By Shelby Sheehan-Bernard, Tribune News Service (TNS)
Stress. It seems everywhere we go, there’s an email to read, a text to send, a task to complete. If you’re seeking a way to ease your response to modern life’s stressors and overstimulation, mindfulness meditation may be the answer. Current research in the field, including a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, is continuing to uncover the benefits of a consistent meditation practice, such as its ability to help reduce anxiety and depression, as well as physical pain.
Think meditation is some complex, transcendental, or even a hokey experience? It’s actually simpler than you may think.
“There are so many misconceptions about a mindfulness practice,”said Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author of books such as Real Happiness-The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program. “Sometimes people think it needs to be tied to a certain belief system, or you have to sit in a pretzel-like posture, or there is a lot of preparatory work before you can start. None of that is so.”
She said it can be as basic as starting with five minutes each day, just focusing on your breath. “The trick is to realize that your mind will likely wander a lot,” said Salzberg, who notes that this isn’t a problem or a bad sign despite popular belief. “The goal is to gently let go of the distraction and begin again by bringing your attention back to the breath.”
If you find that this exercise doesn’t work for you, there are also guided meditations available online. Ashley Turner, a yoga meditation instructor and mind/body psychotherapist, is one of many teachers who have accessible online practices. (You can check out hers and a range of others available through the My Yoga/Gaiam TV.)
The key, Turner said, is consistency, not necessarily duration. Like Salzberg, she recommends starting with five minutes a day, adding one minute each week until you work up to an optimal 15 to 20 minutes each session.
The process may sound easy enough, but it’s not without its challenges. Elena Brower, a yoga and meditation instructor and author of the book and audio course “Art of Attention,” sees many beginners struggle with racings thoughts and feeling powerless to control them. “We think a lot. We all do. Our minds go a mile a minute and we can’t stop them until we learn how to meditate.” Like anything worth learning, she said, “it takes time and practice.”
Time is also a sticking point for many. “The biggest misconception is that we don’t have time to meditate. The truth is we don’t have time not to. Our bodies need us to take time in that healing state, to bring us back to neutral, and find a fresh experience of ease inside,” Brower explains.
A few tips to get you started:
1. Keep it simple. To begin, Salzberg suggests finding a comfortable seated position and focusing attention on the feeling of breathing in and out for five minutes.
2. Consider the many different forms of mindfulness meditation. Feel like sitting down doesn’t work for you? Salzberg notes there are a range of methods, and they aren’t all about stillness and silence. She suggests finding the one that works for you, whether it’s standing, walking or lying down. There are also practices for activities, such as mindful eating or drinking tea.
3. Start fresh each day. To get the most out of your practice, Turner suggests practicing in the morning, as it can help change the trajectory of your day. “It cultivates a sense of gratitude and helps slow you down,” she said. “It’s really about changing your relationship with your mind and allowing yourself some distance from your thoughts.”
4. Don’t expect immediate results. “Give it a month rather than evaluate it every moment because then you are not actually doing the practice; you’ve stepped away from it to assess it,” Salzberg said. When the time comes to evaluate its effectiveness, consider the big picture and how it’s affecting your life. “Look at how you speak to yourself when you’ve made a mistake, how present or distracted you are meeting a stranger, how you speak to your children or your neighbors. That’s where you’ll see the changes.”
5. Remember that it’s not about erasing thoughts. “That’s a whole misconception,” Turner said. “You’re just trying to notice and not get caught up in them, to have a little distance and shift your response to them.”
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