I will fully admit that I am no expert on meditation. But then again, most of us aren’t. Monks train full-time for years to be good at meditation. Just like I shouldn’t be surprised that Lebron is going to dunk on me when I’m not practicing basketball (okay, he’d probably dunk on me no matter how much I practiced), I shouldn’t be surprised if meditation isn’t immediately yielding monk-like results on my first try—or even my twentieth.
For real, clearing your brain is difficult! I was focusing so hard on clearing my brain that when a thought would come in, I would be stressed that I was thinking when I was supposed to be clearing, dammit! Then I would think about thinking, and then I would think about how circular it was. Then I would think about the huge pile of laundry waiting, whether I remembered my daughter’s permission slip, and why don’t we know if there is life on other planets and…oops, there I go again. Ugh! Eventually, I realized that my mind will never be clear. Neither will yours! Mediation isn’t about an empty mind, but rather a focused mind. It is about focusing on something specific. Whether it is a mantra, a fantasy, or a goal, the goal of meditation is simply to focus.
Before I understood what meditation really was, I complained to a particularly good meditation instructor that I found meditation nearly impossible. She smiled and patiently explained said that while we may feel uncomfortable at first and that we may think it’s impossible to stop our “monkey minds” from chattering away, meditation is highly effective for cleaning up old, accumulated stress. The trick is to keep practicing it and trust that you’ll get better in time.
She also stressed the importance of finding something that works for you. You don’t need to meditate in the lotus position. There are plenty of other forms of meditation that you may find more enjoyable. The goal is to put yourself in a space where you’re not overthinking and worrying. Here are a few suggestions I like:
- Picture a trunk that holds all your old stressors, dating back to your first memories. Open it up, and put the day’s stress inside. By making this a regular practice, you’re not only shaking off the stress of that day and finding somewhere to put it, but you’re giving yourself an opportunity to let a little bit of old stress out.
- Or you can use my newer more positive version of the trunk exercise. Imagine putting all of the awesome things about today in a big beautifully decorated trunk. From the way the sun shone through the clouds to the funny text you got to the compliment from a friend, it is a place to store all of your wins in a safe place so you can take them out anytime you need an extra boost of sunshine.
- Download a guided meditation app. Find a pleasing voice that allows you to focus on their words, listen to the music, and follow along. Many of these apps are designed around progressive guided meditation techniques that take you through a series of relaxation messages to help you unwind your physical tension.
- Exercise, whether it’s walking, jogging, or lifting weights, can put me in a meditative space.
- Practice yoga or swimming. Both require you to focus on your breathing and be mindful of your surroundings.
- Create a soundtrack for your life. Movies tell us how to feel by the background music. You always know when you should be feeling romantic or when the shark is about to sneak up and bite your butt. Make an energetic playlist for exercise, a mellow playlist for bedtime, or a stress-release playlist when you feel like you’re at your wits’ end.
Music is remarkably effective for altering your feelings and mindset. Use it to your advantage. Sing loudly in the car—anywhere else where you aren’t worried about people staring at you. Dance a little while you’re at it. I also listen to a podcasts, satellite radio, audio books, and a comedy channel. Remember to be flexible. Your preferences are likely to change both over time and throughout the course of the day.
Mantras are another great brain hack! If you only have five minutes of downtime, repeating your favorite mantra can be a great way of calming your mind and relieving stress. Just take a deep breath, say your mantra, and repeat. Here are three of my favorite mantras to help get you started.
- “Resilience is a muscle!” You aren’t born with a fixed amount that gets used up. Everything you do toward self-care and stress management helps your resilience muscle get stronger and stronger. Make specific efforts to grow this, like a bodybuilder building biceps, so your resilience muscle is strong enough to bear the load of any stressor that comes your way
- “My brain is my bitch.” Your brain believes what you tell it. If you tell it that everything sucks and the sky is falling, it will believe you and oblige with the appropriate sympathetic response. If you tell your brain “I’ve got this” and “let’s go bring on the awesomeness,” it will believe you and give you the positive energy you need to conquer the world. Be mindful of this and take full advantage of your brainpower!
- “Who am I not to?” This mantra is the shortened version of a powerful quote by Marianne Williamson, abridged here: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened abut shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. As we let our own light shine we unanimously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I use the “Who am I not to?” mantra all the time with patients wondering who they are to “health up”—and I used it for myself more than once while writing this book. But that particular mantra connects with me; yours might be different. Whatever mantra you choose, you need to hear it, see it, and say it frequently for your brain to absorb and fully integrate it. Repetition is the key to learning. Write your mantra on a sticky note and put it on your desk, steering wheel, and refrigerator. Write it with a marker on your bathroom mirror. Say it at every stoplight. You can even use your mantra as your computer password so you are typing it every day.
The above is an excerpt from Habit That!: How You Can Health Up in Just 5 Minutes a Day by Dr. Jaime Hope; Lion’s Crest Publishing, 2018; All Rights Reserved