Meditating is hard. It’s one of those things that is meant to be as natural as breathing (in fact plenty of meditations focus on your breathing) but when you sit down cross legged in a dark room all by yourself: it can be pretty difficult. It can feel boring (ssshh, don’t say that out loud). Your mind wanders. You end up writing mental replies to emails you know are waiting for your response on your phone in the next room.
But everyone tells you how good meditation is for you. Mindfulness, which is one approach to meditation, is promoted everywhere at the moment as The State To Be In if you’re at all into personal or professional development. And yes, once you’re in the habit of meditating, it will bring you great benefits. One of the best, from my point of view, is that you get in touch with your best self. You start to learn what you value, and see the best way to act on that. You just need to work out how to practise for long enough to start seeing those benefits!
So don’t miss out. Don’t let your wandering mind stop you from getting all the health and wellbeing and bragging right benefits of being part of the Zen crowd. Do this instead.
Hack 1: Go to the Beach
Too easy, right? Who doesn’t love the beach? But why the beach and what do you do there?
The beach works because it provides you with two powerful allies in your search for tranquil presentness: sensory stimulation and something to do.
Mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment) can be done anywhere. If you’re paying attention to right now, without judgement, you’re doing it. If you’ve tried to be mindful before, you’ll know this is easy to say but hard to do! So why make it more difficult by trying to learn to focus your attention in an environment that isn’t very interesting? It actually makes much more sense to learn how to pay attention by choosing surroundings that make it easy to focus on the present.
The beach ticks this box because it engages all of your senses. Think about it:
Touch: Wind and sun factors are amped up in the exposed environment and direct your attention to your skin. As does the sensation of sand, sand, everywhere.
Taste and Smell: Ah, that sea air.
Sound: It’s never, ever quiet at a beach with crashing waves.
Sight: Crashing waves are ever changing shapes and sizes. There’s lots of movement at the beach, not just from the water but from the sea breezes pushing around clothing, the lasting impressions your body makes on the sand and wind in the dune grasses. You might find some pretty shells if you’re lucky too.
It’s much easier to pay attention to right now when there’s lots to engage you, and even easier when what is engaging is also changing.
That brings us to the ‘something to do’ part. Choose something about the beach that keeps changing. The top contender here is the waves. Choose something specific to focus on. It could be the breaking face of the wave, the ‘edge’ of the water that ebbs and flows against the sand, or the changing sound. Now, use that as your focus. The fact that these elements keep changing moment to moment makes it much easier to pay attention to them (if you know if you’re an auditory, kinaesthetic or visual learner – even better. Choose something to focus on that engages your favourite sense). Watch the waves crash, the sea foam fly. Focus on the present without judgement. Congratulations, you’re being mindful!
Don’t live near a beach? Any bit of nature, the wilder the better, will do. The natural world has a way of engaging our senses that our cities just can’t. Plus you get a mood boost from being in nature too, which reinforces the idea that mindfulness is something enjoyable to do.
Once you’ve started to get what mindfulness feels like, it’ll be easier to practise in more mundane settings, like sitting on the train going to work or when washing up. But to start off, pick somewhere natural, preferably somewhere you like, to make being mindful as easy as possible on yourself.
Now, once you have mindfulness down, you’re ready for the big guns: bring on meditation. While the definitions of what ‘counts’ as meditation vary widely, I think of meditation as aiming to pay attention to (be mindful of) what’s really going on for you. Beyond what’s going on in your body, or what your mind is occupied with, and more about your feelings and perhaps the deeper wisdom of your self that doesn’t act from fear (which could be considered part of your soul, spirit, subconscious, intuition or something else).
Hack 2: Stop more often
So how do you get from paying attention to what’s on the surface, through your senses, to getting in touch with what’s really going on for you?
The simplest way to do this is NOT to sit in a dark room for twenty minutes. Too hard, too much pressure.
The simplest way to do this is to sneak up on yourself. So start by checking in with you more regularly. After a conversation, at lunchtime, or in the bathroom, stop and ask yourself ‘how you doing?’ The answers might surprise you. We’re actually so good at playing along, getting caught up in the moment and losing track of time on our computers, that we’re surprisingly out of touch with how we’re actually doing. Trying to figure this out in a dark room in a big block of time is too confronting and overwhelming to start with. Start with 20 seconds in the bathroom.
Note: there’s no pressure to actually act on any knowledge you get about how you’re feeling. It’s just about knowing. Of course, you may discover that when you check in with yourself after a conversation, that you actually aren’t happy about the decision made. You may or may not act on it. For now, just knowing (even if it’s a bit late!) is a great start. Over time, though, you’ll notice you are more in tune with your gut reactions, and more clear on what you want before you make a decision. That’s a good time to start formally meditating. Because now you know what bit it is that you’re looking for when you sit down in the dark.
Hack 3: Play it cool
Okay, so you’ve been to the beach. You’re able to harness mindfulness, at least momentarily. You’ve learnt to stop and check in with your feelings, and sometimes you can do this before you open your mouth, and you’re making better decisions because of it. How do you make friends with meditation and start accessing its benefits?
You make friends with meditation by playing it cool. By starting with no time commitment at all. You go to your dark room and sit there, just for as long as you want to. When you’ve had enough, stop. In this way, your mind will associate mediation with positivity. It doesn’t feel like a chore, because you can stop when you want. And of course, once you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ll start to feel the benefits, and you’ll want to do it for longer.
Remember, the benefits only come when you’re actually meditating. If you meditate for one minute and force yourself to look like you are for the next 19, only one of those minutes is beneficial. It’s just as good to get up after the one minute, as it means you’ll be likely to go back next time.
So there you have it: three simple tricks that will take you from meandering mind to mindful mastery.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.