Stressed? Learn How to Meditate

Scientific study is confirming the effectiveness of meditation for everything from pain management to preventing brain aging, and some techniques are proving to be as effective as medication in managing depression. If you’re living with stress — or depression, anxiety or chronic pain — you may not want to ignore a proven treatment that costs nothing and has no side effects.

You don’t have to sit in lotus position, chant, or burn incense to meditate. You can take a very practical approach to this ancient technique. Think of meditation as obedience training for your brain: Your thoughts are wildly tugging on the leash and you are teaching them to calm down and walk in a straight line. 

Mindfulness Meditation

The technique that is getting most of the attention from science in recent years is called “mindfulness meditation.” Mindfulness is a very practical technique for slowing and taking control of your stream of consciousness — those  thoughts that spiral out of control and create stress, anxiety and depression when left unchecked. The defining characteristic of mindfulness training is that you keep returning to the present moment. In that way it is different from relaxation practices that have you imagine yourself on a beach or in a peaceful hammock. 

A Remedy For Modern Life

Our brains are bombarded with input these days and spend very little time quietly processing all that information. In previous eras, people often sat for hours each evening gazing into campfires, listening to music, or staring at the stars, while letting the day’s thoughts slowly untangle themselves. Today, if we find ourselves alone for more than a few seconds, we whip out our phones or turn on the television, giving our brains a constant stream of information and no time to process it. Mindfulness meditation gives your brain time to slow down, untangle all that input, and regain control of itself. 

How to Begin

You can download mindfulness meditation tracks or buy CDs to guide you, or you can simply sit quietly and observe your thoughts. It’s best to sit upright, because if you lie down you may fall asleep, but you don’t need to be in any particular position to meditate. Close your eyes and turn your attention inward. At first your thoughts will race, but be patient, sit quietly, and observe your thoughts. Notice how often your mind turns to the past or the future (planning or worrying). After observing for a while, see if you can direct your thoughts and take control of them. When thoughts of the past or future arise, brush them aside. Keep trying to return to the present moment. 

Useful Techniques

Mindfulness techniques are simply ways to help focus your thoughts when they wander — choose whichever one appeals to you. You will find hundreds of mindfulness meditation tracks that use different techniques, so you can try a wide variety, but you can also meditate without a soundtrack.

  • Body Scan: Keep returning your thoughts to your body. Start at your toes and relax them. Then relax your feet. When your mind wanders, return to your body and work your way upward. 
  • Breath Awareness: Use your breath as a focal point for your attention. One technique is to focus on the sensation of the breath at the nostril. Another method is to count the rhythm of the breath, inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of 8, for instance. 
  • Senses: You can focus your attention on the sounds around you, like relaxing music, or on the sensation of your weight against a chair or your clothing against your skin, for instance.

It’s OK To Think While Meditating

Some people get discouraged because they say they can’t stop their thoughts. It’s not necessary to stop all thoughts in order to “successfully” meditate. It’s the process of observing the thoughts and practicing some control over them that is valuable. You are training your brain to be self-aware and to select the thoughts that serve you best. 

Learning to sit quietly with your thoughts for a few minutes is enough at first. Later you will learn to select your thoughts and brush away the ones that don’t serve you, and eventually you will be able to bring that awareness and control to your thoughts all the time and stop the ones that create stress or anxiety.