In my previous blog, I discussed how/why mindfulness is the “master” key to change. Mindfulness is being in the present moment nonjudgmentally. Mindfulness is a tool that can help us to focus our attention better. Improving any aspect of our behavior – being kinder, listening to others, modifying our forehand in tennis, remembering where we put our car keys – all require attention. Moreover, when our attention isn’t focused, it often drifts to negative thoughts that are the source of most of our day-to-day suffering (well, at least in most modern/wealthy countries). So, improving our level of mindfulness has countless benefits.
Meditation is typically when we deliberately carve out time to practice mindfulness (some might argue the semantics here, but I don’t think the exact terminology is too important – it’s more about the practice). There are countless ways to meditate (e.g., focusing on breathing, counting, reciting mantras, noticing sensations, thinking compassionate thoughts) but, in one way or another, they are all about different ways of focusing attention. Research shows that even just about 15 minutes per day for several weeks produces detectable, positive changes in the brain as well as corresponding reductions in stress, anxiety, and an enhanced sense of well-being.
Now, meditation sounds simple, but getting in the habit of sitting down to meditate regularly is quite challenging. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, it is just exceedingly difficult to carve out this time. I want to offer some meditation “hacks” to help you weave it into your daily lives because any mindfulness meditation practice is better than none.
How Meditation is Like Going to the Gym
I like using metaphors and analogies quite a bit, and I think of practicing meditation like going to the gym. While not a perfect analogy, it works well enough. We go to the gym to work out (or for a run in the neighborhood, etc.), partly because we won’t get enough exercise if we don’t. Our lives are too sedentary nowadays. So, going to the gym is partial solution (although some research suggests that going to the gym doesn’t offset a sedentary lifestyle). However, if we have had a busy day of walking, doing yard work, cutting firewood, etc., then we might not really need to go to the gym because the workout was woven into our day. Arguably, this is how life was meant to be in the first place! In this sense, going to the gym is compensatory for what we are lacking in our daily lives.
Instead of sitting down to meditate in a more formal manner, we can just weave mini (and many!) meditations throughout the day. These can last from just a few seconds to a few minutes and can ultimately provide some of the benefits of longer meditations and, perhaps, could yield superior benefits because they are part of our lifestyle. Similarly, a physically active lifestyle may yield superior health benefits to a mostly sedentary lifestyle with periodic trips to the gym.
So, to use the modern nomenclature, here are some meditation “hacks” that you can use to get the benefits of a formal meditation practice by just weaving these mini-meditations into your daily life. For all of these suggestions, it is critical that you turn off your cell phone, the radio, or any other electronic devices that could distract you. When your focus strays, gently redirect it back. This is actually part of the meditation – the process of bringing our attention back to the original focus is strengthening the very areas of the brain involved in regulating attention. So, it’s not a fail to catch our attention wandering and bring it back to focus – it is a win!
- Walking meditation – while walking your dog, to get the mail, or just around the block. Choose a focus of your attention – the songs of birds, the feel of the ground beneath your feet, the wind in your hair.
- Driving meditation – for small periods of time while driving, just turn off devices and just focus on the road and the driving experience. Note – this type of meditation IS NOT tuning out the road, other cars, etc., it is intently focusing on the driving experience. So, one is less likely to get into an accident not more.
- Running/cycling meditation – if you run or cycle, turn off any devices (well, you definitely shouldn’t have these on while cycling to begin with!) for chunks of time and just focus on the experience – the sounds, the sights, the smells, the exertion of your muscles, etc.
- Eating/drinking meditation – as you eat or drink, just focus on the various flavors, textures, and sensations of the particular food or drink. Savor!
- Waiting meditation – when you find yourself in a line at Starbuck’s or the supermarket or at a red light, just breath and observe your surroundings (e.g., the sights, sounds, & smells) or you can use the time to do some inner observations (e.g., are your muscles tense, are you cold, hot, thirsty, hungry?).
It is important that when you do the observations, you do this without judging. For instance, while in the supermarket checkout line, avoid judging people for what they have in their shopping carts. You are observing and noticing without judging yourself or others.
I like to think of the following class of meditation as “tethering.” By tethering the mindfulness meditation to a daily activity, the daily activity can serve both as a prompt and as an opportunity to do some mini-meditations. Here are just a few examples:
- Washing hands
- Folding laundry
- Ironing clothes
- Washing dishes
- Before checking email or responding to a text
- Brushing teeth
I’m sure you can think of many other ways to use meditation hacks, but the important thing is to find ways to meditate that work for you. Just like with physical exercise, a modest regimen that you actually stick with will yield much better results than an ambitious plan that you don’t follow at all. With regular practice, weaving these meditations into your life will result in a big improvement in your level of stress and overall sense of well-being.