I don’t know about you, but for me, meditation has always seemed like a daunting task. When you’re an anxious overthinker who seeks constant distraction to avoid being alone with your own thoughts, it’s hard to imagine feeling at peace while attempting to quiet your brain.
I thought mediation was about “clearing your mind,” a common misconception that can deter people — particularly those who could benefit most — from getting into it.
“That’s why people think it’s so hard and have a really hard time dropping into a practice,” said Lihi Benisty, a teacher of yoga, breathwork, and meditation at Open, a mindfulness studio based in Venice, California.
What is meditation?
People often feel like they can’t meditate because they’re too stressed or busy to clear their mind, when in reality meditation is a practice to observe what is on the mind rather than trying to push it out.
“It’s not supposed to look like or be anything. You’re not supposed to sit still and be really happy and zen,” Benisty said. “Sit with it, stand with it, lay with it. Surrender to what is there because when you’re actually facing that stuff, you can create a relationship with it that’s not overpowering… If you’re sitting there in an anxiety attack, let it happen. That’s the true nature of it.”
Basically, meditation helps you to pay attention to your thoughts and emotions without trying to grasp onto positive experiences or avoid the discomfort of negative ones. You acknowledge and observe any thoughts without emotion before returning your attention to your breath or some other focal point.
In fact, research suggests that the practice of meditation protects against reactivity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to fear and threatening stimuli, and experts say it can be a powerful tool for better mental health.
Given all of the potential health perks, my excuses not to try meditating no longer seem valid, and it’s highly possible that yours don’t either.
There’s a reason that many mental health practitioners, like psychiatrist Anjali Dsouza of the District Center for Integrative Medicine, are incorporating mindfulness and meditation into their treatment plans.
When considering tools outside of the conventional medical model to treat mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, Dsouza said meditation is the first one she goes to after nutrition and lifestyle.
Anxiety often involves worrying about the future and depression can include ruminating on the past, she said, and both have high rates of symptom recurrence when using traditional medicine. “As you’re practicing something like mindfulness and allowing yourself to know how to be more present, it’s literally cultivating this state of being that is protected against specifically anxiety and depression.”
Meditation allows us to step out of that flow of thoughts and emotion and helps break the patterns of thinking and feeling that are so wrapped up in psychological conditions like anxiety or depressive symptoms, said Kirk Warren Brown, a social psychologist whose research examines the role of mindfulness in psychological, physical, and social well-being.
“What’s going on in the brain seems to support that it helps to kind of disengage from what’s called the default mode network in the brain,” said Brown, who is also a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. The DMN is the network of brain regions that operate when we’re not engaged in a task of some kind, such as when your mind wanders, daydreams, or ruminates, and other thought patterns that can contribute to psychological distress.
Kama Hagar, a certified holistic wellness coach with her own virtual practice, noted that meditation can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may help psychiatric disorders, peptic ulcers, migraines, and other conditions exacerbated by stress.
How to meditate
Dsouza recommended that you get started and play around with meditation until you figure out what works with your personality and lifestyle. You can test out breathing techniques since they don’t require much guidance or time — like 4-7-8 breathing, which means you breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven, and breathe out with pursed lips for eight.
“Don’t try to do an hour of meditation every day. Try to do two minutes,” Benisty said. “Do what you can do. Don’t try to overdo it. But also, you have time. Everyone has time.”
Brown noted that you can be mindful in any activity. While most people associate meditating with sitting on a cushion and watching your breath, you can transform many other habits you enjoy like gardening, listening to music, or taking a bath into opportunities to tune into the body, mind, and heart.
“Learning to meditate or become more mindful is like learning how to become physically fit,” he said. “It takes time, and it can be a little painful at the beginning when we’re training our bodies or, in this case, training our minds.”
Brown’s advice is to give it at least a month of regular practice and see what kind of changes you observe in how you’re thinking, feeling, and behaving toward other people and toward yourself.
When it comes to tools that may aid in your practice, Hagar advised using whatever you need, just make sure it’s a conscious purchase. While you don’t need to purchase anything at all to meditate, here are some expert-recommended products that may help you get started or enhance your existing practice.