The brain is the part of the body where meditation really works its magic.
Meditation teaches one to cope with negative emotions and practice viewing heightened emotions as passing states — teaching you how to recognize and respond to your feelings rather than instantly reacting to them. This not only changes our mindset and perspective but it also physically alters our brains, rewiring them toward more positive thoughts and emotions.
How does it work? Meditation can decrease negative neurological connections to the medial prefrontal cortex – or the “me center” of the brain – dampening traits such as fear, stress, and anxiety. Alternatively, it also builds new positive neurological connections to the parts of the brain responsible for promoting traits like focus and decision-making.
In a study conducted by John Hopkins University, researchers found general meditation programs helped ease psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain related to stress. Another study showed that 30 days of a continued meditation practice resulted in an 11% increase in mental resilience. Additionally, many people who meditate regularly have learned to condition their bodies to relax on demand.
Learning to meditate is like learning any other skill.
Think of it like exercising a muscle that you’ve never really worked out before. It takes consistent practice to get comfortable. Remember: there’s no such thing as perfect meditation. Sometimes your focus will wander or you’ll forget to follow your breath. That’s OK. It’s part of the experience. What’s most important is to meditate consistently.
While it’s one of those things where the journey is more important than the destination, it can be hard to know where to start. Below are some tips for beginning a mindful practice:
First, you don’t need to meditate for hours. You don’t even have to last 20 minutes, tbh. For many first-time meditators, doing nothing other than sitting quietly with your thoughts can feel (and sound) totally strange. Instead, aim for shorter chunks of time and build from there. (60 seconds is a good starting point) You can even do it while drinking your morning coffee – coupling it with something you already do daily will ensure you won’t forget while practicing in the a.m. will start your day off on the right (read: calmer, more centered) foot.
Find a spot and just sit there for a while. You can practice on the floor, on a cushion – as long as you’re in a position that is comfortable and will help you remain attentive. Once you find a location that works, make it your go-to zone so that your body and mind start to associate it with meditation time. But this isn’t an excuse to avoid meditating on the days you can’t practice in your place. Remember, you can meditate anywhere from your bedroom to the bus, so it’s important to be flexible too.
Don’t necessarily search for silent spaces. I know what you’re thinking: But shouldn’t meditation be quiet? That’s a myth, says Andy Puddicombie, meditation and mindfulness expert and co-founder of meditation app Headspace. “Never be put off from meditation with the amount of noise around you, even when you’re a beginner,” he says. Some people actually prefer meditating in busier places (like while waiting in line at Starbucks), so don’t be afraid to try different things out to see which works for you – because meditation is all about what’s going on inside of you, not your surroundings.
Definitely don’t force it. “When you try really hard to go to sleep, you only move further away from sleeping. So, if you try to make, say, relaxation happen when you meditate, you will get anxious and frustrated”, says Puddicombie. The more you practice, the less you’ll feel compelled to force yourself to chill. For those who get easily distracted and have a “restless” or anxious mind, doing a full-body scan – focusing on different sensations from head to toes – can help redirect your attention away from your thoughts. Counting breaths – like, breathing in for five seconds, holding for five seconds, then breathing out for five seconds, can also do the trick, says Puddicombe.
Below are five other mediation tips you can do (in addition to focusing on your breath and completing a full-body scan):
1. Pay attention to how your feet feel on the floor.
Or how your hands feel on your keyboard; or how your back feels against the chair – anything that grounds you to where you are and what you’re doing at that very moment.
Allow thoughts to come and go as you normally would (because they will – meditation isn’t void of thought), but as soon as you realize you’re lost in the thought, pivot your thinking back to the sensation you were focusing on, says Puddicombe
2. Imagine bright, warm sunlight shining down above your head.
You know how it feels when you’re sitting next to a window (or lying on the beach) and a beam of sunshine hits your face just right? Imagine that feeling the next time you’re overwhelmed – but instead of just your face, imagine the light filling up each part of your body, from your toes to your head, suggest Puddicombe. “Allow the warmth, light, and spaciousness to melt away any tension in the body,” he adds.
3. Let your mind think about whatever it wants to think about.
Yep, that even means feeling anxious, says Puddicombe. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you sit with your thoughts – without any expectations, sense of purpose, or focus for several minutes – you give your mind the extra space needed to help it unwind, he says.
4. Picture someone you love – and breathe in their anxieties.
Hold an image of someone you love in your mind and imagine yourself taking on their anxieties and insecurities with every inhale. On the exhale, think about all of their good qualities and the great times you’ve had together – kind of like breathing in the bad and breathing out the good.
5. Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend.
Inquiring in the second person separates you from your mind and encourages a space of appreciation, free from any overwhelming emotions, Puddicombe explains.
Ask yourself, “what do you appreciate most in your life?” Once you’ve got something (or things) in mind, dwell in that gratitude for 30 seconds.
While mediation may not be a cure-all, it can certainly provide some much-needed space in your life to learn how to return to, and remain in, the present moment – to anchor yourself to the here and now on purpose without judgment. When we meditate, we inject far-reaching and long-lasting benefits into our lives: We lower our stress levels, we get to know our pain, we connect better, we improve our focus, and we’re kinder to ourselves.
- Bacharach, Elizabeth. 7 Meditation Tips for People Who’ve Never Meditated in Their Lives. Womens Health Magazine. 2018.
- Bacharach, Elizabeth. 7 Ways to Use Meditation For Anxiety Relief. Womens Health Magazine. 2018.
- Headspace. Top 13 meditation tips. https://www.headspace.com/meditation/tips
- Headspace. What is Mediation? https://www.headspace.com/meditation-101/what-is-meditation
- Mindful Staff. How to Mediate. Mindful. 2019