I often hear parents and educators speak about their levels of exhaustion and stress and the toll it takes at home. Taking care of children is really important work that requires a lot of patience, and when we’re tired, it’s difficult to be kind and caring with kids. Most of us just try and power through until we hit a wall, lose our temper, are totally drained or worst of all end up sick in bed. I get it. Boy, do I get it. Stress is the worst.
While it’s inevitable to have stressful moments in life, we should make sure that those moments don’t drag into weeks and months. We all need tools in our tool belt that we can use when stress has hit an all time high and the not great version of ourselves is running around grumping at kids, friends and family alike.
So what can we do in these moments to rest and re-energize?
In this post, I touch on how meditation can be one of the tools in your tool belt, its amazing benefits and three ways to practice meditation starting today. This post is about taking care of YOU. In my next post, I share ideas to bring the practice of mindfulness to your family and why you’ll want to get started.
What is Meditation
I’ve heard meditation described as quieting the mind, concentrating the mind or resting the mind.
Meditation has appeared throughout history as a part of different time periods, cultures and religions (it seems everyone knows of its benefits). While meditation does stem from religion, secular practices are becoming more popular in Western culture as a way to combat daily stress, as well as mental and physical ailments.
Without delving too much into the history, there appear to be two camps of meditation: focused attention meditation (also known as concentrative meditation) and open monitoring meditation. Simply explained, focused attention meditation is when you focus your attention on an object, sound, or other stimulus (such as a mantra, breath or candle flame) during the meditation. On the other hand, open monitoring meditation is when you are aware of internal and external perceptions (thoughts, feelings, sounds, smells) during the meditation but do not place any judgment or attachment to those perceptions.
So why is this background important for you to know?
Well, within these two camps, there are many different meditative practices to choose from. This article from Live and Dare provides some great insight into the variety of meditative practices.
At this point, you may be thinking, “How do I know which practice is the best fit and how do I go about choosing a practice?” With so many options, the choice may feel overwhelming. Don’t worry. I’ve got you.
Think of choosing a meditative practice like trying ice cream flavors at the parlor. You taste test a few before settling on a big scoop of your favorite. While it’s nice to have an understanding of the various types of meditation, the most important thing is that you enjoy your practice and feel the benefits physically, as well as emotionally.
In this post, I purposefully share three practices as a starting point. I recommend trying them, as well as additional methods and then choosing a practice that most resonates with you. Honestly, the best meditative practice is the one that you will do regularly.
I am a big believer that you will stick with a new habit when you are convinced of what you’re doing, so let’s touch on some of the benefits, shall we?
The Benefits of Meditation
While there is extensive research on the physical, mental and emotional benefits of meditation, I share a handful of my favorite studies that truly demonstrate the positive effects meditation can have on the brain and body.
In this article from Forbes, Alice Walton includes seven ways meditation actually changes the brain based on recent studies reporting that, “meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.”
One of the studies that Walton references has amazing implications to the benefits of meditation: “In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress – and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels…”
Not only did Lazar’s team find that the brain’s structure changes with meditation, but also that our subjective perception and feelings change as well.
Walton also references another study done by Yale that found mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. This is promising research because, “The DMN is 'on' or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.”
While much research has been done on the benefits of meditation and the brain, there is also great research on the physical benefits of meditation.
In November 2012, a journal of the American Heart Association published a 5-year randomized controlled study on patients with established coronary heart disease. A group of 201 high-risk individuals was assigned to either a cardiovascular health education program or Transcendental Meditation (TM) program. During the next 5 years researchers accompanying the participants found that those who took the TM program had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death.
They concluded that Transcendental Meditation, “significantly reduced risk for mortality, myocardial infarction, and stroke in coronary heart disease patients. These changes were associated with lower blood pressure and psychosocial stress factors.”
This sample of studies is just a peak into the research that has been done on meditation and its benefits. If you are interested in learning more, you can find a fairly extensive list of the benefits of meditation (with sited research from major publications to medical journals), on this post from Live and Dare.
So it’s clear that meditation benefits both the body and mind. Let’s move onto my favorite part… How to get started meditating today.
3 Ways to Practice Meditation Today
I have purposefully chosen the below three methods to help you get started in your practice of meditation. They are simple to try and can be done anywhere and at anytime.
Gratitude mediation is when you take a moment to give thanks. This can last as long as you wish. It’s really up to you.
There are no rules around gratitude meditation. It’s simply giving thanks for all that you have in your life. You can do this by closing your eyes and silently saying, “I am thankful for _____.” You would repeat this phrase over and over again inserting a different person, item, quality, etc. Allow your gratitude meditation to flow and see where it takes you. Allow yourself to really pause and think about what you are thankful for. You can practice laying in bed, sitting up in a comfortable chair or really any place you can safely close your eyes and take a moment for yourself.
Gratitude meditation is a very powerful practice to start and end the day with. It’s also an amazing tool to lean on during difficult moments or when you’re feeling down. After a minute of this practice, you’ll feel uplifted and positive. The same way negative thoughts become very cyclical (starting with one then moving to the next until you have spiraled), positive thoughts are just as powerful. This practice promotes positive thinking and replenishes the well.
Guided meditation is when you listen to a recording in which you are guided through a series of prompts. This form of meditation can be really helpful for those who benefit from auditory cues and enjoy having a “guide” walk them through the practice.
Some people really enjoy these meditations while others find the voice of a guide very distracting. I believe the key is to find a guide with whom you connect. Maybe you read a blog post by the person leading the guided meditation or really enjoy the content of the guided meditation. Whatever the reason, it can be very helpful to choose a guided meditation where you have already built some respect and trust for the guide. I recommend trying various guided meditations until you find one that really resonates with you.
I recommend starting with short 5-7 minute guided meditations. It will feel reasonable in length and you will still feel the benefits.
You can find many free and paid resources for guided meditations. Some of my favorite free resources are:
Mantra meditation is when you focus on and repeat a word or sound to be transported into a deep state of meditation. While there are different types of mantra meditation with paid classes (such as Transcendental Meditation and Primordial Sound Meditation), I do believe that you can try mantra meditation on your own.
You simply choose a word or sound that resonates with you. Perhaps it is a word or phrase that has meaning in your spoken language or another language. When in doubt, use the power of “Om.”
Once you have chosen your mantra, you simply find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and repeat your mantra silently. The ideal amount of time to be meditating according to Transcendental Meditation is 20 minutes. During your meditation, allow your mantra to flow. There may be times when it sounds faint or very loud and times when it moves quickly or very slowly. You will find that you will bring yourself naturally back to your mantra.
If you are interested in learning more about mantra meditation, I recommend finding a TM instructor in your area.
At this point, you should have a good sense of what meditation is, its benefits and how to get started.
So, you’re ready to start meditating. You’re taking time to put yourself first so you can take care of everyone else. You’re also showing your family how to manage stress and trying moments. Awesome!
I would love to hear from you. Which of the three practices did you most enjoy?
In the next post, I’ll share tips on practicing mindfulness with your little ones.
Keep well, S