Sting does it through yoga. Eddie Van Halen plays guitar to do it. Lou Reed counted beads. The poet Ted Hughes fished. Gisele Bündchen does it on the beach, and Oprah Winfrey does it every morning. Michelle Obama thinks all kids should learn how to do it.
What is it? Meditation, and you should do it, too. Why? Research has proved that practicing regular meditation can dull physical pain, ease insomnia, increase immunity, lower blood pressure and relieve the symptoms of many conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, asthma and other chronic illnesses. It’s also used in treating depression, anxiety, addiction and general stress.
Even if you’re already stress-free and as smoothed-out as a piece of beach glass—and in possession of an ironclad immune system—meditation can still offer you a boost: Practitioners experience greater creativity and better memory, and they preserve cognitive function longer than non-meditators as they age.
But what exactly is meditation? It can be hard to figure out when there seem to be so many ways to do it. In fact, there are dozens of forms of formal meditation, all with multisyllabic names such as Transcendental, Vipassana, Lovingkindness and Mindfulness.
And what does fishing or counting beads have to do with it? “Meditation can be seen as attention training,” says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., and author of Real Happiness at Work. Meditation can be anything that clears your mind in a way that allows you to focus on the activity at hand (whether that’s simply paying attention to your breathing or to your brushstrokes while painting, or to the tug on your line while fishing). Meditation is about getting out from underneath the hundreds of worries, ruminations, projections and self-doubts that occupy our minds most of the time so that you can just be. Meditation is about quieting the mind, not turning it off.
But the idea of “quieting the mind” can be intimidatingly vague, not to mention difficult to achieve. Salzberg assures, though, that there is no wrong way to meditate. “Many people hold expectations—usually unreasonable ones—about what is ‘supposed’ to happen [during meditation],” she says. “When these things don’t happen, they feel like they failed.” If you’ve yet to master meditation, now is the time. Here are some of the most common meditation complaints and how to get past them.
Om Obstacle: “I can’t get my mind to go blank.”
Emptying your mind completely is not necessarily the goal, but rather, quieting the mind-chatter—about what’s for dinner or when a report is due or that you have to sign your kids up for baseball. Here’s how: Start by sitting comfortably and closing your eyes (or leave them half-open if that feels more natural), Salzberg suggests. Set a timer for five to 10 minutes so you don’t have to worry about the time. Then focus your attention on your breathing and mentally note “in, out” with each breath. Think about how the air feels coming into and leaving your body. If your mind wanders, don’t worry about it; your meandering thoughts “provide an opportunity to gently let go of whatever has distracted you,” she says. “With kindness toward yourself, begin again by bringing your attention back to the breath. If you have to let go and begin again countless times, that’s not considered a problem—that’s the training.” Salzberg advises practicing three days a week and slowly building up to 20 minutes every day.
Om Obstacle: “I can’t get in the lotus position.”
You don’t have to! The lotus position—sitting cross-legged with each foot on top of the opposite thigh—is an ancient asana (posture) used during traditional Buddhist meditation because it allows practitioners to stay steady and motionless for long periods of time. But it’s not necessary for successful meditation. You can meditate anytime, anywhere, just by sitting or lying comfortably, Salzberg says.
Om Obstacle: “I don’t have time.”
If even five minutes a day—using the simple strategy above—is too much of a commitment, that’s OK. You can still meditate! The practice of Mindfulness Meditation involves bringing that mindfulness into everything you do, not just when you’re sitting and focusing on your breath. Being mindful means being truly present in whatever it is you are doing.
Thich Nhât Hanh, the well-known and beloved Vietnamese Zen master and human-rights activist, famously used the example of washing dishes. He does not wash dishes to get it over with. As he performs the chore, he is “fully aware of the dish, the water and each movement of my hands.” He instructs us to not let worries about work or kids distract us from being fully present and appreciative while, yes, scrubbing pots. Find activities throughout the day—whether it’s folding laundry, dancing, gardening, or washing your face and brushing your teeth—that can be meditative for you.
Om Obstacle: “I can’t sit still.”
Then don’t! Exercises that involve repetitive, rhythmic motions—such as swimming, walking and running—are particularly good for getting that in-the-moment, meditative feel. Zen Buddhists practice a form of walking meditation called kinhin, which involves coordinating your steps with your breathing. The idea is to focus on one thing at a time; if you walk, you focus on your steps. The concentration naturally allows for calmer, clearer thoughts.
Om Obstacle: “TV and video games feel more relaxing to me.”
Watching Modern Family or playing SimCity can feel relaxing in the short run, and no one’s saying you should give it up. Sometimes those aren’t options, though. If you’re at a contentious meeting at work, for example, you can’t watch an hour of television to chill out before responding to colleagues. “But you can rest your attention on the feeling of your breath to help you get back into the moment and back to yourself,” Salzberg says. “Meditation is a tool you can take anywhere.” No one even has to know you’re doing it!
Om Obstacle: “I’ve tried it and didn’t feel anything.”
Meditation takes practice. We’re so used to multitasking and thinking about a million things at once, that trying to clear your mind can feel awkward and frustrating—the opposite of calm! But meditation is a skill to be worked at. If you need more help focusing your attention, try using a mantra: Say a word or simple phrase—it can be anything that is easy to repeat and does not conjure negative feelings—like “peace” or “love” or “I can.” For some people, the spoken, repeated mantra may be more of a tangible focal point than just their breathing, and the sound vibrations can be calming. You can also try prayer beads, or any old string of beads. Pass a bead through your fingers with each breath you take.
Whatever you do, don’t give up! Meditation is a lifelong tool with lifelong benefits.