You may have heard about mindfulness in one of your classes, and perhaps you’ve even tried meditating a time or two. For many people, meditation and other mindfulness practices are a go-to source for stress relief, getting in the zone before a role-play or resetting emotions after encountering an upsetting situation.
For others, meditation itself can be a source of frustration. Novice meditators often believe you’re supposed to close your eyes and immediately clear your mind, and that if you have trouble doing so, you must be doing something wrong. For some, the idea of meditation or mindfulness might also conjure up images of a bearded old yogi in robes, sitting quietly alone for weeks at a time in a faraway cave… But if you’re someone who values actively engaging with the world around you, that image could very well be the opposite of what you’re looking to embody in your own life. If you share any of these beliefs, this article is for you!
There are a wide variety of ways to approach meditation that can be tailored to your personal strengths and preferences. Even if you’ve had some initial success with meditation, finding something that works for you (instead of settling for a one size fits all approach), is likely to help you get even more out of your meditation practice. It all begins with your perspective.
At first glance, people tend to associate meditation with all things spiritual or “woo-woo.” Meditation certainly can be used to enrich one’s spiritual path—if that’s the path that feels right for you—but even if you’re not interested in spiritual pursuits, you may not wish to write meditative practices off so quickly. At its core, meditation is a straightforward, secular tool for getting you more dialed in to what you value by making you more present and engaged with whatever task is in front of you.
Rather than meditating to clear one’s mind, a meditative practice has a few parts that work together to develop your executive functioning—cognitive tasks like planning, decision-making, emotional regulation and focusing intentionally on whatever is truly important to you. While there are many variations of meditation, the core of the practice is choosing some anchor on which to focus your attention. Traditionally, this might be one’s breath as it moves in and out of the body, or a mantra like chanting, “om,” but we’ll chat later about how you can modify the focal point to work best for you. Focusing intentionally on the anchor you’ve chosen is only step one. The real practice begins when you might otherwise write yourself off as having failed or done something wrong: when your mind wanders.
Even for highly experienced meditators, it’s next to impossible to completely prevent the mind from wandering; it was built to think, analyze and work out problems. Trying to prevent it from doing so tends to be a huge source of frustration. Instead of preventing the mind from wandering off, the primary goal of meditation is to simply notice when your mind has wandered. Take a curious note of where it’s gone—since it might be a source of some unexpected insight—and gently redirect your mind back to whatever you had chosen as your focus. This act of bringing yourself back to the task at hand is where the meditation muscle really gets flexed. Every time your mind wanders, you have the opportunity to do “one rep” toward strengthening your executive functioning.
Over time, this skill will translate more easily to your day-to-day life. If you find yourself ruminating on worries or self-defeating thoughts before your DECA presentation—running on an unhappy hamster wheel and getting nowhere—you might find yourself better equipped to catch that your mind went there, avoid getting attached to the negative thoughts and redirect your attention back to more productive and empowering thoughts. If you find your mind off on an adventure of its own while you’re meant to be studying for a cluster exam—leaving you to read the same page four times before you finally retain the information—a meditation practice can give you the tools to rein your mind back in and focus more intently on what’s in front of you. Even recreational or social activities can be more rewarding if you are practiced at bringing your full attention and presence to whatever you’re doing.
Even with this new outlook in mind, traditional meditation might still not be for you… and that’s okay. There’s no use in forcing yourself to meditate in a way that leaves you fidgety, anxious and frustrated. The good news is that you can apply these same principles to whatever you enjoy doing and get just as much (or more) out of the practice. If you love music, you can use that as the anchor for your focus. Just put your favorite music on your headphones, set your phone aside, close your eyes and make listening intently your meditation. If you find yourself fidgety sitting in one place for too long, you can make a moving meditation out of activities like yoga, running, lifting weights, riding your bike or walking your dog. In this case, focus on the sensations in your body or what’s going on in the world around you. If you don’t have much spare time but do have plenty of chores to tend to, you can even make a meditation out of folding laundry, washing the dishes by hand or mowing the lawn. As long as you have the intention to be fully present where you are, notice when you’re not and redirect your attention back to the task at hand, you are meditating successfully.
Crafting your own unique practice is the cornerstone of developing a consistent mediation habit, and with greater consistency comes more noticeable results. Why force yourself to “mediate” (in a traditional sense, that is) if you hate it? The best form of meditation, or the kind that will bring you the most benefits in the long run, is the one that you’ll actually do regularly and the one from which you’ll derive a sense of joy. To get the most out of meditation, ask yourself: How can I creatively approach mindfulness my way?