Meditations for Newbies

I hate the word “meditation.”  Because: for too many people, it conjures up all kinds of negative stereotypes, such as the idea that sitting still for a long period of time would bring on enlightenment… if you were only the kind of person who was truly open to the enlightenment that meditation teaches.  

“I don’t have time,” “It’s boring,” and “I tried it once and nothing happened” appear perfectly acceptable reasons to avoid “meditation.” However, the scientific evidence is in: the benefits of becoming more attuned to the present (rather than worrying about the future or feeling awful about the past) and getting more grounded in what’s going on with your body are hugely rewarding. Until somebody comes up with a better term than “ommmm, meditation,” I’d like to present the following list of things that I’ve found to provide the above benefits without involving sitting still while feeling bored and stupid about not being good at “meditating”:

1.  The good people at Palouse have created a FREE online eight-week course based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. Although online learning can be problematic for many of us (no one to force you to do the work), this is a wonderful resource for the ambitious. In the first week, you’ll find an incredible body scan meditation audio file, empowering articles that encourage you to focus on your goals, and instructions for homework assignments that prompt you to articulate and remember your reason for committing time to the course. IRL, courses like these cost an arm, a leg, plus airfare to Massachusetts. This is truly a wonderful resource for those interested in becoming more tuned into the present and more capable of managing difficult emotions. *Trying out the exercises recommended for the first day of this course and then not coming back to it still counts as trying out meditation!

2.  For meditation newbies, Buddhify does a great job of offering lots of short (like, under five minutes) guided meditations based on what you’re up to. For example, this app currently offers three distinct guided meditations for situations in which you’re “waiting around,” and another three designed for use while you’re “walking in the city.” Given that it can feel like your only meditation options are between traveling to a meditation center and carving out an hour of time to get “present” in a group setting versus… not actually meditating at all, Buddhify does us the service of offering the low-key option of just putting in ear buds during the walk back to work from the food carts.

3.  Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has a neat exercise called the “Conveyor Belt.” It asks you to imagine you’re at a conveyor belt, like at the grocery check-out, and reminds you to notice the thoughts and feelings that are coming up for you, encourages you to label those (“anxiety about tonight,” “urge to stop meditating,” etc) and imagine placing them in a bucket. No judgement required – just notice what comes up, label it, and put it away. This simple meditation can be extremely helpful not just for those of us (all of us) who struggle with maintaining focus on our breath while meditating, but has several potential added benefits around regulating emotions. Debbie Corso does a nice job explaining the rationale behind this meditation as well as describing how it works in her life in a very honest way.

4.  The use of expressive arts for therapeutic treatment has been ubiquitous since at least the 1960s.  It makes a lot of sense. Think about dancing and physical movement exercises, which can help ground us in our bodies while freeing us to explore patterns outside of our regular routines. Similarly, drawing exercises such as Zentangles have become recently popular. In this video, artist Suzanne McNeill demonstrates the activity of mindfulness (as well as permission for creativity) that Zentangles can afford.

5.  Sometimes, it’s hard just to get into the idea of meditating, to remember why it’s important “to do nothing.”  Which is why videos like this TED Talk become useful. We all need prompts and reminders at least some of the time around doing things that are good for us. In this video, Andy Puddicombe explains his experience with meditation, details relevant research around the usefulness of tuning into what’s going on in the present, and manages to be sort of funny as well. He also encourages juggling, and…

6.  Speaking of juggling: it is a free or nearly free activity (depending on how many oranges you currently have on hand) that is initially terribly challenging, takes many patient hours to learn, and therefore makes you feel like a superhero when you’re finally able to do it (sort-of) correctly. After proving yourself able to manage three balls for twenty passes or so, you’ll notice that besides being a fun challenge, juggling is relaxing in the same way that getting into “the zone” while performing defense in the Superbowl or while consistently petting a sleepy animal and watching reruns on the couch can be. And unlike EXTREME challenges, the practice of learning to juggle moves from frustrating to meditative within a much shorter time span. This youtube is a very useful primer on the “sport,” while this article offers evidence for the idea that juggling is an excellent method for reducing anxiety.

7.  Pzizz! There are loads of sleep-inducers out there, and this one truly does the job without the side effect of medication-grogginess. This app, now free on IOS, has both a “power nap” and a sleep option, both of which feature a very melodic male voice followed by various sounds that are different each time you use it – which means your brain never learns the pattern, nor needs to attend to the pattern rather than let you really rest. At the time you set to wake up, it gently wakes you, with one of several customizable options. Now, you may be thinking that inducing sleep is not the same as increasing awareness of the present moment, and you would be correct; I cheated with this one, but only because it’s really, really great at what it does.