Could you set aside 10 minutes to sit still every day, for 21 days? That’s the challenge renowned mind-body healer Deepak Chopra issued online for the first time last fall. And it proved to be so popular that Chopra’s 21-Day Meditation Challenge has since become a seasonal event, attracting more than 70,000 Zen seekers from around the globe.
Born in India, Chopra embarked on a career as an endocrinologist in the U.S. before shifting his focus to alternative medicine. While his practice is rooted in both Eastern traditions and Western science, he is best known for an approach to healing that emphasizes the connection between body, mind and spirit. One of those approaches is meditation, a practice he sought to demystify through the Challenge.
“Meditation is the natural tendency of your mind when you’re really doing nothing,” Chopra tells his followers. “If you sit down, close your eyes and do absolutely nothing, after a while your mind will settle down and go into its natural state, which is one of silence.” The most important thing, he says, is that anyone can do it — and the health benefits are both immediate and long-term.
Fast track to inner peace
The goal of the 21-Day Meditation Challenge is to make meditation accessible to people everywhere, says Kyla Stinnett, communications editor for the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California. “You don’t have to be a monk in a cave meditating for 30 years to see how the practice can benefit your overall well-being,” she says. “Just 10 or 20 minutes a day can have a lot of benefits — and you can get some of those benefits with your first meditation.”
Based on the belief that it takes about 21 days of consistent behaviour to create a new habit, the Challenge teaches people how to make meditation part of their daily routines. It’s led by Davidji, dean of the Chopra Center University, and is conducted in cyberspace. Participants sign up online (it’s free) to receive daily email notifications and meditation audio guides, and can journal their experiences online.
Ann Dunnewold, a Dallas-based psychologist, decided to try the 21-Day Meditation Challenge when she heard about it from a friend. “We have a hectic pace of life here in Dallas, and I was looking for a way to slow that down and cope with the stresses of what I do day in and day out, listening to other people’s problems,” she says. She found having a daily coaching session helped her stay motivated, and she finished the Challenge feeling calmer and less reactive to the stresses around her.
Now Dunnewold meditates in the mornings and has recommended the practice to some of her patients, especially for anxiety and stress. Although she’s trained as a psychologist to help clients with relaxation skills, she finds meditation works on a different level because of the spiritual aspect. “I think it’s really important for people who are figuring out their life’s purpose,” she says.
For some, meditation is a tool for living a more peaceful, focused and content existence; for others, it’s the answer to dealing with the stresses of everyday life, or even tackling the compulsions that drive unhealthy behaviour, such as addiction. Recent research suggests meditation also helps relieve symptoms of depression.
“Engaging people in contemplative and reflective meditation — instructing them to ask themselves: ‘What do I really want to do with my life? What’s my contribution? What kind of environment do I want to create around myself ? What kind of relationships do I want to have?’ — may actually cause the brain to rewire itself,” says Chopra. And science backs him up. In a recent study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles used MRIs to compare the brains of people who meditate with the brains of those who don’t. They discovered that areas of the brain that regulate emotions are larger and more developed in people who meditate regularly.
The health benefits of meditation are wide-ranging, says Nirmala Raniga, who recently opened the Paradise Valley Wellness Centre in Squamish, B.C. (the only Chopra-partnered centre in Canada), to treat patients suffering from addiction and trauma. Health issues ranging from insomnia, high blood pressure, chronic pain and respiratory difficulties to anxiety and depression have all been effectively treated with the help of meditation, she says.
“Our minds experience a continuous inner dialogue. And meditation helps reduce the chatter and creates awareness so you can be more present in what’s going on around you,” says Raniga.
Raniga says she notices a big difference on days she doesn’t make time for meditation: “My day goes much better and more smoothly when I meditate.” Just another reason to make it as much a part of your routine as exercise, she adds. “You don’t exercise monthly, so why meditate only once a month when you know the benefits are there every day?” And that’s where taking the 21- Day Meditation Challenge can help.
Taking the challenge
The benefits of meditation build each day you practise, Raniga says. “And if people commit to 21 days, then they have a practice they can come back to.” During the Challenge, participants receive daily guides that are a doable 10 to 12 minutes long; and over the 21 days they get a chance to try a variety of types of meditation (mantra meditation, breath meditation or chakra meditation, for example) to see which resonates best with them.
Generally, the first step of the Challenge involves learning how to enter a state of “restful awareness,” where your body is resting and physically relaxed and your mind is awake but quiet. Easier said than done. But when you focus on your breathing and use the in-and-out flow of air as an attention anchor to guide your mind away from thinking, it actually does get easier every time. And if you do find yourself thinking, just don’t dwell on it, Davidji tells his followers. “Don’t try to stop your thoughts or block them. Instead, view them like clouds; let them come…let them go.”
Just that simple exercise alone is an instant stress reliever. And once you’ve mastered it, the next steps in the Challenge help you progress to things like learning how to be easier on yourself, how to let go of non-nurturing thoughts and habits, how to get rid of feelings of negativity, how to embrace happiness and forgiveness and how to develop an overall intention that you can direct your energy toward.
The final stages of the Challenge incorporate a discussion of dharma — essentially, helping you understand your overall purpose in life and the ways in which you can use your unique talents to help other people. According to Davidji, completing the Challenge means you’ve set a new, more positive trajectory for your life. It may lead to a more peaceful and contented outlook, or even to a deeper understanding that everything in the universe is connected. Either way, after 21 days you’ll be more mindful and less stressed and will have a greater sense of patience, compassion, awareness and balance. And that’s definitely something that’s worth sitting still for.