Today is January 23rd. In other words, we’ve passed the 21-day mark since the start of the year. What’s so special about 21? You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit, and you may have also heard that the hype around 21 is just that – a whole lot of hype. Magic numbers aside, perhaps you’ve been trying to develop new healthy habits as part of your goals for 2017. How’s that going so far?
As I shared at the beginning of this month, one of my goals for 2017 is to meditate every day. By this, I don’t just mean sitting in one place on the floor with my eyes closed, although that’s one of the ways it happens. I consider a number of things to be meditation – lying down, sitting in a comfortable position (rarely cross-legged because that has never felt comfortable to me), stretching, walking and foam rolling are a few examples.
I’ve done some form of daily meditation since January 1st and the impact has been undoubtedly positive, but more on that in a second. All along the way of developing this habit, I’ve often found myself thinking about what life would be like if slowing down was, well, more normal.
These days we do things fast because busy is trendy. (By the way, when I say we, I’m totally including myself. I fall victim to ‘busy syndrome’ all the time.) We drive fast, we walk fast, we talk fast and we work out fast. We fill up our calendars fast, shower fast, get dressed fast and eat fast. Living a life in fast-forward makes slowing down feel – well, weird. And kind of uncomfortable sometimes. What if slow was the new busy?
As coincidence would have it, last week some teammates and I were talking about body triggers in a personal development session at work. Our bodies always tell us the truth, and we have a choice to either listen or override them. From an athletic perspective, overriding those signals where the body tell us it’s uncomfortable is often a good thing. It helps us to push harder, persevere, and make progress. After all, if we always listened to our body cues, I don’t think the world of endurance sports would exist – a marathon is not supposed to be comfortable! Overriding those body cues is needed for making physical strength and endurance gains.
On the flipside, sometimes overriding body triggers isn’t a good thing. We might be tired but keep chugging along, full steam ahead. Coming back to the idea of doing things fast, we get from place to place by driving because the thought of spending extra time walking there can feel unproductive or wasteful. (Raises hand in guilt.) Sometimes we eat fast and unintuitively as a band-aid solution for suppressing body triggers that say “I’m stressed”, “I’m sad”, “I’m lonely”, or “I’m bored”. We suppress that discomfort so readily that perhaps we don’t even remember what it feels like to be physically hungry. We fill up our days with meetings, errands and trivial to-do’s because the thought of sitting still for a few minutes and being inside ourselves with nothing else around feels uncomfortable.
So what’s the fix?
I won’t claim that meditation is the cure-all for all these things. But speaking from personal experience over the last 23 days, it has been an incredibly effective way of helping me to slow down and feel more at ease. Interestingly, meditation and a shift in habits towards a more relaxed way of being has also coincided with my most recent blood test results showing that my ferritin levels have increased to 52 ug/L. (For context, this is the highest it’s ever been since I found out about my anemia in 2013, at which point it was <4 ug/L.)
I’m not claiming any sort of direct correlation here, but when you think about how meditation can help us to better manage stress, and that a highly stressed out body does a crap job at absorbing nutrition, it kinda makes sense.
Anecdotal observations aside, I thought I’d also share 4 things I’ve learned about meditation so far:
1. Meditation is a practice.
Yes there are people who are regarded as spiritual gurus, but there’s no meditation Olympics and everyone has their own practice. Whenever I start something new, I typically go in 100% and with the intention of getting really good at it. But as one of my friends who leads our guided sessions at work says, meditation isn’t something to strive to ‘get good at’. The experience is different for everyone and there are so many different ways to meditate. We shouldn’t expect at some point for it to get easy because there’s always room to work on ourselves.
2. The brain will never be free of thoughts, so stop stressing about having them.
For about half of my meditation sessions, my head feels the furthest thing from empty. In the beginning I tried so hard to clear my mind completely because I thought this was the goal. These days I prefer to take the advice offered by Andy from the Headspace app: Notice that the thoughts are happening, then visualize them like clouds that float past and choose to let them go. Don’t beat yourself up for thinking. We’re human. It would be weird if we didn’t.
3. Guidance, mantras and breathing really do help to calm the mind.
I’ve found the guided type of meditation to be a helpful, especially when the guidance is through a body scan. In one of these, you mentally ‘feel’ every part of your body and check in with whatever sensation is happening. You ask yourself things like whether you’re carrying tension in a particular spot, is anywhere feeling tight or heavy, etc. Revisiting the whole body triggers concept and our tendency to override them, this is an awesome way to get back in touch with those signals. It can also help you notice discomfort and realize that it’s temporary, just like many of those things in every-day life that make us feel uncomfortable.
Mantras (a single word or short, simple statement) and deep breathing (inhaling and exhaling as big as possible) are two other tools that help me to get quiet. Again, it’s not to say that the other thoughts should completely stop. Instead, mantra repetition and mindful breathing have a way of pushing mental noise to the background. If you find you just can’t seem to get into the whole meditation thing, I’d definitely recommend giving these a try. If you’d like to test an app, try Headspace, Insight Timer or Calm (desktop or app version.)
4. The true effects are noticed outside of the time spent meditating.
Like when I got stuck sitting in 2 hours of gridlock traffic one Sunday afternoon last month because of the Santa Claus Parade. Or when I was grocery shopping last week and the person ahead of me was on their phone, pushing their cart down the middle of the aisle veerrrrrrry slowly.
Looking back on situations like these, the person I was before I started meditating wouldn’t have had the patience. I would have let the inconvenience put me into reaction and bring up feelings of irritability and annoyance. Now, I feel like it’s easier to be in these potentially frustrating situations and come from a more tolerant, compassionate and accepting place. (And for the record, I still find it hard to be compassionate for slow shopping cart pushers on the phone, but I’m in a better spot than I was a few months back!)
With nearly a month down, I’m excited to see where continuing this practice takes me. I feel like a happier person (or I suppose you could argue that I’ve chosen to be a happier person), and if the results keep moving in this direction, then it looks like it’ll be a pretty great 2017! I’m also aware that all this might sound very woo-woo, and that those who are into tangible, quantifiable evidence might not be entirely sold yet. I was one of those people before giving this a whirl, and think it’s one of those things you just have to try and experience for yourself.
This brings me to my questions for today: Do you have a meditation practice? How would you describe your meditation style? If not, is it something you’d consider trying?