Sometimes I feel like the stereotype of the snake oil salesperson as I tout the benefits of meditation. It reduces anxiety, depression and physical pain. It increases concentration and creativity. With regular practice, relationships and self-regulation of intense emotions are improved. Even memory gets a boost. It would seem that there really isn't a difficulty that can't be helped with meditation.
Unlike snake oil, though, meditation has plenty of research to support benefit claims. The biggest challenge is this: you have to do it. When people tell me that they can't meditate, their reasons are usually one of these: "My mind is too busy," or, "I can't sit still." If you're one of these folks, I have a few prescriptions for you to try.
For those with busy minds:
Yes, our minds are very busy. The brain's job is to think, think and think. However, we tend to over-utilize the analytic function. When our minds are overstimulated, thoughts can become repetitive, like the proverbial broken record. Try one or two of these solutions:
- Try one two-minute dose of watching your thoughts.
Set a timer for two minutes and pay attention to what thoughts arise. Watching your thoughts engages a different part of the brain, and your brain waves slow down. I imagine my thoughts are like popcorn randomly popping. By observing my thoughts and then waiting to see which will pop up next, I start to relax. You might prefer imagining a rushing stream or floating clouds. The point is to enjoy your thoughts instead of fighting them or dwelling on them.
- Meditate when your thoughts are naturally slower.
When I awake in the morning, my mind is racing. For someone else this might be the quietest time. I still meditate every morning, because it sets a great tone for the day. But I find an afternoon meditation or an evening meditation takes me into a deeper state. Try different times of the day until you find what's easiest.
- Give your mind a focus.The Ericksonian Institute teaches one of my favorite techniques. Begin with your eyes open. Pick seven objects at different locations in the room. Focus on one object, then on another. Keep moving your focus until you've seen each object. Repeat this until you feel your eyelids getting heavy. Then simply meditate on the feeling of heaviness.
For those who can't sit still:
The reason most of us can't sit still is because we have lots of energy that doesn't get used in our daily lives. Perhaps your ancestors were farmers or physical laborers, and you sit behind a desk. Many folks with this kind of excess energy choose to exercise. In fact, I hear, "Exercise is my meditation." Yes, it does quiet the mind and relax the body. However, if you'd like to go beyond those benefits, I suggest you learn to sit quietly with yourself.
- Use your workout to prepare you for meditation.
After you go for a run, play your favorite sport or take an aerobics class, sit quietly and feel what is going on inside your body. I love to do this. My breathing slows down and my muscles soften. There's a pleasant sensation of energy moving through my body. I lie down on a mat after teaching a spinning class and lead my students into five minutes of relaxation. If you take yoga classes, you'll recognize this as Shivasana.
- Allow your body to move while meditating.
If you absolutely can't sit still, even after a workout, try allowing your torso to sway side to side or rock back and forth. You can also do this with your head. Move it up and down or lower your right ear toward your right shoulder and then your left ear to your left shoulder. The rhythm of these motions can be very soothing and lead your mind and body to shift into a quieter state.
- Sit cross-legged on the floor.I find that sitting cross-legged either on a wide-seated chair or on the floor takes me out of my usual routine and shouts to me, "You're going to meditate now!" My legs become engaged in an active, completely different way. There is work going on in my thighs, calves and hips, and that effort exhausts some of the excess energy. I also associate sitting on the floor with my childhood. So, there's a shift to feeling younger and more flexible, physically and mentally.
A small dose of meditation every day can help whatever ails you. However, keep your expectations realistic. Why is it that we think we can sit down, close our eyes and immediately be transported to another dimension? That's like saying that you can hit a hole-in-one on the golf course, or serve an ace on the tennis court, every time you play. Give yourself some time to develop the skill and find what works best for you. In meditation we are spending time with ourselves in the most intimate way. This may be uncomfortable; that's why small doses can be helpful in the beginning. The good news is that meditation teaches us to have patience with ourselves, and then our best selves can emerge. Whatever your goals are, meditation can take you closer to them.
For more than 20 years, Susan Morales, M.S.W. has explored human behavior through her work as a psychotherapist, and as a student/practitioner of meditation. In addition to using meditation as a device to help clients with issues of anxiety and depression, she offers classes and retreats to women in substance abuse recovery. She developed Be Who You Love Meditation as a method to teach people how to find greater depth of satisfaction in their lives. She blogs on meditation for annarbor.com and Red Room, and was on the editorial board for The Voice of Social Workers: Poets and Writers, a journal recently published by the Michigan chapter of NASW.