Americans lead busy lives. We work hard, we take less time off than workers in many other countries, and with our high tech devices and the 24-hour news cycle beckoning us to watch and listen, we experience a level of stimulation that previous generations could scarcely have imagined.
Add to this particular worries such as a faltering economy, unhealthy influences on our children, an unstable political world, and the care of aging parents, and it is easy to see why we are stressed.
And even if some of us can escape for a week to an isolated Caribbean island, we will likely carry a good deal of that “noise” along with us in our heads.
Sounds bleak. Fortunately, there is an effective method for quieting a busy brain, creating inner peace, and countering the effects of stress on our bodies and minds that anyone can do. That method is the practice of meditation. And since May is National Meditation Month, this is the perfect time to integrate the practice into your life.
Meditation has both physical and mental benefits that have been clearly documented by medical research. Lower blood pressure, better sleep, reductions in headache frequency and severity, decreased anxiety, improved digestion and an increase in a sense of general well-being, among other things, are all outcomes of a regular practice of mediation.
One of the best features of mediation is its efficiency. You will not need equipment or reading material. You will not be required to take out a monthly or annual membership. You will not have to travel anywhere. In fact, you will not have to leave the house. What else can promise such excellent benefits at no cost to you at all?
Meditation is essentially a process of being quiet and still. A common approach to it involves paying relaxed attention to something that you are doing every second of every day anyway – breathing. Here’s how to start:
Sit on a comfortable cushion or chair in a favored place in your home. Place your hands on your abdomen just below your rib cage. When you inhale, make sure that your abdomen expands against your hands. Do this again and again, and each time you exhale, let your whole body go limp like a rag doll. Over time, begin to slow the process down.
Abdominal breathing changes the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the brain, which has everything to do with how relaxed you feel. Stress-related breathing fuels a condition of heightened brain and central nervous system readiness known as “fight or flight” that evolved as a defensive system for coping with danger by preparing the body to either do battle or beat a hasty retreat. Because the brain does not differentiate between real and imagined threat, it is as likely to respond with a call to action from a news report about something on the other side of the world as it is to a threat right outside the door. Meditation lowers brain reactivity.
Some advanced meditators are able to achieve what is referred to as an empty mind. Although that would be wonderful to experience, it really is not necessary for the new practitioner in order to reap the other benefits. In fact, many seasoned “sitters” frequently have unwanted thoughts coming to mind. These are best dealt with by gently returning attention to each breath as soon as you notice them.
Meditation is best learned by taking time each day to be quiet and still so that the breathing technique can be practiced in a deliberate way. Easy music can be part of the mix. And you do not have to invest a lot of time to benefit significantly. Ten or fifteen minutes is all you need to begin. No need for any other major changes at all.
Meditation is also a relative act, meaning that you can be “quieter and stiller” if being truly settled does not come easily. The main idea is just to slow things down. So, while some might sit in a comfortable chair in a favored room, others may do better strolling around the neighborhood or the park.
With practice, the quieter mental states set the tone for the rest of the day, promoting beneficial effects without our even being aware of it.
That is all there is to it. Can you think of an easier way to improve your life?
Mark C. Brown, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of Live Like A Window, Work Like A Mirror: Enlightenment and the Practice of Eternity Consciousness. www.markcbrown.com / @markcbrownphd