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Exercise For The Brain
These days (time of writing November 2020), it’s extra important that we take good care of our mental health. This year has been tough in all sorts of different ways, and it looks like we’ll be riding the corona-coaster well into the next year or two at least. It’s essential that we find ways to prepare for and cope with the best and worst of whatever we might encounter. I realise it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to mental wellbeing, so here's my contribution on meditation and mindfulness for beginners. Enjoy!
One of the most profound things I’ve learned is that it’s not what happens to us that makes us feel emotions like anger, disappointment or shame, but what we tell ourselves about the situation. It's about how we interpret and process our experiences. It’s not the traffic jam, hurtful comment, or tax bill that makes us so upset, but the way we think about those things. It's only once we become aware of our thoughts that we can begin to challenge them. If we can’t identify the areas we need to work on, we can’t work on them. To build an awareness of ourselves, our behaviours, and the thoughts/beliefs that drive them, we must practise mindfulness.
The term mindfulness refers to the simple practise of being focused and present in the moment. Simple, but not necessarily easy! We often get caught up worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. In reality, all we have is the present. A common method of grounding ourselves in the present moment is to focus on the breath, as we often do during meditation. It’s always there, and can even give us clues about our current physiological and psychological state. Further still, we can manipulate our breathing to reverse-engineer a sense of calm and peace, even when we’re really stressed.
Your lungs are controlled by the autonomic (think automatic) as well as the somatic (consciously controlled) nervous system. You can’t consciously change the function of your heart or intestines for example - they’re fully autonomic, but the breath is something you can manipulate.
The incredible positive effects of meditation on mental health are recognised by hundreds of millions of people the world over, well-documented in Eastern culture, and increasingly well-researched by Western science. It’s clear that meditation impacts each of our lives positively. When one person meditates, it affects our group dynamic, which means we all share the benefits!
Meditation is by far the most effective training I’ve found to make mindfulness come more easily when I need it the most. This is because it teaches powerful skills such as patience, compassion, perspective, equanimity, and resilience.
I realise that meditation can feel strange, uncomfortable, or even difficult at first, so be ready to give it a few tries in order to experience the incredible benefits. With regular practise you could enjoy:
- Increased self-awareness;
- Skills and techniques to manage stress;
- More patience and tolerance;
- Ability to concentrate and focus on the present;
- More creativity and imaginative power;
- Reduction in negative emotions including anger;
- Increased compassion towards yourself and others;
- Reduced chances of burnout or dissatisfaction at work;
- Improved quality of life (for those with long term or serious health conditions);
- Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression;
- Better quality sleep;
- More mindful eating behaviours;
- Improved communication and satisfaction in relationships;
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a healthier heart;
- Increased ability to manage pain.
The awareness gifted to us by meditation extends far beyond our focused practise. I like to think of meditation as the 1% of my day that makes the other 99% better. If you like, you can view meditation like exercise. Sure, it can feel like hard work, but it can also feel really fun and fulfilling. Importantly, if you practise regularly you’ll see the benefits throughout all areas of your life. If you stop practising your skills will slowly decline. Just like exercise, you'll want to make mindfulness a life-long habit.
How To Meditate
In meditation, we sit quietly with ourselves. Typically, meditations will begin with some focus on your breathing or some other aspect of your experience. From there, you might aim to “just be” in a calm state, or you might practise concentrating on specific sensations, sounds or ideas, or even go on a journey through visualisation.
There are lots of different types of meditation, and all sorts of ways to meditate, so you’ll want to explore to discover what works for you in order to find something that suits your goals and preferences. You could try:
Observing thoughts in a non-judgemental way as they come and go.
Deep concentration using any of your senses, eg sound baths, aromatherapy meditation, or simply focusing on a specific sensation such as the feel of your feet on the floor.
This could include yoga, running, gardening, swimming, dancing... any activity where you focus fully on your body and its flow between movements.
Repetition of a word/phrase/sound, or singing.
Progressive Relaxation Meditation
A mental scan of your body, and the act of gradually allowing each area to relax. Body scans, as they're often known, are a popular form of meditation.
Usually involves picturing positive things vividly, eg performing a difficult move during a sports game, or achieving another specific goal.
Including prayer, repeating mantras, singing, reading scripture and much more. Spiritual meditation varies widely depending on the religion or belief system.
Discover the 10 lifestyle foundations you need in place to optimise your health, fitness and wellbeing...
Because the mind inevitably wanders during meditation, I’d recommend beginning with some form of guided meditation so that your guide can gently prompt you to return to the present moment when your thoughts drift. There are some incredible platforms available with countless audio or written meditations to choose from. Here are a few of my favourites:
With guided meditations, relaxing soundscapes, masterclasses from experts, and over 700,000 5-star reviews, this app is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to improve their mental wellbeing.
Deepak Chopra's "Now For Tomorrow" Podcast
Music and Video Streaming Platforms
I use Spotify to stream meditation music and guided meditations. I particularly love the "Daily Wellness" playlists that the app creates for its listeners based on their activity and interests. Other content streaming platforms like Apple, Audible, YouTube and SoundCloud also host plenty of meditations for you to explore.
There's an immense amount of literature on meditation out there, including books on how to meditate, books about the power of meditation, books to meditate directly from with a mantra on each page, and even historical documents, such as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Shop around and read some reviews to discover what's right for you.
Thanks for reading! I truly hope that through meditation, you can feel more balanced, less stressed, experience less conflict, and more joy in your life.
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