Chances are, you’re either already practicing meditation or you think it’s a total load of baloney. If you’re in the second camp, please try this: stop thinking of it as meditation, and start thinking of it as practicing paying attention. This easier meditation approach can bring huge benefits to your life.
Why we need to pay attention
I’m convinced there are profound physiological benefits of meditation… but I’m not sure I’ve achieved any of them yet! However, what has been invaluable to me is developing the skill of noticing what I’m thinking. In today’s ultra-wired world, with so much on our to-do lists, most of us suffer from monkey mind. As Dinty W. Moore describes in his book The Mindful Writer: “The brain is likely to go suddenly hyperactive, leaping from notion to notion, idea to idea, like a caffeine-fueled monkey swinging from tree to tree.”
So, we’re either trying to do four things at once, or we’re dwelling on a mistake made yesterday, or we’re planning a task for later. Given that “today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday” (this quote is generally believed to be from Dale Carnegie), we’re robbing ourselves of the joy of the experience at hand. Many of our thoughts are downright unhelpful, berating for what’s past, self-doubting about the present, or unnecessarily pessimistic about the future. We fall into absolute thinking, such as, “This always happens to me,” or “Nothing has gone right today.” Paying attention to your thoughts is a priceless skill. It’s altered my life and I’m on a mission to spread the word. Picking up this knack could be the biggest transformation you’ll ever make.
Likely benefits of paying attention
From my own experience, I believe the skill of paying attention will bring you benefits in various ways:
- Procrastination: you’ll catch yourself getting sucked into low value activities you didn’t truly intend to do.
- Focus: once you do settle to a task, your brain will stay with it more easily.
- Stress: even if your thoughts still skip around, you’ll notice that’s happening and be able to remind yourself that getting mired in a worry, memory, or plan isn’t helpful right now.
- Relationships: You’ll do a better job of being present with people you care about, and you’re more likely to rescue a conversation that’s heading in an destructive direction. (I’ve caught myself on the brink of picking a fight with my husband, and I’m convinced my meditation practice has generated just enough awareness to choose another path.)
Mark Abramson, founder of Stanford University’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, puts it like this: “The reward of meditation is that it enables us to begin taking back our ability to choose the direction of our lives — which incorporates how we treat ourselves, our health and how we interact with others.”
In other words, Abramson is acknowledging that it’s not just our thoughts which are flitting off, doing their own thing. Our habits and daily choices desperately need some attention too. For example:
- Why are you eating that (again)?
- Why are you slumped on the couch watching that TV show (again)?
- Why did you just hit the snooze button for the fourth time?
- Why did you just spend an hour on YouTube?
Once developed, the skill of paying attention saves you from a spectrum of mindless actions.
Tips to get started: an easier meditation method
If you’ve never tried meditation before, here are steps to get started:
- Identify a ten-minute slot in your day. Ideally, this will be at the same time each day, and right after something you always do—such as brushing your teeth or drinking your first cup of coffee. When I worked in an office, I used to drive to work and park, then meditate before going into the building. Traffic uncertainty was out of the way, but I was not yet gripped by emails and workplace demands.
- Set a timer. There is a meditation app, Calm (free and paid options available), which I really like, but any timer will do.
- Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. If you use public transit, headphones can create this safe space for you, but you’ll need a little practice at tuning out jolts and service announcements. You don’t need a fancy space and a floor cushion. I had great success in the driver’s seat of my car. Try not to lie down: personal experience suggests you’ll probably fall asleep, which is lovely, but not the point.
- Close your eyes and take note of the seat beneath you, and your feet touching the floor. Wriggle a little to get comfortable and gently let go of a little tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders and back.
- Take a few deep breaths, filling your lungs completely and letting the air out in a big sigh.
- Now allow your breathing to return to normal and simply try to focus on each in breath and out breath.
- Here’s the magic: your mind will wander. That’s okay, in fact that’s perfect. (Expert meditators might not suffer from this much, but we mortals do, and it’s ideal, it’s why we’re doing this.) Your job, and your only job, is to notice each time your thoughts stray, and gently invite your focus back to your breath.
- That’s it. Just notice and come back. Don’t follow the thought, let it go. Don’t judge yourself for having it. In fact, congratulate yourself for noticing.
- When your timer goes off, take some further deep breaths, wriggle your fingers and toes, and gently open your eyes.
- Repeat the next day, and the next. Add an extra session if you’re having a truly wretched day.
In time, you’ll get better at noticing when your thoughts wander during your meditation. And here’s the genius part: you’ll start to notice at other times of day, too. Dinty W. Moore writes, “Through the simple awareness of breathing, you can eventually expand your mindfulness to the more complex and involuntary actions of your life.”
If you do nothing else for your well-being this week, I beg you to give this easier meditation approach a shot. Your productivity, relationships and peace of mind all stand to benefit. Please ditch any weary assumptions you might have about meditating and add the skill of paying attention as something you plan to develop.
This post is adapted from my book to help self-published writers conquer stress and boost productivity, Indie With Ease.