppressive.
I began my meditation challenge last Saturday morning when I sang at a friend’s wedding. Though I love singing, the thought of doing so in front of 100 people always wreaks havoc on my nerves–and stomach. But when I sat in the church waiting to begin with an Ave Maria, I diverted my thoughts away from the possibilities of my voice cracking or passing out and towards the joy of that moment. I focused on feelings of love and happiness for my friends, and that focus carried me through the ceremony without a hitch.
Reader Aaron Friedly meditates for 30 minutes a day and firmly believes in it’s many benefits. He says that by learning to be an observer of our internal chaos we can take major strides in living a much more pleasant and happy life. He cannot imagine his life without meditation.
It brings clarity, calm and self-knowledge. It can be very difficult in the beginning, but this is a clear indication that there is a deep need for this practice. Pretty soon, it becomes apparent that everything in life can be a form of meditation: walking, surfing, driving, working, writing. It is all about coming back into the moment and observing without reacting. This is simple yet powerful, and is unequivocally life changing.
As we predicted, meditation does not come naturally in the beginning. For starters, when meditating first thing in the morning I found it difficult differentiating between sleepy time and meditation time.
Additionally, while I made an effort to avoid distractions, distractions didn’t make quite the same effort to avoid me. Take my kitten for example, who decided to smash some glassware in the next room while I was meditating. The sounds of glass shattering and a whimpering cat were impossible to ignore, and after cleaning up the mess, it was all I could think about. I initially let my anger get the better of me, but in the end I was able to accept the reality for what it was. In the end, I think I came out all the better from the ordeal.
Several readers who tried the habit challenge also experienced difficulty. Reader Julia Opferman, a medical writer and registered nurse, found that five minutes felt like an eternity when meditating.
After dropping her daughters off to their high school she attempted to squeeze in 15 minutes of meditation in the school parking lot. She focused on her breathing, and when she noticed herself focusing on the traffic whizzing by, she refocused her attention on her breathing.
But she said that suddenly, for no apparent reason, she could no longer focus:
I heard other cars pulling into the parking lot. I heard voices taking. I heard birds. Trucks. And my nose itched. My stomach grumbled. I struggled mightily to hang on to the simple “in and out.”
Opferman says she was sure her timer would soon set her free, but when she opened her eyes, only five minutes had passed.
While this has been her one and only attempt so far, Opferman says she will try again–eventually. “I do think that for a few brief moments I felt something. Or I felt nothing, which might be the point,” she says. “Less is more in our crazy, over-stimulating world.”
Reader and mindfulness coach Meg Salter offers some tips for more mindful meditation that I found to be pretty effective:
Know what is driving you to start meditating. What specific itch are you trying to scratch? Where does it hurt? Try to name these discomforts quite specifically. Knowing what you are worried about is a lot better than a general feeling of stress.
While you might not achieve it, it helps to have an idea of what you want to achieve. Consider goals like “I’d like to not blurt out so much in my conversations” or “I’d like to savor my food and really taste it.”
There are many available. Focusing on your breath is one. You can pick anything as the object of your meditation. Try also: focusing on your body while you work out, while you walk down the hall, or perform other daily rituals.
Make it for the same time every day if you can. A little bit of time done regularly is better than longer times once in a while.
Be it from friends or family, meditate with a buddy, checking in daily on how it’s going. Find an online group. You are not alone. You can also get support from online apps, CDs, or other ways to anchor your method solidly.
Plan ahead for challenging days and how you might respond. If you fall off the wagon, just get back on again and don’t beat yourself up about it.
This is all about getting to know yourself from the inside out. The more you accept the experience as just an experience and greet it openly, the faster the bad bits will fall away.
You can pay attention to your breath, your muscle tone (or aches) while you work out, at yoga, while running–any sport or game will be potentiated when you add a “mental game” component to it. Doing this simple add-on could easily take your total meditation time from 15 minutes to much more.
You don’t brush your teeth for a few days only; you do it forever so you have teeth forever. Likewise, if you want to keep using it, you should be exercising your mind forever. Start small, build slowly, ease up on yourself, and add a dose of humor for good luck.
While making the time to meditate and embracing the fact that life is full of distractions is no easy feat, this is a habit that I think I’ll try to keep. I plan to continue to meditate for at least 20 minutes a day–for sanity’s sake.