Do you find yourself feeling angry, stressed or frustrated and at times you don’t even know why?
Do you worry about mistakes from the past or different things that may happen in the future?
Do you have a million things to do and sometimes the stress of it all prevents you from doing anything at all?
Do you feel like sometimes you are your own worst enemy?
If some or all of those questions apply to you, there is a great chance meditation can significantly help.
This program is designed to introduce a person to mindfulness based meditation. It was based on the study created by the Massachusetts General Hospital and published in the January 30th, 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
That study showed that a small amount of time spent in mindfulness meditation every day can produce significant changes in the structure of the brain within 8 weeks. Magnetic resonance machines were used to scan the brain of two groups: one group was the control group who did not do any meditation, the second group received mindfulness meditation instruction and were told to track how long they meditated each day.
After 8 weeks their brains were scanned again. The group who meditated for 8 weeks showed significant growth in the grey matter density of the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with increased learning, memory improvement, and focus. Other areas of the brain also grew, those areas that are linked with self-awareness, introspection, and compassion among others.
The study also found that the cortical pathways in the amygdala, an area associated with anxiety and stress, had DECREASED grey matter. This results in lower stress, lowered anxiety, and an increased ability to better deal with life's problems.
The key to this entire study is that the participants were not meditating for hours upon hours each day to achieve these changes in their brain. When polled, the meditators had only practiced mindfulness meditation for an average of 27 minutes a day. In less than 30 minutes a day they had increased their concentration, memory, self-awareness, compassion, happiness, and reduced anxiety. What's more, they experienced these benefits not only while they meditated, but also throughout their day to day lives.
What you need to get started:
These are the things you will need in order to complete this program.
- TIME (required): The most important thing you will need will be time. 30 minutes per day. When I completed this 8 week experiment myself, I found it much easier to break the time in half by meditating for 15 minutes in the morning, and 15 minutes in the evening. You may find that works for you, or you may prefer just meditating for 30 minutes all together. Either way, experiment with both and see what works for you.
- MEDITATION PILLOW (optional): Having a proper meditation pillow can really help with your practice. Often times before people start a workout routine they like to buy new workout clothes and new running shoes. Having new things can be inspiring and give you that boost you need in order to follow through. Buying a meditation pillow is relatively inexpensive, most can be found for $20-50 dollars and will last for years.
- A PLACE TO MEDITATE (required): Any spot will do. If you have a spare bedroom, you can turn that into your meditation area. Or if you are like me, you can just take a small corner of your bedroom and meditate there. I like to meditate with eyes facing a blank wall, but you can also meditate outside, or in a more open area if it suits you.
- CONSISTENCY (required): Chances are you have probably heard about the benefits of meditation already. You may have friends, family members, and celebrities all talking about how meditation has changed their lives. You may have even tried it once or twice in the past.
The key to meditation is consistency. Meditating for 8 hours 1 day a month won't do nearly as much as meditating for 30 minutes a day consistently. Think of it like boiling a potato. You will have a lot of trouble doing that if you put a pot of water on the stove, and you turn the stove on high for 10 seconds every hour. You will have much better luck turning it on a low temperature and leaving it on for that hour instead. Consistency is key!
- MEDITATION APP (optional): I find that a meditation application for your phone really helps with tracking and monitoring your success. The one I use on a daily basis is ‘Meditation Helper Pro’ that you can find in the google store. It's inexpensive (and there is also a completely free version) and it allows you to set a bell for the beginning and end of your meditation, and track the time you are meditating. There are similar apps available for the iPhone. I still remember how surprised and excited I was when I checked my meditation logs and saw that I had meditated for over 24 hours!
How to Meditate:
When people think of meditation they sometimes have the mistaken belief that it means you sit in an uncomfortable pretzel shape while you completely empty your mind and think about nothing. That’s not true!
Trying to ‘not think’ is extremely difficult. Your brain is an organ, just like the heart or your lungs. The heart beats, the lungs breathe, and your brain thinks. The purpose of meditation is not to stop thinking, but to direct your attention to a specific point and notice when your mind wanders. Once you catch it doing this, you bring it back to the point of focus.
For this meditation, we will be focused on the breath. Simply bringing your focus and your attention to the FEELING of the breath. That is a very important distinction to make. You aren’t thinking about breathing, you are instead experiencing the feeling of breathing. It’s a powerful, but subtle difference.
Feeling the air as it passes through your nostrils. Feel it as it expands your lungs. Feel it as you experience that brief pause before you begin to exhale. Feel the air pass as you exhale smoothly. Etc…. You aren’t breathing any faster or any slower, you are just breathing normally, but while you do that you also bring your attention to the feeling of breathing.
To understand the basics of meditation, please download this guided meditation first which will help you get the process down. Think of this guided meditation like training wheels, it makes things easier at first but you want to be ‘riding on your own’ as soon as you get the process down.
How to Sit:
There are many ways to sit in meditation. Depending on the day, I may sit in Burmese posture, half lotus, kneeling, or sometimes simply sitting in a chair. Here is a great video which outlines some of the basic and advanced postures:
I do not personally have the flexibility required to sit in full lotus, and unless you are naturally flexible I would start with something simple like the burmese posture. It’s easy, and it provides a good structure to meditate in.
The purpose of sitting a ‘special’ way is two-fold:
1) It is a position that allows you to breath easily and be comfortable without moving for long periods of time.
2) It is a physical and mental ‘anchor’. By choosing a special seated position that you normally do not sit in, you are training your body that by getting into that position you are going to meditate. This begins shifting your brain waves into that meditative state even easier just by actively sitting in that position.
What to do with the hands?
Like different seated postures, there are many ways to place your hands. Find one that is comfortable to you. I usually place mine on my knees, or in a meditation ‘mudra’ which is pictured below. Experiment with different positions, and find which works best for you.
What to do with the eyes?
I recommend meditating with the eyes half open, looking slightly downwards, while facing a wall. If you meditate with eyes closed completely, oftentimes you will have a tendency to be absorbed in thought and become distracted by your internal world. The same if you eyes are open completely, you can become distracted by what things look like around you.
I sit in front of a wall, and I imagine looking at a point 6 feet in front of me on the floor. Of course, my view of this imaginary point is blocked by a very real wall only a couple feet from me. But by looking in this way, it allows my eyes to unfocus and the eyelids to half-close naturally. This has been the most effective way for me to place my eyes during meditation.
How to complete this program:
Like many things that are worthwhile, this program is simple, but not easy. To complete this program you simply need to practice mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day for 8 consecutive weeks (56 days). That is all.
You will most likely encounter some pitfalls and obstacles. Here I will answer some common questions people ask me, as well as some insights I had when I first completed my 8 week meditation program.
“I can’t sit still for 30 minutes at a time! What can I do to make it easier?”
- The goal is to meditate for 30 minutes a day, and I personally split this into two 15 minute meditation sessions when I first completed this program. One was at the beginning of my day right after I woke up, the second was sometime in the evening after work. I found this easier to do, especially in the beginning when I wasn’t used to sitting for so long.
“This is hard, my mind is wandering all over the place and I can’t seem to stop it!”
- Don’t worry about trying to stop thoughts, simply observe them without judgement. What I mean by that is view them as neither good nor bad, view them just as thoughts. When you can, bring your mind back to your breath.
I’ve been meditating for years and random thoughts still come into my mind. Remember, the purpose of meditation isn’t to stop thoughts, it’s to realize when you are thinking and to have more control over where you direct your attention.
“I have ADD or ADHD, can I still meditate?”
Yes, you can. According to a study by Dr. Lidia Zylowska at UCLA which focused on mindfulness meditation in adults with ADHD, about 75% of the participants saw a reduction in symptoms that were related to their attention deficit disorder.
You may have more difficulty than your average person in beginning meditation, but that may lead to even greater benefits in the long run. If you are on any medication for ADHD, please consult with your physician before you reduce or change it in any way.
“Meditation is boring…”
- Many people find meditation to be boring at first, that’s ok. Occasionally, even I find meditation to be a bit dull, what excites me are the benefits I see in my day to day life.
We are so used to being bombarded with stimulus during every waking minute that sitting in silence with just our own mind can seem torturous at first! You aren’t alone and it gets easier. Meditation itself will eventually become a place of peace for you. One that recharges, energizes, and focuses you.
“What should I notice during the times I’m not meditating while I complete my 8 week program?”
- Notice your daily stress levels. Notice your ability to concentrate and focus. Notice what type of thoughts you have during the day and what you think of them. Notice how you sleep at night. Notice the habits you create or eliminate from your life.
I found that after about 5 or 6 weeks things that used to bother me, just didn’t bother me anymore. The annoyance, anger, and frustration I used to feel just simply wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t replaced by anything, it was just gone. I had more patience with others, and also with myself.
This cannot be stated enough. These were problems I had been trying to ‘think through logically’ for years, and I made very little progress. It wasn’t until I began meditation that things started to click, and my life improved dramatically. My outside situation had not changed much, but my inner world had completely changed for the better.
“What should I do when I’m done with the 8 weeks? Should I stop meditating?”
- If you are like me and many others, the changes you experience will be so positive that you will decide to keep meditating long after your 8 weeks have finished. I always encourage people to examine their lives honestly.
Look at your life before the 8 weeks began and how you felt. Notice how you feel after the 8 weeks. What are the differences?
Most likely you won’t have access to brain scanning machines to measure the difference before and after the 8 weeks, so it will be up to you to judge how you feel and how your perspective has changed.
Sometimes we can be tricked by outside circumstances. We may think that outside improvements to our lives are what made us happier and more content on the inside. During your 8 weeks you may have experienced many instances of luck or a positive changes in your life, job, or relationships.
Take a moment to REALLY examine yourself and your life, you may be surprised. Perhaps you will be like me, and things that used to bother you, just don’t anymore. They didn’t leave your life, they just aren’t the focus of your life anymore.
You are actively directing your attention to more positive things, which in turn has an impact on how you live your life and how you treat others and how they treat you. This creates opportunities for you. Opportunities you might not have even noticed before because you were so distracted by other things in life.
I think it comes down to this: If meditation improves your life, keep doing it. If after 8 weeks your perspective and your life are no different, then don’t continue meditation. The most you have lost is 30 minutes a day staring at a wall. We often do that anyway, but we do it for hours and hours staring at a box we call television!
“Wait, so I have to keep doing this my entire life in order to still see the benefits!?”
- I think of meditation like mental health maintenance that makes me happier, more productive, and more compassionate. Many things in life don’t last forever. You have to shower on a regular basis to keep clean, does that mean that showering is a pointless activity since you don’t stay clean forever?
“What is the long term goal of meditation?”
- I am still relatively new to meditation, since at the time of writing this I’ve only meditated for a few years. When I first completed my 8 week challenge in 2012 about 4 or 5 week into it the benefits I was experiencing were so noticeable I promised myself I would continue meditating for the rest of my life.
Have I meditated every single day since then? No, I generally meditate 6 or 7 days a week, once or twice a day. Every now and then life has gotten so hectic that I stopped meditating for a few weeks at a stretch. At that point I always start feeling more frazzled, more crazy, more frustrated, and more negative emotions! Once I feel that, it is a sign that I have let life get in the way and disrupt my meditation practice. After I begin it again, it only takes me a few days to start feeling much calmer and more in control.
What I’m getting at is I focus on progress, not perfection.
“I don’t have time to sit and stare at a wall for 30 minutes. I have kids, a spouse, a full time job and I’m going to school! I barely have time to sleep, much less waste time on meditation!”
- All of the things that you mention have a common element: You! If you improve yourself, then all of those areas of your life will also begin seeing improvement.
If I find myself getting too busy and I think I don’t have time to ‘sit and stare at a wall’ for 15-30 minutes, then I remind myself of this zen proverb:
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
I highly encourage you to give this 8 week meditation program a shot. If you have any questions at all you can e-mail me using the contact form on this site, or call my office at 208-286-8966. I run a private hypnotherapy practice in Boise, Idaho and mindfulness is one of the main strategies I use to help people that are struggling with medical issues and addictions.
A link to the study this article cites:
Other books and resources to help you with meditation:
Nothing Happens Next: Responses to Questions About Meditation, by Cheri Huber. This is a wonderful book, especially for new meditators or those finishing their 8 week program.
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. A classic in the field of meditation, zen, and mindfulness. This gives amazing lessons, and also shares what a person can expect as they move through the stages of their meditation journey. A great book for beginner and advanced practitioners.