It’s taken years to convince myself to do meditation on a daily basis. I would make up excuses like, “I don’t have enough time,” or “I don’t know how to shut off my thoughts,” so what’s the point?! As if the benefits of meditation weren’t enough, specifically its effects on depression, chronic pain, and anxiety. Thousands of studies have been conducted, but one, in particular, caught my eye.
Gaelle Desbordes performed functional MRI scans before and after an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT. During the scans, participants from two groups would complete two tests. One control group has taken the MBCT course, while the other has undergone muscle relaxation training + depression education. The first test encourages participants to become aware of their bodies by focusing on their heartbeat; this is directly correlated to mindfulness meditation. The second test required them to reflect on negative thoughts or phrases, such as “I am a loser” or “I can’t go on”. They are then told to stop thinking about these negative phrases in order to see how long it takes patients to recover or disengage from those thoughts. This is very difficult for a patient who is already depressed.
Deborde’s hypothesis was that the training would boost body awareness in the moment, known as interoception, which, by focusing their attention on the here and now, would allow participants to break the cycle of self-rumination. Her studies are not completed as of yet, due to COVID, but the MRI scans have shown that after the 8 weeks of MBCT training, the amygdala was less activated vs. the other control group.
All that being said, I was intrigued and curious about how meditation could help me but knew I had to stick to it rather than just sprinkle it into my routine. Here are the 5 main things I incorporated into my daily routine to make sure my meditation habit stuck for good!
Download an App
There are so many free apps and courses online now, that you can likely have 3 on your phone and cycle through them all. Some examples of apps I’ve been liking lately are: Calm, The mindfulness app, Sattva, Insight Timer, and 10% happier.
I personally use Insight Timer because I can do a silent, seated meditation using their timer OR I can do a guided meditation. You can choose meditations based on how much time you have, or more specific topics like improving your sleep, managing stress, learning how to meditate, forgiveness, and more. You can even set up a reminder on the app for a specific time you like to meditate, and I especially like the Do Not Disturb feature!
Consistency is the key to meditation!
Studies show that consistent meditation can help dampen activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it. This way, we can think before we act, but also pick ourselves up quickly when we fall down.
“[In mindfulness meditation] There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.” – Forbes
Consistency can mean different things to different people. Some may like to do the same meditation every day for a few weeks, months, or even a year. I personally like to set my alarm and do it at 8 am every morning and I choose a different meditation each day. You could do an afternoon or evening meditation too if you find it helps you to relax before bed. Just like all of the most important activities in your life are scheduled (meals, meetings, errands, chores, kids activities), meditation can also be included in your daily routine!
Journal or take notes
Not all meditations are alike. In fact, some are really tough to sit through. Some of the hardest meditations for me have been over 2 hours long. It’s super uncomfortable. Period. It doesn’t necessarily get easier. Your meditations will vary from day to day. Keeping track of how you feel daily can help you to have a more unified awareness of yourself.
You don’t need to write how you feel before, but keep it in mind for after your meditation. Notice how the meditation made you feel. Maybe you enjoyed it and felt better afterward. Keep track of the things that you would want to try again, such as breathing exercises or guided meditation, so that you know what will work for you in the future.
These notes do not have to be long-winded or detailed. They can be brief and to the point like: “Mindfulness of Breathing. 25 minutes. Had a hard time staying focused. Nodded off to sleep a few times — hadn’t had enough sleep. Felt a bit despondent.” Notes like these can help to remind you to go easier on yourself the next time, rather than judge yourself by using the word “despondent”.
Keep in mind that you may start to drift in your meditation and begin thinking about what you want to write afterward. Let go of those thoughts when you recognize them. There is no right or wrong. Just be.
Seated is one of the many ways you can meditate. I tend to do a 15-minute seated meditation each morning, but sometimes, I need to switch it up. Some days, I will meditate for 5 minutes, and then throughout the day, find little things that I know help me focus or keep me mindful. Today, for example, I felt a random burst of energy. I went for a mid-day walk/run, which I know is an activity that keeps me grounded throughout the day. Others may choose to write in a journal (gratitude, bullet, freewriting, goals, etc.). Some find yoga more calming, as it fuses movement with mindfulness. Keeping your mind open to new forms of meditation is key, as there will be days you simply do not want to sit still.
Charles A. Francis, co-founder, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute says that “Meditation, in the simplest form, is just sitting quietly and giving our mind a rest. Just as an athlete trains the body, a meditator trains the mind.” This does not mean it is the only way to meditate! Meditation does not need to be seated in silence on a meditation cushion. Many of us live in a fast-paced society and do not have complete control of our environment. In the past, I’ve had to meditate while walking, sitting on the subway, or even at a park while a soccer game was going on behind me. You can’t always choose your ideal location or situation, but you can take control of your own practice and make the most of it with what you’ve got!
Thoughts are not the enemy
Thoughts will most likely cycle through your head throughout your meditation. They may even stick around for a while. The trick is not to fight the thoughts, as they will come and go regardless. Welcome them! Francis recommends letting go of all tension in the body before concentrating on ridding your thoughts. Find a focal point. Whenever thoughts arise, bring your attention back to whatever point of focus you’ve chosen.
Letting go of expectations is tough because we are told that meditation is a silent and calming practice when in reality, it can be quite the opposite. Sometimes, the thoughts that come into our heads are simply a grocery list or a plan of what you might eat for lunch. They can also be quite scary or traumatic for some people. This is normal, and it’s common for these thoughts to be on your mind. Meditation is not necessarily the act of “not thinking”. Thinking is not the same as Monkey’s mind, which is a Buddhist term meaning unsettled, restless, indecisive, and uncontrollable. Using breath and mindfulness can help to move these thoughts along, whether they are helpful thoughts or not. In your 5 minute meditation, they are likely not very helpful.
Meditation is an accessible way to calm the mind, help you focus, and bring attention to things that perhaps you missed when you were not taking the time to sit in mindfulness practice. Let us know if you currently meditate or have been thinking of trying it out. Try out some free apps and tell us in the comments below which worked best for you or if you are still struggling to make meditation a daily habit!