If you're looking to destress, increase your focus, improve your sleep and raise your awareness, meditation is the way to go! According to researchers, the list of benefits is extensive and includes everything from psychological to physical changes — including overall better health. It's free, can be done almost anywhere and is simple to do — or at least it should be. I, personally, have been practicing for 49 years and it's been a journey of trying different techniques and going back and forth in consistency, but it's become a lifelong foundation for dealing with the stresses of being a mental health practitioner.
Many people who first try meditation become exasperated and think they must be doing it wrong. The frustration is perfectly depicted in the movie Eat, Pray, Love. The lead character and author, Elizabeth Gilbert, begins the session enthusiastically in a room with other meditators, only to become overwhelmed by distracting thoughts — where she will live after her yearlong adventure, should she have a meditation room wherever she ends up, etc.; then she's distracted by the annoying sensations that surround her, such as the fan whirring overhead and feeling itchy. When she looks at the countdown clock and realizes it has been less than 2 minutes she says, “Oh my God, kill me.”
Her experience speaks to one of the biggest challenges of meditation: thinking about thinking. People often become frustrated by their inability to clear their minds of all thoughts. But that's not the point of meditation. It's all but impossible to completely eliminate any and all thoughts from your mind and pressuring yourself to do so only leads to more thoughts anyway.
The idea of meditation is not to eliminate all thoughts and sensations but to be aware, or mindful of them. There is no right or wrong way to meditate, but you can get maximum benefits by following a few tips:
Pre-mediation preparation: start with an activity called Right Now I am Thinking and say your stream of consciousness thoughts out loud or jot them down. For example, “Right now, I am thinking about what I am typing,” or, “Right now I am thinking about the shopping list,” etc. for two minutes.
Start small: Instead of challenging yourself to sit still for 45 minutes twice a day, try it for just a few minutes — maybe 2.
Focus on your breath: Observe how you breathe, with each inhale and each exhale, try to keep your attention on it as much as possible.
Observe sensations: You may have an itch, be uncomfortable or even feel slight pain. Pay attention to it by being aware of it. Ask yourself what it feels like and exactly where you feel it. Doing so actually reduces the sensation.
Observe thoughts: You will have all sorts of thoughts, and that's okay. Just as you do with sensations, become aware of your thoughts as if you were an outside observer. When you find your thoughts wandering, try to gradually return your focus to your breath.
Be kind: Don't berate yourself for having trouble disengaging from distracting thoughts or sensations—these are normal.
Keep it simple: This goes along with being kind. Resist the urge to overthink meditation. It is not rocket science or brain surgery, it's just you trying to be more aware of your mind and body and the stimuli affecting them.
Practice, practice, practice.
As with anything that can have a significant impact, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better the results. Once you're comfortable meditating for just a couple of minutes try extending the time or try doing it at least every day. In a short time, you'll be amazed at how much better you can feel.
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