Weight Training For Your Brain: Meditation Tips for the Disinclined
We know that meditation is good for us. A quick internet search of “scientific study benefits of meditation” yields 13,000,000 hits. But we also know that we are busy, and meditation is hard and not very interesting and when in the day are we supposed to stop everything lie down and empty our minds? First thing in the morning? Please. Last thing at night? How? [feel free to insert any other excuses here].
Meditation is like weight training for the brain. It is the opposite of mind wandering, worry and distraction. We spend all day in our heads and meditation is one of many ways to get us into our bodies a little more. With slow breathing we tell our bodies that we don’t need to be stressed and can relax now. We can take a moment to scan our bodies and notice what’s going on. I do it when I’m at the dentist. I focus on my breath, I imagine myself walking along a beautiful tropical beach and I play relaxing music on my phone. I have Marconi Union’s “Weightless” in my playlists. This album was composed in collaboration with sound therapists. It is supposed to help slow a listener's heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol. When things start getting noisy/drill-y I focus hard on discerning a tune or counting the beats of the music.
But that’s not how you meditate, I hear you say. You need to be lying on your back or sitting up straight. You need to be alone. You need to be still. Everything must be quiet. Yes. That is ideal meditation. But the idea that we need to have all these ideal conditions is what is stopping us from making our brain training a daily practice. And. We know that if we want to reap the full benefits of meditation, regular practice is required. The more we do, the easier it gets and the better our brain gets at paying attention, letting go of stress, staying focussed and being present in every day life.
I teach this stuff and how often do I do it? Um. To be honest - if I have ten minutes to lie down I’d prefer to be reading a book. But. I’ve read the science (not all 13,000,000 hits) I know how important mindfulness and meditation are so I do something every day. I don’t lie down. I still have my training wheels on. Below are some things that I try to do every day to quiet my mind. I encourage you to try them too.
Five Breaths in the Shower
Start with 5 deep mindful breaths in the shower. Empty your mind, count and focus on your breath. Try this every day for a week and you then have a meditation practice. If you get to a point where five breaths are easy, move up to ten. Use the extra time to scan your body and notice how you are feeling.
Walk for a Block
You can also practice mindfulness in the time it takes you to walk one block of houses. Try to walk and focus on your breath, your steps, your arm swing, the houses, gardens, the sky, the people you pass, the footpath. You can return to your busy brain and to-do list at the next block.
If you are still in your body after one block then try a listening walk. Again just for one block, tune in to all of the sounds around you. How many birds can you hear? How many different cars? Think about the source of the vague rumbling you hear. Do you hear an aeroplane overhead? Tune in to all of the wonderful things that you can hear. Let the experience wash over you.
Listen to an App
If you have time after an exercise class/ fast walk/ run then you can listen to a guided meditation on your phone. You can find a spot to lie or sit down or do what I do: listen to it as you walk home. I use the App ‘Insight Timer’ I started with the Learn How to Meditate in Seven Days course. Each session is about 10 minutes.
Focus on an Affirmation
When you are in line at the supermarket/movie theatre/cafe use your waiting time as an opportunity to focus on an affirmation. My go to affirmation is: “I have phenomenal coping skills” I tap my collar bones to reinforce this affirmation which lets my body feel it at the same time. This might sound kooky but the brain responds to what you tell it. Which would you prefer going on in your head “This is all too overwhelming how will everything get done?” or “I have phenomenal coping skills, I have this, I have done it before I will do it again.”
Quiet Your Mind with Hobbies
Anything that brings your focus solely onto that activity is good for your brain. So doing things that bring you pleasure such as baking, painting, reading or having a massage can also count as brain training. Bonus.
Constructive Rest - Anatomical Visualisation
In my Franklin method training we learnt a type of guided meditation called constructive rest. This is a technique that helps us to experience our bodies and to visualise our anatomy from the inside. We imagine waves of water, light or warm sand flushing through our bodies leaving only healthy cells, muscles, fascia and bones behind. When we focus our imagination on an area of the body that we would like to heal then our mind map (a cluster of neurons in our brain that serve that area of our body) for that area increases and our neurotag (our brain’s concept and its associated triggers) for that place changes from one of pain and avoidance to one focussed on healing. Again this may sound a little hippy but there is lots of brain science to support the idea that physical healing can start in the brain.
Here’s a guided visualisation that I made for my Dad to help his healing after stroke.
Meditation is concentrating your attention on your breath, an object, a thought, a sound or visualisation while ridding your mind of distraction. Thoughts are OK as long as you are in control of them not the other way around. With meditation you may even notice thoughts, feelings or impulses that you normally suppress. In my guided meditation at the end of class I ask people to notice their thoughts and then wipe them away like rain on a windscreen. They aren’t needed right now - you’ll be with them shortly.
What we do need is a little break from our brain. Every. Day. if you don’t want to sit or lie down to quiet your mind you don’t have to. Just figure out a way to do it. Could that be your resolution for 2019? Good luck. I look forward to hearing what works for you.