After I did a series of fitness posts a few weeks back, a good friend suggested that I check out meditation. She argued that the health benefits of meditation rivaled those of working out and that I would be making a mistake to focus solely on a running or fitness routine without integrating meditation. Her case was compelling, so I did some research. Obviously, people have been meditating for thousands of years, but I associated it more with a spiritual quest and seeking spiritual understanding than with tangible emotional and physical benefits. With a little bit of research, I quickly released that I was wrong about this - and that millions of people had already reached this conclusion. I'm late to this party, as usual, but it seems meditation is hugely popular right now and for good reason.
Benefits of Meditation
Broadly speaking, the goal of meditation is to clear your mind, find a deep state of relaxation, and achieve a tranquil mind and state of being. Meditation can clear out the information overload of daily life and give a sense of calm, peace, and balance. Moreover, doing this on a regular basis can actually change the way that your brain functions, leading to a myriad of emotional and physical benefits. Per the Mayo Clinic (seems like a reliable source), meditation can provide the emotional benefits of:
The emotional benefits of meditation make sense to be, but what I was really surprised by were the physical benefits of meditation. You can find lots of different research here - for example, check out the 40 Benefits of Meditation, which links various benefits to studies - but given the abundance of information and the introductory nature of my explorations, I stuck with the Mayo Clinic's page. While they noted that there are researchers out there that don't believe it's possible to draw conclusions based on meditation, the site noted that there is increased research showing direct medical benefits from meditation. (As I'm not a researcher and just trying to go with the best bet for overall health, that's good enough for me.) There is reputable research supporting the argument that meditation helps with the management of symptoms caused by:
Source: Mayo Clinic
How to Start Meditating
The arguments supporting the benefits of meditation are compelling. I'm convinced that it can lead to an increase in my overall emotional and physical health. (Quick note: I'd encourage you to click on some of the sources cited above and read about the benefits from the experts. I had a loose association of the benefits of meditation, but reading about them in more detail added an urgency for me to get this into my daily routine.) Now to the trickier issue, what do I do now? How does a list-making, outcome-focused person tackle meditation?
The first thing I learned is that there are many types of meditation - it's a umbrella term for seeking that desired state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. I nearly lost the thread once I started digging into this piece as I was overwhelmed by different types - guided meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, tai chi, transcendental meditation, etc., etc. There are lots of options. The good news: there's something for everyone. The bad news: where do you start?
Mindfulness meditation seems really hot right now - it popped up the most in my searches. Plus, after some limited research it seemed like one of the easiest to tackle (can't have my meditation practice stressing me out). So, after a very unscientific process, I decided to start with mindfulness meditation.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Intro to Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is pretty much what it sounds like - the ability to be fully present and fully aware of where you are and what you're doing. The more difficult part of it, though, is not letting this increased awareness lead to being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what's going on around you. Mind Valley gives an overview of mindfulness as: "re-training your mind to stay present and calm in the moment."
One of the reasons I latched onto mindfulness was because of the ease of implementing it into daily life - you don't need to have any additional resources and all you really need is about 10-30 minutes per day. Easy enough, surely.
Sources: Mind Valley, Mindful.Org
It seems clear that no resources are necessary to implement mindfulness and that there are plenty of easy checklists that give you all you need to start on your own. That said, having never meditated before and not being a personality type that is naturally drawn to meditation, reading through one of those lists and then diving into meditation on my own seemed overwhelming. As luck would have it, there are a number of resources available that guide users through meditation. I checked out a few and settled on Headspace.
Headspace is a free app that walks users through daily meditation. (Note: there are in-app purchases, but I haven't gotten advanced enough to need those; not sure if they will be necessary after a certain period of time). I like it because it starts at a very low level - when you sign up, you select your experience level and your goals. Headspace then creates a daily plan based on that information. (My first day was 3 minutes, which was about what I was ready for.) I also like that it had me select a daily time for meditation and now sends me a little reminder at that time every day. Finally, I appreciate that it approaches meditation as a skill that users are developing, which keeps me from feeling like a failure when my mind takes a break from focusing on the present to focus on the first thing I'll do once I'm finished. For the most beginning beginners amongst us (me), Headspace is perfect.
If you don't want to go the app route, here are a few other guided meditations that are popular:
The Honest Guys 10-minute meditation is one of the top-rated, guided meditations.
Mindful.org also has a good list of guided meditations. You can select from a number of options - 10 minute meditations, meditations for stress, walking meditations, etc.
Calm has a good 10 minute guided meditation (and an app).
While meditation is not results focused - the journey is the destination and what not - I was curious to know how soon I would start seeing results (maybe I'll have the answer when I stop asking the question...?). The official answer seems to be that you can feel some of the benefits immediately; however, the results will be more pervasive over time and once it becomes a daily practice. My unofficial answer is that I felt increased focus, an increased ability to find calm in stressful situations, and increased productivity almost immediately. I'm also noting that I'm increasingly applying the skills outside of the meditation time - i.e., a few moments ago my computer kept shutting down. Rather than cursing it, I actually enjoyed the extra two minutes to take some calming breaths and focus on the sounds around me. Sounds a little crazy to me, but it was really pleasant and relaxing.
All in all, I agree that meditation is an important piece of any plans to improve overall health and well being, and I'm thankful for the great suggestion to explore it. I encourage you to check it out as well and to reap its many benefits!