If you can, take a break from this article to close your eyes and walk very slowly across a quiet room.
If you’re like me, you’ll notice something that had probably never occurred to you: As you take each step, your body—like a ship tossed among large waves—lists heavily from side to side.
“It’s normal to feel off-balance,” the meditation instructor told our class during this room-walking exercise. “If you have to open your eyes, go right ahead.”
As my six classmates and I shuffled back and forth across the warm floor of the yoga studio, I did my best to release any thoughts that popped into my head.
“You can’t prevent all thoughts from entering your mind,” our instructor had told us during a previous class. “But with practice, you can learn to let your thoughts go without reacting to them emotionally.” He told us it might be helpful to label our thoughts as they came to us—observations, judgments, plans, worries—and to imagine them drifting away “like balloons.”
At the same time, we were told to focus on our bodies or breath in order to anchor our minds in the here and now.
This sort of exercise—learning to “stay present” by releasing the constant chatter that fills our heads—is the backbone of mindfulness meditation. Do this every day, and research suggests you can fend off stress, improve focus and well-being, and even change the way your brain functions.
Actually, the term “mindfulness meditation” is a bit of a misnomer. Mediation is the daily practice that helps increase “mindfulness,” or your ability to stay present and fully engaged in whatever you’re doing from moment to moment.
Think of it this way: If you’re eating your dinner, but your brain is running through that email you sent to your boss or what you need to pack for your trip, you’re not being mindful. Your brain isn’t enjoying your dinner; it’s worrying or daydreaming or planning.
More and more research suggests this propensity to take our minds off what we’re doing—to constantly concern ourselves with the past or what’s to come—supercharges stress and all its associated health harms. Even if you’re involved in something boring or mundane—say, commuting to work—mind-wandering is linked to feelings of unhappiness, according to a study from Harvard University.
In our modern world of smart phones and incessant distraction, anchoring our thoughts to the present has grown more and more difficult. The fact that I couldn’t finish a TV show or meal without reaching for my phone was one of the biggest reasons I’d signed up for this meditation course, and most of my classmates voiced similar concerns during our first-day meet-and-greet.
Over the course of our four workshop sessions, I learned that mediation does not require sitting with legs crossed in the lotus position, hands balanced on knees like some kind of Buddhist idol. While sitting with an upright posture in a quiet room helps beginners get their heads in the right place, meditation can also be practiced standing, lying down, or even walking—as we learned during that third class.
“Some people find sitting or lying down makes them sleepy, so walking may be best for them,” our instructor told us.
While the workshop was just one evening a week, we were encouraged to meditate for 20 minutes each day—the minimum amount of practice most studies have linked to mental and physical health benefits.
The workshop involved a few exercises designed to help us assess our thoughts and quiet our brains. But mostly it was just 90 minutes of guided practice—the same type of guidance you can get from mindfulness apps like Stop, Breathe and Think. Our instructor told us these apps could help us recall what we’d learned in class; but he cautioned us to use them sparingly. “They can’t do the practice for you, and you don’t want to rely on them,” he said.
Three months have passed since the workshop, and I’ve been pretty good at keeping up with my daily practice. Work and family occasionally intrude, and carving out 20 minutes of solitude each day is a challenge.
But I’ve found the more I practice, the more mindfulness elbows its way into other parts of my day. I no longer listen to podcasts during every gym visit, or spend my commute hashing through all the work deadlines I have coming up. I’ve even managed to cut down on my impulse to reach for my phone every ten minutes.
Do I feel calmer and a less stressed these days? I’d say so. My wife says I seem less testy. And I definitely feel more focused, whether I’m writing an article or reading a new piece of research.
I can even make it through a meal without reaching for my phone. As far as I’m concerned, that alone is reason to stick with it.