I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about ways to cope with anxiety. I know how it feels when your mind is racing between your to-do list, that argument you had with your partner, the pressing work deadline, the emails that seem to pile up faster than you can read them, worries about where the world is headed, and the feeling that you just don’t have enough time. It seems that most of the day, our mind is either rehashing the past or thinking about the future. It is anywhere but in the present. These thoughts about the past and the future often bring up feelings of regret, frustration, and anxiety, which then fuel even more memories of the past and worst-case scenarios in the future. The feedback loop, and the cascade of even more thoughts and emotions each round generates, is the root of our suffering.
Where attention goes, energy flows. The present moment is all we ever have. In this very second, we are safe. In this moment, we have everything we need. We lose precious energy when we focus on the past that is gone and the future we can’t control. Imagine what life would be like if you call back the fractured energy from the dozens of places where you left them, and experience life fully in the present moment. How would this impact your work and relationships? What new reality would you create with all this available energy?
Meditation is the most important tool in bringing us back to the present moment. It helps to focus your attention and frees your mind from the many distractions that are causing stress and worry. It might seem daunting when you’re first starting out. We judge ourselves when our attention wanders. We don’t have enough time. The 5 minutes of sitting in silence feel excruciating. Or your leg is falling asleep. But pretty much every beginner goes through this phase of invalidation. Rest assured that the distraction and discomfort are all part of the journey. There’s a reason we call this a meditation “practice.” It’s not something you crush on your first try, on even on your tenth try. Even monks have “bad meditation days.” It’s the process of continuously returning to the present moment every time you become aware that you’ve lost it that breaks the unconscious feedback loop. Re-wiring your brain is like building a muscle. Start small and gradually build on your practice. Persistence, not perfection, is what matters.
Here are some tips for beginning as well as deepening your meditation practice:
1. Create a daily routine. When you are developing a new habit, consistency is key. You want to train your brain so that when certain clues set in, you automatically go for the activity without consciously thinking about it. Set aside a time of the day and a quiet space with few distractions for your daily practice. For me, it’s the first thing in the morning when I’m still lying in bed. For others, it might be before bedtime, in a space dedicated to the practice, sitting cross-legged or in a chair. Or you might do it after taking a hot shower, drinking a cup of tea, or after a short yoga/movement sequence. Whether you are sitting, lying down, or walking, make sure you are comfortable and keeping good posture. Listen to your intuition as to what gets you into a receptive state.
2. Start small. Start with an amount of the time that is attainable. For some, it might be 5 minutes. For others, it might be 30 minutes or more. If meditating for long stretches of time seems overwhelming, you might want to break up your practice into several shorter sessions during the day (e.g. 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at lunch, and 10 minutes before bedtime). As you get more comfortable, gradually increase the amount of time for each session.
3. Experiment with different types of meditation. It is important for you to find a type of meditation that resonates with you. For beginners, it might be helpful to use guided meditation with a teacher who can lead you through a visualization using your senses. There is also mantra meditation, where you silently repeat a word or a phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. Or mindfulness meditation, where you broaden your awareness by focusing on what you experience during the meditation, such as the flow of your breath and any bodily sensations. Sound meditation could be very useful in helping your brain shift from one brainwave state to another, leading you to a deep state of relaxation.
A few decades ago, if you wanted to learn meditation, you would have to travel to the Himalayas and sit with a meditation teacher for months. Now, you likely have meditation centers and group classes in your community. And with tons of resources online and on apps, you don’t even have to roll out of bed. My personal favorite app is Insight Timer. It’s free and has over 55,000 meditations of all genres for both beginners and advanced practitioners. I have also tried Headspace some years ago and found it simple and easy for complete beginners. Another popular one is Calm. I have never used it but have heard great things about it. There’s also Journey Meditation which offers live meditation and an interactive platform. Most of these apps allow you to try them out for free, so take advantage of the offers and experiment with what feels right for you.
4. Conduct your daily activities with mindfulness. Meditation can be any activity that you do with focused attention and mindfulness. As you become more skilled at meditation, you may be able to meditate anywhere. You can meditate when preparing a meal, focusing on the texture of the food you are chopping, and the smell and taste of the food cooking on the stove. You can meditate when you are walking, whether on the city sidewalk or in a forest, noticing how you place your heel on the ground and push off with the ball of your foot with each step you take. You can even meditate when reading emails, if you absorb each word as opposed to multitasking and already thinking of the things you need to do next. When you can turn routine activities into meditative experiences, you can find moments of calm and inner peace anywhere.
5. Practice non-judgment. Don’t judge your meditation skills, which only adds to your stress. Our attention inevitably wanders. The art of meditation is not to be completely without thoughts, but to observe when thoughts arise and slowly return to the object, sensation, or movement you’re focusing on. It doesn’t matter if thoughts arise every second. As soon as you notice them, you stop and bring yourself back to the present. There’s no need to judge yourself for getting distracted. Distraction is part of the process.