By Stephanie Fairyington, Thrive Global Senior Staff Writer
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Thrive Global
Meditation is as ubiquitous as avocado toast. The ancient practice, long considered “New Agey,” has gone thoroughly mainstream, with new guided meditation apps and studios popping up constantly, more and more CEOs coming out as meditators, and a study on its benefits released seemingly every week.
The verdict on its value is clear: Meditation helps us deal with stress, it increases our empathy, it makes us more creative, and a study out of Emory found that it helps us return to a task more quickly after getting interrupted. Another study found lasting cognitive gains from meditation after a seven-year follow up.
Meditation, the practice of focusing your attention, is so widespread now that if you’ve never meditated, it can feel embarrassing to admit. And lonely. Am I the only meditation virgin out there?, you may wonder.
You’re not. While the number is steadily growing, only about 8 percent of Americans (26 million) have tried it. Meditation can seem difficult and inaccessible. And the popular notion that it demands we gut our brain of any thoughts seems impossible. Even the practice of sitting still in our busy, buzzing bodies can feel daunting… and anxiety-producing. “I find myself scared to meditate and feel a lot of resistance to it — my pulse will rise even thinking about it,” Andy Puddicombe wrote in a column for the meditation company he co-founded, Headspace.
“Most of us live in our heads, in our thoughts, in our to-do lists, in our worries, in our futures,” renowned meditation expert and author of the best-selling Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life, Agapi Stassinopoulos, tells Thrive Global. Meditation asks us to be present in the moment, but our bustling brians are going to react adversely to slowing down, at first. “It’s like asking a car that’s been driving in fifth gear to suddenly park. The car is going to say, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t know how to do that.’”
Even masters of the ancient practice admit that it can be challenging. The Dalai Lama, who regularly starts his meditation at 3:00 a.m. each day, told CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, M.D., “After doing daily for 60 years, it is still hard.”
But some contest the notion that meditating should be difficult, like Light Watkins, the internationally recognized meditation expert who wrote Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying. If anything, Watkins believes it should be wholly energizing and uplifting.
Before he arrived at his practice, which he poignantly calls E.A.S.Y. (Embrace, Accept, Surrender, and Yield), for years, Watkins wondered: “If meditation was so good for you, why was it so hard to do?” Once he shed the false assumptions that he must sit uncomfortably (legs crossed in a sitting position on the ground, which hurt his hips) and try to control, or actively observe, his ever-meandering thoughts, his more relaxed practice — sitting quietly in a comfortable position while his mind wanders freely — improved his sleep, gym stamina, and immunity to sickness, and skyrocketed his life satisfaction. “The more I practiced the technique, the easier it became, and the more convinced I was that this meditation was single-handedly responsible for boosting my happiness, productivity and creativity,” Watkins writes.
Watkins and Stassinopoulos sat down with Thrive Global to illuminate the practice in its simplest and most enjoyable form so beginners and yes, meditation virgins, can reap its ample rewards:
Meditate in the morning
Watkins recommends meditating in the morning rather than the evening because the practice gives us the energy we need to actualize our fullest potential and truest selves. “Meditation is the basis for action, not for sleep,” he says. Watkins recommends sitting 15 minutes daily, but if that feels too daunting, start at five minutes a day and work your way up.
Find your sweet spot
You don’t need to sit with our backs ramrod straight and our legs uncomfortably folded like those iconic representations of the Buddha. “That position is not necessary to achieve the desired result, which is a settled mind, one that is less anxious and stressed,” Watkins says. Instead, opt for a comfortable position, like you’re sitting on the couch to watch television, he suggests. But you must be distraction-free, where no animals or kids can trip into your lap, Watkins jokes. That doesn’t mean your environment needs to be noise-free. Our cars, workstations, even our beds are fine places to meditate, he says.
Stassinopoulos encourages us to start small — five deep breaths in the morning and five deep breaths at night. Over four counts, inhale through your nose, filling up your lungs and lower belly. Then, exhale on four counts.
At first, it may feel awkward because we’re so accustomed to taking short, shallow breaths that mirror the gasping (stress-inducing) pace of our busy lives. “They’re surviving, not thriving, breaths,” Stassinopoulos says. But the rewards for even the smallest effort — one deep breath — are huge. “One conscious breath alone can reset the brain and shift you into being more present with yourself,” she promises.
Alternatively, you can just breathe regularly — passively notice your breath, like being aware of a light on in the room, but don’t let it absorb your focus, Watkins says — for 15 minutes every morning. That sounds like a lot, but Watkins explains: “Once people taste how it feels, they want to do it more than 15 minutes,” he says.
Meditating can also revolve around one thought or idea, such as gratitude. So you might close your eyes and silently contemplate what you’re grateful for. “Begin with gratitude for the miracle of our bodies,” Stassinopoulos urges. Connect to the awe and wonder of our existence, which science shows can have a positive transformational impact on us. “Your body operates beyond your conscious awareness,” she says, pointing out that our hearts remarkably beat about 100,000 times per day and we take more than 20,000 breaths per day without having to spend a single second thinking about it — an astonishing feat of nature. Several studies demonstrate that gratitude increases our hope and happiness too, so take a conscious moment to recognize and affirm what you’re grateful.
Don’t resist your “monkey mind”
You’ll often hear edicts to non-judgmentally observe your thoughts as they bubble up during your meditation and release them. Waktins discounts this advice, arguing that we shouldn’t observe, notice, witness, let go of — or do anything else that might “turn up the volume on your thoughts.” He suggests we treat our thoughts like water we swim through: “When you’re swimming, you don’t need to observe, notice or let go of the water. You move in concert with the water. If you fight it, you’re going to drown,” he jokes. Embracing the process of thinking — without exercising any form of resistance or restraint — will gradually begin to settle your mind, he says.
Research shows that the payoff of consistently meditating (even as little as 10 minutes a day over a 16 week period, according to one study) improves attention and reduces stress. “You’ll start to feel relaxed and connected and you’ll start to long for it. You’ll think, ‘I got to get back to my sweet spot,’” Stassinopoulos says. Meditation virgins, take note: It’s literally as easy as taking one conscious breath.