Seven Stress-Relieving Meditation Tips for Beginners
I think it’s generally accepted in American culture that most adults (and lots of kids) are perpetually stressed. We’re all so busy and constantly connected to the world around us. Military life has its own unique stressors of course -- frequent moves, being far away from loved ones, and deployments are just a few that I could mention. So how can we cope with it all? Recently, I decided to give meditation a try.
I’m going through a rather stressful period at the moment -- starting a new job after almost two years staying at home with my daughter. I’m excited about my job but going back to work involves a lot of juggling and rearranging of my life. It’s big adjustment for my family, and a stressful one for me. Plus, I’m busier than ever. Like a lot of busy people, I sometimes find myself internally screaming “CAN I JUST GET FIVE MINUTES TO MYSELF PLEASE?!” I suspect this refrain is particularly popular among parents of small children, although I don’t have any science to back that up. This desire to simply have a bit of time to myself is what led me to meditation.
There are a lot of well-documented benefits of meditating. Studies show that it can lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve circulation, lower cortisol levels, and decrease anxiety. And giving meditation a try is a pretty low risk experiment -- you don’t generally need any special equipment or clothes, you can do it anywhere, and it can take as little as five minutes. However, figuring out exactly how to meditate and then actually doing it is a little bit more challenging.
I’ve tried meditation once before. I first became interested a few years ago when we were stationed in Korea. Much of Korea’s population is Buddhist, and there are some incredible Buddhist temples you can visit there. My husband and I took part in meditation at a Buddhist temple in Seoul. It was a fun learning experience, but it was also really difficult. It is HARD to sit still in one position and think about nothing. We only meditated for about two hours that day, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried. When you think about it, how often do we really sit still and clear our minds? I pretty much never do. If I have a spare moment, it tends to feel strange and I find a way to fill it with activity or entertainment. This is especially easy when we also have a world of information within reach on our smartphones and other devices. So I felt a bit discouraged when I struggled with meditating that first time. This time, instead of diving right in, I decided to start small and do a bit of research first.
A quick online search will show you that there are lots of ways to meditate. There are plenty of articles, videos, and podcasts to guide you along the way. Since we’ve all agreed that we’re busy/stressed/exhausted/possibly losing our minds, I decided to compile a list of tips and suggestions that made the most sense to me and share them with you:
Start small. Don’t be like me and expect to meditate for two hours on your first try. Most of the sources I researched suggested starting with increments of five to ten minutes, and then working your way up to more.
Set the scene. Like I said, you don’t really need any special stuff to meditate, but you should pick a comfortable, quiet place. Wear comfortable clothes. Maybe grab a pillow to sit on, or a chair if you’re not comfortable on the floor. The point is to be able to feel calm and relaxed, which you probably can’t accomplish if you’re wearing skinny jeans and accidentally sitting on a Lego.
Pick something to focus on. This is called concentration meditation. Most people start out focusing on their breath, but you could also pick a visual focal point, a mantra (a word phrase to repeat), or a sound like a gong. You can even try counting. Growing up, I played the violin and my teacher often had me practice with a metronome. If you have one of those lying around, I think the repetitive but fairly non-intrusive sound it makes would be perfect.
Set a timer so you don’t have to constantly check the clock to see if you’ve reached your goal.
Keep your mind clear, but don’t beat yourself up when thoughts drift in and out or you can’t focus. Remember whatever your focal point is and go back to it. Don’t stress about having thoughts or feelings, just try to let them go.
Maintain a good, upright posture.
Be consistent. Meditate every day, usually at the same time.
Using these guidelines, I decided to meditate every day for a week, for five minutes at a time, and see what happened. Here are my results:
Day 1: I’ve decided to wake up ten minutes earlier each morning to meditate. My husband will be at PT, and my daughter will hopefully be sleeping, plus I’ll be in my comfortable jammies. And I will obviously feel refreshed and energized when I’m done, and I’ll just glow throughout the day, right?! Right.
I wake up, hit the snooze button three times, then sit on the floor next to my bed to meditate. I decide to keep my eyes closed and focus on breathing. I feel very smug for being the sort of person who meditates each morning and keep thinking about the smug things I’m going to write in this article instead of focusing on my breath...I make it three minutes before giving up. I feel less smug.
Day 2: I wake up super late because my kid kept me up. I don’t have time for my five minutes, so I decide to meditate that evening before bed.
Before I get in bed I sit on the floor and set my phone timer. I focus on my breathing with my eyes closed. I’m exhausted and this is actually pretty relaxing so I almost doze off. I decide to pick a visual focal point so I can keep my eyes open. I go with a scratch on my dresser and actually make it four minutes this time. Smug levels partially restored.
Day 3: I wake up in time to do a morning meditation. I’m going to make it to five minutes this time. I have trouble focusing on anything other than how bad my posture is. It’s actually pretty uncomfortable for me to sit up straight for any length of time. What’s wrong with me?
I make it to five minutes, but my cat was attempting to snuggle me for at least the last minute so I’m not sure it counted.
Day 4: It’s Saturday and I ignore my alarm. Oops.
Day 5: I ignore my alarm again, but remember to meditate before bed. I actually get through five minutes pretty smoothly, but I do keep thinking about this article.
Day 6: I oversleep (are you seeing a pattern yet?) so I decide to do my five minutes of meditation during lunch. I’m sitting outside which is lovely, and the ambient noise is actually helpful. I feel weird closing my eyes so I focus on something on the ground. I feel self-conscious, but I don’t think anyone really noticed me staring off into space. Mostly people are only looking at their phones (smugness levels rising).
Day 7: I get my morning five minutes in! I only hit the snooze once. I’m finding the five minutes a bit easier, although the frequency of intrusive thoughts and awkward cats remains about the same.
After a week-ish of meditating, I can’t say that I’m a completely relaxed and stress free person. No one has mentioned that I’m glowing, unfortunately. But, I can say that I’ve really been enjoying those five minutes a day, especially on those days when I’ve managed to get them in first thing in the morning. It has made me feel a bit more calm afterwards, and I really appreciate even that small amount of time to myself, when I’m not trying to plan, organize, or otherwise worry about anything. In the course of my research for this piece, I came across some advice that really stuck with me. The purpose of meditation is to be present, or mindful of the moment that you’re in. Instead of thinking about what you should be experiencing while meditating, or what long-term benefits you might get from it, use it as a break. I realized that it’s a great opportunity to just be. Give it a try! You may find that just existing for a while can be more valuable than doing something every minute of the day.
Have you ever tried meditation? What was your experience?