So, I’ve heard a lot about meditation, but, to be honest, I thought it was something I could only do if I gained special access to certain religions. Call me crazy, but growing up in the rural south didn’t allow for a lot of exposure to these sorts of alternative thinking.
I was intrigued after reading a few magazine articles about the amazing benefits like better sleep, more awareness of body and mind, and ability to quiet your thoughts. After finding out my husband’s blood pressure was sky high due to stress and my own stress levels were interrupting my once blissful sleep, I was desperate. It’s amazing how lack of sleep can really motivate people to try anything. Based on a friend’s recommendation I signed up for a basics of mindfulness meditation class offered at Insight LA.
But first I had to convince my less-than-enthusiastic husband to attend. After a lot of discussion about being more open-minded and adventurous, he agreed to give it a try if only to shut me up. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was going to give it my all.
We were greeted by several friendly faces and welcomed into a large room with about 30 other participants. The instructor, Allen Weiss, gave a brief introduction of himself and quickly calmed mine and my husband’s nerves. This wasn’t going to be a teacher who was so Zen that he couldn’t connect with us newbies. He started by explaining what mindfulness is and how it’s different from other types of meditation. It’s all about being present and aware in the moment. This was exactly what I was looking for! Who doesn’t want to be more present in everyday activities and learn to truly experience life?
As you begin to meditate it’s suggested that you focus on your breathing. And for a moment you think, “This is easy. I can do this.” But before long you start thinking about what to have for dinner or that person at work you need to talk to or how your neck hurts. Dr. Weiss explained that this is absolutely normal.
Mindfulness meditation focuses a lot on the non-judgement of our thoughts. Our minds are made to be active, but it’s also beneficial to calm our minds and turn off that left brain logical beast. As you meditate, labeling your thoughts helps you to actually let go of them and achieve a calmer state of mind. Like when you’re thinking about dinner, label that as planning and then let it go. Or maybe when you’re thinking about your last birthday, label that as a memory and then let it go. This gets much easier with practice. And guided meditation is a great idea for beginners. You may get frustrated and stop if you’re starting out on your own, but with a guided audio you can stay focused and re-center yourself as your mind wanders.
My favorite class was the one where we practiced mindful eating. Each student was given a raisin and we “mindfully” ate it. It’s amazing how many things in our daily lives are automatic. Like walking, for instance. Have you ever tried to explain, in detail, how to walk to an adult? Suddenly you realize how complex this set of motions really is. Mindfulness offers a practice where you focus on these “simple” activities and really experience them.
So, back to the raisin. We examined the appearance first — its intricate grooves and texture. Then we slowly and mindfully brought the raisin to our mouths. As you place the raisin in your mouth you feel your tongue move around the object and move the morsel to your teeth. Your teeth are suddenly tearing through the dehydrated grape skin and you experience a burst of flavor. The tiny pieces swirl around your mouth for a moment or two as your saliva starts to break down the flavors and then you swallow. There is a lingering sweetness in your mouth and you think about the raisin that you just consumed. Do you see the difference from simply popping a handful of raisins in your mouth, chomping a couple of times before you swallow a glob of masticated pulp that could have been almost anything? Mindful eating helps you focus on the flavors and texture of what you’re eating and thus fill up faster.
In such a busy world where we are constantly distracted either by our phones, television, tweets, Facebook updates, as well as other humans, it’s important to let our minds rest. Perhaps the greatest benefit of meditation is the feeling afterwards. You are left feeling calm and peaceful with a clearer mind. Just like talking about a problem lessens its magnitude, calming our minds by sorting through and labeling our thoughts actually frees up space for less distracted and more focused activity. Even though our society values multi-tasking, we aren’t as efficient as when we focus on one thing at a time. Mindfulness meditation helps to condition our minds to be present in the moment and more self-aware.
And, in case you were wondering, my husband’s blood pressure has now significantly reduced and I’m sleeping much better!
Tracey McCrary is a writer and pharmacist enjoying life in Santa Monica who one day hopes to start a band called People Need Juice. Follow her on Twitter @peopleneedjuice