Want to know the number one reason more people don’t meditate? They simply believe they don’t know how. Or they think they’re doing it wrong. One of the most common complaints from meditation-phobes is that they’re easily distracted: They sit down and close their eyes, and all they can think about is their job or what they’re going to have for dinner or the fight they just had with their partner. So they give up. But just because you don’t achieve a completely blank mind doesn’t mean you aren’t meditating, says Dr. Lucinda Sykes, director of the Meditation for Health clinic in Toronto. “Dealing with distractions is part of the experience. It doesn’t mean you’re failing,” she says.
In fact, simply observing that you’re thinking about other things is a form of success. “If the mind is very busy, tell yourself ‘That’s what I’m aware of right now,’ ” she says. “It doesn’t mean your practice is flawed or weak.” One of the most challenging aspects of meditation for today’s Type A society is the feeling that we have to “get somewhere,” says Dr. Susan Abbey, a psychiatrist with the University Health Network in Toronto, who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to people with serious illnesses. “But the most dramatic results come from not striving at all,” she says. It’s best to just let what’s happening happen. “Observe your thoughts rather than becoming embroiled in them. And let go of expectations of what meditation will do, or not do, for you,” says Abbey. “If you know where your mind is — even if it’s somewhere else — you’re doing it right.”
How meditation helps
Meditation’s main purpose is to help people “tune in and sense experience and really be present with themselves,” says Dr. Paul Kelly, a psychologist and founder of the Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto. The majority of his clients are dealing with anxiety and depression, but there are physical benefits to the practice as well.
“There’s evidence that if you’ve had a heart attack, and you can reduce stress and depression, your odds of having another heart attack go down.” Research has shown that meditation can help with chronic pain, stress and anxiety, too, says Sykes, as well as substance disorders and addiction. “The whole body is influenced when we meditate,” she says.
“I discovered meditation during university as a way to slow down my restless mind,” says Tanya McGinnity, a Montrealer who blogs about her life at Fullcontactenlightenment.com. “I was suffering from panic attacks and insomnia and wanted to find a non-medicinal way to heal and relax.” She found a regular relaxation practice improved her condition. “It has helped me step out of the drama that I used to find myself thriving on.”
One of the most common ways for people to be introduced to meditation is via yoga. This moving form of meditation links poses to breath and encourages participants to focus on the sound of their breathing. The miracle of listening to your breath is that you can’t think about anything else. Of course, yoga is far from the only way to practise the technique. “Try different approaches and see what resonates for you,” says Abbey. For instance, some people respond well to visualization, some to mantra-based work and others to a physical or movement-based style of meditation.
And remember, there’s a reason it’s called a practice. “Meditation is a learned skill,” says Kelly. “The point isn’t to just relax for half an hour, and forget about it. That’s good to do, but the goal is to help people live well in their lives, even when they’re not meditating.”
Here are some quick, easy techniques to try
1. Watch your breath. “Even small time commitments—five, seven, 10 minutes a day—can bring significant results,” says Abbey. She suggests the following five-minute breathing exercise to help relax and focus the mind:
Five-minute breathing meditation
1. Sit comfortably in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Dim the lights if you think that will help you focus.
2. Close your eyes and listen to your breath: How does it sound as you breathe in and out? How does your body feel? Breathe evenly and deeply.
3. If your mind wanders, label what it’s doing (“I’m thinking about a future event — tonight’s plans”), then let it go and bring your attention back to your breath.
4. Bring your focus back to your breath every time your mind goes elsewhere.
2. Pay attention to the moment. “Not all relaxation has to happen on a yoga mat or cushion,” says McGinnity. “I take time at lunch to go for a walk, look at the trees and breathe. I even try to be mindful while eating and make a point of savouring my food.” Abbey agrees, noting that being present in each moment can help us make wiser decisions. “Try to do activities and really be with them,” she says. “When you have a shower, be in the shower, feel the water on your body and the products you’re using, rather than focusing on what you’re going to talk about with a colleague later in the day.”
3. Try a little kindness. Upset with your boss or disappointed with your kids? Learning to feel compassion for yourself and others is “one of the simplest, most powerful lessons that meditation offers,” says psychologist Chris Germer, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who lectures internationally on mindfulness and self-compassion. One popular form of compassion meditation is called loving-kindness, where practitioners repeat a silent script several times. “It can help create a new frame of mind in difficult situations,” says Germer. He suggests this simple mantra to get started:
Guided meditation for loving-kindness
1. Put your hands on your heart. Feel the body heat and the chest rising and falling.
2. Say a few phrases to yourself, such as “May I be kind to myself and others,” “May I give myself the compassion that I need” or “May I be happy.” Or try this mantra from Toronto-based psychotherapist Nancy Dranitsaris:
May I be filled with peace, love and compassion.
May I accept myself unconditionally.
May I wish safety, health, love and peace for myself and all living creatures.
May I allow love to flow to me and to flow through me.
May I wish myself and all living things to be free of pain, suffering and mental or physical distress.
3. Repeat the mantra three to five times. “Loving-kindness is about responding to stress with goodwill instead of self-criticism,” says Germer. Now that’s a mantra we can all use, every day of our lives!