Meditation has become a major buzzword in discussions about self-care and mental health. And for good reason: experts studying the effects of meditation on the brain and body have found that the relaxing feeling you get during meditation is not just in your head. They’ve shown that meditation may improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia. In fact, a systematic review of 47 trials performed to study whether meditation can reduce stress and stress-related health problems revealed that meditation has a positive impact on anxiety, depression, stress, mood, quality of life, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and pain.
And meditation has long been used in almost every culture in the world either as a way to relax or as part of a spiritual practice. It’s a foundational practice in yoga, Buddhist practices, prayer, and countless other rituals and ceremonies. “Because of meditation’s connection to spirituality, I find that many people are intimidated by the practice. They think that if nothing happens — if they reach no goal — they’re doing it ‘wrong,’ and they eventually give up,” says Shelley Heinz, a meditation instructor with 40 years’ experience. “But the reality is that it’s actually very simple, and anyone can do it. Shamatha meditation is not a particularly ‘religious’ practice — it’s simply a way to tame your mind. Anyone can benefit from giving themselves some time for their mind to settle. I told my daughters as they grew up that meditation is like brushing your teeth. Do it everyday to keep your mind strong and healthy.”
Meditation can give you wings, sure. But at its baseline, meditation is simply the act of intentionally bringing your awareness to something — anything at all. It could be during prayer; while you’re eating, running, or surfing; while you gaze at a campfire; or even just when you’re picking up a vegetable at the grocery store. Whatever you ask your mind to focus on is considered the object of meditation. You could use a candle or flowing water, or even a breeze blowing through grass. However, there is a simpler and more accessible object of meditation that most people can use anywhere without any special equipment: your own breath and body.
It has been said that “we are always meditating on something” — meaning that we are always placing our attention on something. In shamatha meditation, we place our attention on our gentle breathing, the solidity of our body, and the environment we are sitting in. Here’s how to begin:
1. Find a relatively quiet, clean space (so not in front of dirty laundry or a stack of papers that need your attention). Minimize distractions — put your phone away (in a different room if you have to). If you can, use a kitchen timer, your watch, or your stove timer, instead of your phone, to mark the five minutes.
2. Sit gently and comfortably on a chair or cushion in a relaxed and alert posture that you can maintain for five minutes or so.
3. Feel your body and the environment, eventually putting more emphasis on your natural, gentle breathing in and out.
4. Thoughts will come and go, but your “job”, so to speak, is to let them pass by without engaging in them.
5. When you realize that you’ve been “caught” by a thought, put emphasis on your body and breath, and eventually the thought will be less enticing. There’s no judgment in your space of meditation — whatever happens, happens. Simply notice what’s happening!
You are learning to become friends with your mind. Through this process, you are strengthening your natural ability to be in the present moment (mindfulness), and to be aware of what your mind is doing (awareness). This meditation practice is not designed to produce a particular state of mind, but rather to unearth the inherent ease and wakefulness of your mind — which everyone has.
As you become more familiar with the practice, you will be able to stay in the present for a longer time, and your awareness may become sharper, so that you are not so easily caught up in thought.
At the end of your session, you can thank yourself. This isn’t part of meditation specifically, but it certainly helps with positive reinforcement.
We asked Heinz what she would say to people who think they are not able to meditate for common reasons:
“This is a very common observation, and what is actually happening is that without constant distraction and entertainment, when we slow down a bit, we begin to notice how very busy our mind is. This is not because you are “doing it wrong” — in fact it’s very natural. This will change over time. And as with starting an exercise practice, the benefits will become more and more obvious as time goes on; otherwise, no one would continue to meditate!”
“You might actually be tired! Try to practice at the beginning of the day. Begin by simply taking note of all of your sense perceptions. Remember that meditation is actually good for you!”
“Yes, but boredom is actually good for your mind. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but there can be some sense of curiosity about your mind: for instance, ‘How strong is my ability to stay present?’ ‘What kinds of thoughts pull me out of the room and away from meditation?’ or ‘Can I see a thought coming before I’m caught up in it?’”
“When this happens, change your position and then be still, again. If your body isn’t comfortable, your mind won’t be able to relax either.”
“Distraction and unconscious avoiding are more likely the problems — not that you actually don’t have time. Everyone can fit five minutes in somewhere. Start slowly and make easy goals. Five minutes a day is better than one hour every other week. The great thing about meditation is that you can basically do it anywhere. Again, it’s a meditation practice. Once you get the hang of it, try doing it in different places and situations…. Someone told me a great trick they use to remind themselves to meditate. In the evening, they put a cloth over their computer, and in the morning, they do not allow themselves to take the cloth off until they have meditated for at least five minutes.”