Meditation is a simple and underrated way of dealing with anxiety. You can do it anywhere, any time, in private or in public. And it’s free! You can turn to it when you’re going through a tough time, or use it to learn more about yourself when everything’s fine and dandy.
I still struggle with meditation even though I’ve practiced it on and off for a few years now. That’s the first thing I want to share with you: that it’s totally OK to struggle, not just in the beginning, but throughout your practice, however many minutes or months it lasts. Most of us lead busy lives where multitasking is the norm, so it’s natural that switching off can seem impossible or overwhelming.
So let’s get to it! If you’ve never done this before, find a quiet space where you know you won’t be disturbed. Your room, a sunny patch in your local park, or even your bathtub (my mom’s favorite spot to do her breathing exercises) are all perfect. Feel free to lock the door or let your family/roommates know that you’re about to do some meditating, so you’d be grateful if they didn’t disturb you.
Turn your phone on silent and put it on airplane mode. I do this so that I’m not tempted to take a peek at it if I get distracted. Next, set an alarm on your phone for however long you want your first session to be. I recommend starting with 15 minutes, but if this sounds like it’s too long you can go for seven or 10. You can add a minute or two onto your practice every day.
Put your phone away, far away enough from you that it’s not within reach. Sit in a cross-legged position, if that’s comfortable. If you’re knees are higher up than your hips, grab a pillow and shove that under your butt. Feeling comfortable and physically at peace is one of the most important aspects of the practice because if your mind is fixated on the itchiness of the rug under your feet or the fact that your knees are aching, you’re probably going to have a harder time letting your mind go. If you have back problems, you can sit cross-legged with your back against the wall.
Take a deep breath and close your eyes. You should be sitting upright with your shoulders back, your head straight, and your palms on your knees (they can be facing up or down). This will inspire confidence and a feeling of positivity, like you can definitely tackle the challenge you’re about to take on!
As you sit there, the goal is not to judge yourself for having thoughts, but just to notice them pass through your mind. It’s 100% normal for lots of jumbled ideas to blitz through your mind at 100 miles per hour, but instead of judging yourself for your “monkey mind,” just note that part of you is preoccupied or stressed. As one of my teachers likes to say, “It’s not good or bad; it just is.” Don’t expend energy on thinking about what you’re thinking about. You can’t control your thoughts: you can only control how you react to them.
You’ll inevitably think about things that happened to you that day, stuff you need to get done, and any issues you’re dealing with that week. You’ll probably also do some time traveling and find memories or future plans coming up. This is all part of the experience, but try to cultivate distance between yourself and your thoughts: they are not one and the same. You can notice your train of thought without deciding to get on board.
The more you practice, the more you’ll come to realize that most of your thoughts are either about the past or the future, and that you actually spend very little time concentrating on the moment in front of you. That’s why it’s so important to focus on your breath: It reminds you that you are alive and that that is beautiful in itself. It might sound clichéd, but if we never train our minds to just be—if we’re constantly planning for the future or remembering the past—when are we ever going to be able to enjoy anything fully?
When you meditate regularly, you come to notice not just how often you mentally time travel, but also how often everyone else engages in it. How many of your text messages or real life conversations are about the present? So much of the energy we expend, both alone and with others, is about everything except the present. When you think about it that way, it’s pretty special to carve out some time to yourself where you can just be.
So, as you sit there, listen to your breath rise and fall. Feel the air enter through your nose, down into your throat, and from there, into your lungs and stomach. Then pay attention to it as it leaves your body. If you’re a visual person, you can imagine that your breath is a neon light or that it has a texture to it. Use your power of imagination to stay in the moment.
Ideally, you’ll stay focused on your breath for the whole practice, and this will help you enter a state of no-mind, where you’re not really you anymore—you’re not anything. Another one of my teacher’s favorite quotes: “In meditation, there is no meditater.” For most people, this is a really hard place to get to. You might be one of the lucky few who can drop into it straight away, but you’ll probably find it challenging when you do your first (few) practice(s).
It’s more likely that you’ll experience a minute or two in which you’re entirely focused on your breath. The rest of the time, you may go on a journey with your brain and find yourself thinking about all kinds of random stuff. There will always be a moment during your daydreams, though, when you remember where you are, and that it’s your breath you should be focusing on. When that happens, bring yourself gently back to your inhalation and start again. This distraction is part of the process!
If you want to get more into meditation, I would suggest trying out a few classes. Being guided by a teacher when you’re first starting out is a handy way to figure out how you can carry out your own self-practice. The more you get used to someone reminding you to pay attention to your breath, the more likely it is to become a reflexive thought when you’re alone.
Sounds easy, right? “Sit there and think about your breathing.” But it’s easier said than done! Like most rewarding things in life, meditation is the kind of thing that becomes easier with practice, and it’s especially effective when you do it every day, so I would encourage you not just to try it once, but to give it a longer shot. What happens when you practice for 10 minutes every morning? Have a go for just a week, and see whether it makes a difference in your general mindset.
The great thing is that eventually you’ll be able to focus on your breathing even when you’re in the middle of stressful situations, like a driving test or a fight with a friend. It’s a skill that will permeate all areas of your life and make you feel more at peace even when you’re not actively sitting down and trying to feel that way. It’ll put you in touch with the moment and remind you of how amazing it is than we are here, now, on this strange and beautiful planet of ours. Good luck! ♦