Stress is a given in our lives. Difficult people, time pressures, repetitive and routine tasks, financial concerns, and a lack of self-confidence are some of the most common stressors we face. But it is not the stressors themselves that cause the problem. It is the way we handle, or fail to handle them, that causes us grief.
Meditation has long been known to assist people in dealing effectively with the stresses in their lives. It is a simple and proven method, yet few of us take advantage of it. Why? Perhaps because we see it as being much more difficult than it really is. We view it as something foreign, something that is one small part of a very complex religious or philosophical system that we may have no interest in or little time to pursue. Or, we just think it is too hard.
Most of us have the misconception that we have to make our minds a complete blank and keep it that way. I don't know about you but I've never been able to do this for more than a few seconds and have gotten very frustrated trying to meditate. That kind of defeats the purpose, doesn't it? But research has shown that mindfulness meditation, removed from religious or philosophical constraints, can still be a very powerful tool. And it doesn't have to be difficult...unless we make it so.
It takes time and practice to develop the skill to use any tool and mindfulness is no different. But developing that skill doesn't take struggle or striving. In fact, just the opposite is true. Practicing mindfulness involves a letting go of the struggle. It involves nothing more than taking the time to sit down every day and give yourself a break from the struggles and concerns of your life.
Mindfulness means paying attention. It is a non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of the present moment. The only thing that is difficult about it is that we often won't allow ourselves to simply sit and experience the present moment. We see it as a waste of time and pressure ourselves to be constantly productive. As we try to focus on the present moment we find that our minds drift off to think of what we need to do later or to relive an argument we had earlier. Our minds stray constantly and, if you're like me, you've likely viewed that as a failure on your part. But, as I am beginning to see, it's not a failure. It's all part of the process. Noticing where our minds drift off to can be illuminating and food for thought at a later time. It's the awareness of what is going on in this moment, not the ability to completely silence the mind, that is the meditation. There is no need to be mad or to chastise yourself for drifting off. Just gently remind yourself to refocus and move on.
Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can have a whole host of benefits, but reducing stress is the most commonly sought after. Mindfulness achieves this in the moment by helping your mind and body to slow down and relax. But it can also help you to mitigate the impact of future stressful events as well, and this is perhaps it's greatest power.
Most of us, when faced with stress, simply react. It is an unconscious response that is programmed into our genes. Confronted with danger, our ancestors needed to respond quickly and decisively. Our brains told our bodies to prepare for fight or flight. This meant racing hearts, increased blood pressure, diversion of the blood flow to the limbs, rapid breathing etc. It all made sense when our daily stressors were fights over food or mates or frightening encounters with wild animals...but it doesn't make sense when we are faced with disrespectful bosses, uncooperative children or a pile of bills we need to pay. While our genes may promote this kind of knee-jerk reaction to stress, our minds, with practice, can learn to override this pattern. This is where mindfulness meditiation comes in.
The practice of mindfulness involves slowing down and taking what I consider to an objective observer perspective. Focusing only on the here and now allows you to pay close attention to what you are thinking and feeling. A non-judgmental attitude helps you to notice what is really going on as if you were standing outside of yourself, watching things unfold. It is the ability to slow down, combined with the ability to detach yourself and calmly observe that leads to your ability to override the fight or flight mechanism in stressful situations. Calmly observing, you can take a moment to consciously and intelligently respond to stressful situations rather than to unconsciously react.
If you start meditating today will you be able to calmly handle whatever your boss throws at you tomorrow? Of course not. Mindfulness is a skill that takes practice. But meditate every day and, little by little, you begin to see improvement. Like anything else worth doing, developing mindfulness requires a commitment. But no pain, no gain does not apply here. In fact, the five, fifteen or fifty minutes a day you set aside for meditation may become your favorite time of the day.
Ready to get started? Find a time when you will be undisturbed for fifteen minutes. Turn off your phone, lock the door if you need to. This time is for you. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down (sit if you fall asleep easily – we're looking for mindfulness here not mindlessness). When you are comfortable, close your eyes. You are going to tune into your breathing. Listen to yourself and feel yourself breathing. Don't try to alter your breath in any way. Don't feel pressured to count your breaths or match their pace with your heart rate. You are simply feeling your breath.
To help you focus on your breathing you can focus your attention on your belly by placing one hand over it. Feel it expand as you breathe in and fall back as you breathe out. Or, you can focus on your nose. Feel the coolness of the air as it comes in and the warmth as you exhale. Relax your body and try to keep your focus on nothing but your breathing. Expect this to be impossible or nearly so at first. And that's okay. Have your thoughts drifted elsewhere? Note where they have gone but don't attach any emotion or judgment to that. Note it and gently bring yourself back to focusing on your breathing.
It is important to be kind and loving to yourself during this process. Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend or a child. Losing focus? That's okay, you're just getting started. You'll do fine. Just move back into the breathing. Continue with this process for as long as you are able. Sometimes setting a timer is a good idea so you don't find yourself opening your eyes to look at the clock every five seconds. When you are done, slowly open your eyes and go back to your day.
At another time (never when you are meditating), think about where your mind wandered to when you were trying to stay focused on your breathing. Over time, you may begin to see a pattern and recognize areas of your life that are demanding more attention. You can use this information to guide you to aspects of your life that may need changing.
With practice, you will find that you can calm yourself quickly and easily in any situation, eyes wide open, just by focusing on your breath. You will then also be able to head off stress reactions before they happen. Difficult situations are no longer as difficult when you can step back, observe and decide how to respond to them. It may take a while to get to this point (I'm just beginning to work on this myself), but a little practice every day will get you there.
Visit my Amazon Store for some book and guided meditation recommendations. Guided meditations are a great way to get started. Do you have any recommendations? Post your suggestions in my comments section and share your resources or experiences. We'd love to hear from you!
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