Anxiety is a very normal part of human existence.
Whether you’re applying for a job or speaking in front of a group, chances are you’ve experienced some form of anxiety in your life.
In mild cases you may experience an increase in heart rate and breathing, this is to direct the blood into your brain in order to prepare you for the intense task at hand.
However, in cases of severe anxiety, you will begin to feel dizzy and lightheaded which, if left to persist on its own, may wreak havoc on your mental and physical well-being.
Anxiety disorder – which is affecting more and more human beings each day – is when you experience excessive episodes of anxiety which can come between to you and your social, family, and work obligation and often lead to the onset of depression.
This can be very debilitating to you and take a large toll on the health of your mind, body, and soul.
Then again, when it comes to the well-being of your mind, body, and soul, few can match the power to quiet the mind and relax the body the way meditation can.
Meditation is an ancient and powerful tool that has been in practice for thousands of years in numerous cultures and religious traditions.
There is also a myriad of scientific data to support the testimonies of modern practitioners and spiritual wise men alike on the benefits meditation can yield in your life.
Meditation has been proven time and time again to aid in the reduction of stress, prevention of depression, calm the mind, and – of course – the alleviation of anxiety.
Deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions, mindfulness is the state of mind wherein one brings his or her attention into the present moment by means of meditation.
This can be done (with a certain amount of practice) by meditating into a point of consciousness in which your mind becomes but an observer, regarding your own thoughts and emotions with calm understanding.
To observe but not interact is what they call it.
By allowing your thoughts and feelings to simply float by and not engaging them in such a way that they may begin to negatively affect you, you allow yourself some reprieve from the stresses of everyday modern living.
You also give yourself the chance to sort out all the mental clutter that might have been competing for your attention.
Many large population-based studies have shown that routine mindfulness meditation can indeed reduce rumination or worry, stress and anxiety, combat the symptoms of depression, and is correlated with the improvement of one’s overall well-being.
Mindfulness is now gaining traction in the medical world and is experiencing greater usage by psychologists, hospitals, and medical centers respectively.
The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
- Improves Your Cognitive Functions: According to a 2003 study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine (1), in which subjects undergo an 8-week meditation program, the effects of a regular meditative practice can help the development of the brain in so much that the results can be wide-reaching. The practicing of mindfulness has been shown to greatly increase activity in the left anterior region – which resides on the front left side of the brain. This region is associated with the resiliency towards stressful situations and negativity. Routine meditations can also cause a thickening of the cerebral cortex – located in the front of the brain – which deals with the processing of audio and visual stimuli, based on a 2005 study published in Neuroreport (2). This is connected to your in-the-moment awareness and the regulation of emotions thus, meditation can work wonders for improving your ability to focus and self-control.
- Helps to Lower Levels of Stress, Anxiety, and the Prevention of Depression: Researchers from the University of Oregon have discovered that the practice of mindfulness can, in fact, wire your brain to safeguard itself against mental illness (3). By increasing the signals toward the axonal density and raising production of the protective tissue myelin – located in the brain’s anterior cingulate region, meditation improves the brains protective functions. In a 2013 research, published in the journal Health Psychology (4), meditation has been also shown to give you a better grip on your pain and emotions by working at your cortical alpha rhythms, as well as alleviate stress by reducing the hormone cortisol. According to a 2000 and 2004 study published in the Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology (5), those who have been diagnosed with depression in the past are 50% less likely to relapse due to the effect meditation can have on lowering negative ruminative thought by way of repetitive reflection. In adopting the non-judgmental attitude required to execute Mindfulness Meditation, you attack the very heart of your anxiety since you will be able to perceive your fears and worries in a different light.
- Enhancing Your Immune System: Also found in the 2003 study in which participants must complete an 8-week meditation program, mindfulness meditation can very well enhance the effectiveness of your immune system by increasing the production of antibodies (1). Antibodies are proteins produced with the specific purpose of destroying viruses and other harmful elements. Stress and stressful situations impede the production of antibodies in your body, so meditation’s ability to reduce stress will result in a bonus for your physical health as well.
- You Become a Better Person: The ability to review, one by one, the many thoughts that may have plagued your mind from a new point of view, you are given valuable insight into their true nature. Understanding yourself and your afflictions more will allow you to sympathize even more so with others who might be in similar situations. Your increased ability to remain calm, attentive, and then decide the way you do during meditations shall turn you into a valuable figure to those with whom you have shared your new found wisdom. You find yourself cultivating deeper, more meaningful relationships in turn. Being at peace with yourself (a kind of peace which only meditation can provide) is so rare in the hustle and bustle that was once known as life. The capability to view things in retrospect and realize the greater picture will afford you deeper interactions with other human beings. You are more compassionate now more than ever as a result of the time you spend with your inner self. At balance with your mind, body, and soul.
Mindfulness is a practice that will undoubtedly become an indispensable tool in your personal growth. Do not be afraid to take the step forward into true understanding.
You must not become a slave to stress and anxiety. Learn how to meditate, be mindful, and take the time much needed to focus on yourself for a change.
The motivation behind starting Stillmind was to create a simple, pragmatic tool. I wanted the language to be intentionally pared-down and posts to be helpful and easy to understand.
So the suggestions here are concise and easily-implemented. I hope you’ll give them a try. Perhaps today.
What is Concentration?
Have you ever noticed how exhausting rumination can be? It’s wearying to have our attention dissipated across thought after thought, task after task. It requires and drains us of our energy.
Concentration is a wilful focusing of our attention. We “settle down” with our energy so that we can funnel it into a single task. Sometimes this is effortless, such as when we achieve flow. Other times it requires a conscious act of will.
Mindfulness keeps us on track, bringing us back whenever our attention has become scattered. If concentration means being fully engaged, mindfulness means being aware that we’re doing so.
How Mindfulness Helps Concentration
When we become mindful we are instantly reminded of what we ought to be doing, of the intention we have set ourselves.
To quote the Buddhist scholar Bhante Henepola Gunaratana from his book Mindfulness in Plain English: “It [mindfulness] re-establishes itself simply by noticing that it has not been present. As soon as you are noticing that you have not been noticing, then by definition, you are noticing and then you are back again to paying…attention.”
We become mindful of our breathing, for example, when we notice we are not being mindful of it. The same is true of our work.
So what we’re trying to do is integrate the habit of mindfulness. We want it to become interwoven with the activity we’re doing, insistently bringing us back to it. Whenever we drift into distraction or rumination, the opposite of concentration, we can “return”.
Once we are with our task, once we can trust that our awareness will keep us there, then we can purposefully pour our energy into it.
Equally as important is the need to remain with ONE undertaking. Not only does multitasking increase our work time by up to fifty percent, we’re also more likely to make mistakes. Focus has to be directed on a single point.
In this way, I think there are three components of steady concentration: a single task, the cultivation of mindfulness and our strong intention to fully engage.
Another step is to change our relationship with boredom. Most flee from bland situations with all their will. I know that I hate being bored. Yet we can see the experience as a prompt to mindfulness, to re-engage with the details of our task and our purpose in doing it.
Tedium, apathy, restlessness, whatever you want to call it, comes from a lack of variety and meaning in our work. Mindfulness, through enriching whatever is in front of us, remedies these gaps.
Another Reason to Meditate
As mentioned, what we want is the habit of becoming mindful. There is no better way to foster this than to meditate regularly. Meditation is the very act of returning, time and again, to a chosen stimulus – whether it’s the breath, the body or a mental object. We are training ourselves, both mentally and physiologically, to come back to our focal point. This will transfer into our daily life.
Take this extract from Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Happiness at Work: “You sit on the cushion so many times, your body and nervous system start to learn the practice, noticing when you’re distracted, and dropping it, taking a breath and coming back. And so, if you’ve done that so many times, it becomes easier to access even in the flow of life.”
“You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.”
~ Pema Chödrön
As a student, I had several dull days where I could have used a few mindfulness exercises.
Specifically, I had a string of part-time jobs.
One of the most mind-numbing jobs was working at the Primark store on London’s Oxford Street.
I would often spend my whole seven-hour shift folding shirt after shirt into a neat pile only to have a customer come along and tear one from the bottom, sending it toppling over.
But it did hold a lesson for me: involvement, not distraction, is the key.
Rather than seeing these little mindfulness exercises as an escape, look at them as a means of becoming more absorbed, for however fleeting a moment in your work, your environment, or yourself.
Mindfulness Exercises for Anxiety
These exercises were designed to be quick, easy and fun to do!
1. Breathe Slowly for 60 Seconds
Try breathing deeply and slowly for sixty seconds. Use this timer if you need to.
Lengthen each inhalation and exhalation by a count of five, so that you’re averaging about five breaths per minute. This is called the “Resonant breathing rate,” a pace which engages the parasympathetic nervous optimally for most people.
Breathing in, two, three, four, five.
Breathing out, two, three, four, five.
If you find yourself getting a little breathless, start by counting up from three or four. Slow, deep breathing has been shown to have a variety of positive health benefits. Learn more about breathing exercises designed to help you de-stress in 5 minutes or less.
2. Try the “Stop!” Exercise
G.I. Gurdjieff would use this exercise on his students. As they went about their daily activities he would sometimes walk by them and shout, “Stop!”.
The student then had to freeze instantly for as long as Gurdjieff wished. Sometimes it lasted for hours.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing now, just stop and hold that position. If you’re typing, freeze with your hands on the keyboard.
If you’re drinking a cup of tea, freeze with your hand halfway towards your mouth. Be fully aware of yourself.
3. Notice Something New in Your Environment
Consciously look for something that you have never noticed before. Keep looking until you find one thing, however long it takes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be visual, it could be a sound or even a smell.
4. Do a Quick Bodyscan
This is a great one, especially for releasing any tensions or aches.
Bring your attention to your feet
Let them relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your shins and calves
Let them relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your thighs
Let them relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your buttocks
Let them relax and loosen buttocks
Bring your attention to your abdomen
Let it relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your chest
Let it relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your arms
Let them relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your hands
Let them relax and loosen
Bring your attention to your head
Let your mouth, cheeks, nose, eyelids relax and loosen
Rest for a few moments in full-body awareness.
You’ll feel revitalized.
5. Go For A Walk
“Walk as if your feet are kissing the ground.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
If you can be somewhere you won’t be disturbed for a few moments, try a standing or standing or walking meditation.
Simply focus on the sensation of your foot as it lifts from the ground, as your leg moves forward, as your heel touches the ground, as your weight shifts, as your second foot rises and so on. Let us know in the comments if these mindfulness exercises were helpful.
Stories about spiritual figures and themes of self-discipline often go hand-in-hand.
Take the example of Sadhu Haridas. On the 22nd August 1880, the Daily Telegraph ran a piece about an Indian fakir who was buried for forty days with no food or water and a limited oxygen supply. On the fortieth day, he was disinterred, in full health. The British ambassador at the time, along with the full court of the Maharaja, verified the feat.
Then, of course, there’s the legend of Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma, who is meant to have spent nine years facing a cave wall in meditation (Chinese Bodhi dolls have no legs due to the fact that they would have atrophied).
In this article I want to look at the role self-discipline might play in our own lives. It’s very common for people to start meditating then fall out of the habit. I often hear comments along the lines of, “I used to meditate every day but stopped,” or, “I was really into it, I keep meaning to start again.”
You might have noticed the same thing, maybe it’s even true of yourself. It’s certainly happened to me a few times. The question I find so curious is this: why is a habit that’s so beneficial, so seemingly easy to do, also so easy to fall out of?
When we talk about “foundations” we usually mean things like posture or an adequate understanding of the techniques involved. Rarely does the discipline needed to actually practice on a regular basis receive much attention. This is despite the fact that I cannot recall going to a retreat or course where the instructor didn’t emphasize and over-emphasize the importance of consistency.
First of all, let’s clarify what we actually mean by the term. Self-discipline is generally defined as the ability to undertake a particular course of action irrelevant to one’s emotional state. If we have two conflicting goals, our propensity to make a choice of one over the other that isn’t based on immediate gratification marks our self-control in a given situation. Some interesting and unusual research has been done in the field and people who have high levels of self-control tend to be happier.
So how do we go about fostering the ability to sit down in the first place?
Being Aware That We Don’t Actually Want to Sit and Be Still
In his book The Law of Attention, Edward Salim Michael outlines one possible reason why meditating regularly can be such an effort.
“The aspirant will notice…that, in the beginning of his spiritual practice, when he is still struggling with the initial efforts to remain as “present” and as concentrated as he can during his meditation, he has a hidden desire to stop most of the time – and is almost even relieved when he finishes meditating.” (1)
If we notice the tremendous importance we’ve placed on our day-to-day preoccupations, we can begin to see why this might be the case. Our mind is constantly willing us to return to these activities: “…his restless mind [was] refusing to give up its preoccupations and making him even secretly long to finish meditating in order to return to outer activities that kept surreptitiously calling him to them….” (2)
This is a crucial point. If we want to overcome the subtle drive to return to our daily concerns we first need to be aware of what’s happening. As our meditative practice grows deeper and we start enjoying it more, this yearning to re-engage with our preoccupations will diminish. Michael points out that we begin to look forward to the period set aside for meditation each day. Exercising self-discipline helps us to overcome the initial inertia we’re bound to face.
Establishing and keeping a regular practice is not difficult. We just need to be honest with ourselves and pragmatic in our approach. The following are a handful of strategies that I’ve found helpful.
Figure out Your Current Position and Build From There
This point is the crux of the article. The comparison between muscle training and fostering self-discipline is a common one. The idea is that, in the same way, we have our current capacity to lift a certain weight, we also have a capacity to perform any other activity (including meditation). We are able to increase this capacity by sustained and incremental training.
How do we go about figuring out how strong we are now? The easiest way is simply to experiment. Once you’ve found a level that is achievable but still requires effort, you have your foundation on which to build.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with starting with two minutes a day. Keep this in mind: we do not want to push ourselves too hard or too gently. We should always search for the middle-ground, the place where we feel the internal pressure without becoming overwhelmed.
Personally, I work by increasing my sitting time by one minute every two weeks. The Sanskrit term “ghatika” refers to a meditation period of 24 minutes, which is supposed to be ideal for beginners. That could be a level to work towards. (3)
Diversity is a Good Thing
The diverse set of spiritual practices that we loosely term “meditation,” comprise techniques from countless different schools and traditions. This is a good thing for us. By varying things occasionally we can avoid getting bored. Consider trying Metta Bhavana (cultivation of loving-kindness) or a body scan to spice things up.
Awareness is Your Ally in the Harder Periods
Sometimes things will flow easily. Other times you will feel tense and frustrated. Remember that both your mind and body have their own rhythms and cycles and can’t be forced. Yesterday, your chest was soft, today it’s full of tension. Our bodies are ever-changing.
Ajaan Lee writes: “your body is the same as every other body, human or animal, throughout the world: It’s inconstant, stressful, and can’t be forced. So stay with whatever part does go as you’d like it to, and keep it comfortable. This is called dhamma-vicaya: being selective in what’s good.” (4)
If we can cultivate an attitude of non-judgemental awareness in these harder periods we’re much less likely to become upset and demotivated. Anthony De Mello (SJ) is one of my favorite writers and he has this to say on the topic: “I’m talking about self-observation. What’s that? It means to watch everything in you and around you as far as possible and watch it as if it were happening to someone else. What does that sentence mean? It means that you do not personalize what is happening to you. It means you look at things as if you have no connection with them whatsoever.” (5) He goes on: “No judgement, no commentary, no attitude: one simply observes, one studies, one watches, without the desire to change what is.” (6)
Maintain Mindfulness Throughout the Day
You’ll notice that you tend to feel a heightened sense of relaxation immediately after your formal session. Try and maintain awareness whenever possible. Simple breathing exercises (like the “Ha” or ujjayi breath) are superb for weaving into your working day.
I hope you enjoyed the post! Share your own thoughts in the comments below.