As we’ve become more connected than ever, it seems we’ve simultaneously become more distracted than ever. In fact, according to a study by the University of California, Irvine, looking at interruptions, the average American gets distracted at work every three minutes. That’s a lot of bouncing between tabs on your Internet browser.
In the end, the Irvine study found that, while the same quality of work was getting done, the workers experienced significantly more stress, pressure, frustration and expelled more effort than if they had simply stayed on task. Just thinking about being a part of this study is a little stress inducing. And this is a feeling many people nowadays are at least somewhat familiar with. But there’s a way to combat these distractions: through mindfulness, a process of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.
One way to increase mindfulness is through the practice of meditation. Meditation, while now in the Western zeitgeist more than ever before, has been around for centuries. In fact, its roots may even be prehistoric, as some of the earliest records of the practice date back to roughly 5,000 BCE in the Indus Valley civilization. Since then, it has been most notably linked with Buddhism, but has played a role in nearly all cultures and spiritual paths.
The practice of mindful meditation is not for typically stereotyped “woo-woo” people either. Countless research has been and continues to be conducted around the benefits of meditation, with positive results. In one UCLA study, longtime meditators’ brains had noticeably thicker tissue in their prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for attention and control), and findings continue to show decreases in stress and blood pressure in meditators.
Meditation, in its simplest form, is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. In other words, meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment.
There are a variety of forms of meditation out there, from moving meditation, to transcendental, to Vipassana, to Vedic, to Primordial Sound. If none of those words mean anything to you (yet), a good place to start may be with a basic breath-focus meditation. In focused-breath meditation, you will breathe in equal count inhales and exhales (try four seconds for each) and aim to allow yourself to let go of your thoughts as they come. This is usually when the hardest part of meditation tends to kick in: the thinking part. It can often feel like once you sit down to meditate, a floodgate is opened and your random thoughts just flow in. The reality is that your thoughts will come. With time, however, you will be able to let them go and improve your ability to sink into a meditative state more quickly.
In the meantime, rather than sitting there thinking about your to-do list or an e-mail you forgot to send, allow the thought to simply pass by you. Instead of following it, let it go and return to focusing on your breath, which will help keep you in the present moment. The important thing is to let go of your thoughts without any judgment. Consider the fact that what appears (or pops up) in your mind isn’t necessarily truth or even reality; it’s simply a thought that can go just as easily as it came.
For those curious about trying meditation, we have six easy ways to bring more Zen into your life by starting up an at-home routine:
1) Scout out a quiet spot, but accept distractions.
Try to find a quiet location so you can focus less on the outside and more on following your breath but acknowledge the fact that noises will arise. Let that be part of the process, as often times you cannot avoid the neighbor’s lawn mower or a siren, and that’s okay. Just notice it, and let it go.
2) Find your version of a comfortable posture.
For some it’s seated cross-legged on the floor; for some, it’s sitting upright in a chair; and for others, it’s lying on your back. For those with back issues, lying on your back with your legs at a 90-degree angle draped over a chair or couch helps neutralize the spine. Find whatever works best for you so you’re not distracted by physical discomforts like tight hips or back pain.
3) Select the right time for you.
Attempting to have a meditation practice that’s 30 minutes long from the get-go will likely set you up for a frustrating experience. If you’re just getting started with meditation, try five minutes, then 10, and work your way up to 25-30 minutes. Allow yourself the space to get annoyed and want to stop and the patience to stick with it.
4) Pick a relaxing scent.
Using aromatherapy in the form of essential oils, incense, candles, palo santo wood or sage is an easy way to let yourself know it’s time to drop into your meditation. Look for scents like ylang-ylang, frankincense, cedar, rose and sandalwood.
5) Do not disturb.
If you live with others, let them know that you need the designated time alone to meditate, and ask them to provide you with a little privacy. That said, you can also meditate together by sitting or lying next to each other, so long as everyone agrees to remain silent until the meditation timer rings.
6) There’s an app for that.
If you enjoy soft white noise or music, you can find meditation sounds on streaming platforms like Spotify and timers on apps like Insight Timer. If approaching a meditation practice without guidance sounds a little intimidating, there are plenty of platforms and applications out there. Popular choices include Breathe, Headspace and Relax Meditation. Guided meditations can provide sounds, tips, and cues to help you deepen your practice, so try them out and find one that works the best for you.