Meditation For Beginners – By Dr. Alan Christianson
Hey, there! Dr. Alan Christianson here. I want to talk about a very powerful practice: basic meditation. People often ask me about whether this is something I have done, studied or find useful. The evidence on meditation improving health and psychology is overwhelming. I have looked at many studies, and every single study suggests there are very clear, tangible benefits. We see medical improvements. Digestive function improves. Cardiovascular health improves. Immune function improves. We see a big variety of psychological benefits, such as reductions in anxiety, obsessive symptoms and depressive symptoms. We see heightened mental clarity and a lot of functional improvements. Also, we see things you might not guess, like improved athletic performance, gross and fine motor abilities, creativity, happiness and engagement. All of these get so much better with meditation.
When it comes to meditation, many think about wearing a robe or engaging in religious practices that are not a fit for you, but at this point, the data is strong that you do not need to join a group or change your beliefs in any way. It just takes some simple habits. It turns out our mind and our whole nervous system has this natural, deep, relaxation response (as one person called it). It is built into us. So, there are techniques to help us activate that response and get to it more readily.
The other perk about meditation is psychological growth. What do I mean by that? Well, there are stages that we go through, especially in childhood. There is one stage where a child cannot identify what they are looking at. You can have a piece of paper that is green on one side and blue on the other. You show them the paper and say, “Here are both sides. You see it.” Then, you say, “What color do you see? What color are you looking at?” They can say, “Oh, I see the green side.” Then you can ask them, “What color do I see?” They say, “Green,” even though you see the blue color on the opposite side. At some ages, the children cannot see outside their own perspective. You can then flip the paper and say, “Remember, this is blue,” and they will still say, “I am seeing green, so you must be seeing green.” Somewhere around 3-5 years of age, kids can say, “Oh, I am seeing the green side, but you must be seeing the blue side.” That is one of the stages of psychological growth. There are benchmarks, such as this one, in our psychological growth that happen up to our young adulthood. There are other changes that tend to occur after the typical years of retirement, but in-between those two, you are kind of stuck. In most cases, your level of psychological maturity does not progress during the working years unless you are regularly meditating. Those who meditate, end up ahead by decades of measurable levels of psychological maturity. Maturity might sound kind of stodgy, but maturity actually means fun. These levels of clarity allow you to be in a greater state of engagement, have deeper levels of enjoyment and greater amounts of resiliency. You have greater perspective on the big picture, long term future, and you do not get caught up in all the speed bumps and little circuses of life. You can see past those easier. These are all very tangible benefits.
So, if that is the case, what level of complexity is needed for meditation? Well, not much. Lots of research has shown that the simplest types of repetition can be very effective. They have also looked a lot at timing, frequency, time of day, and situation, so I will tell you about all of those things. They looked at ten-minute sessions, twice daily, being very effective. Between ten to twenty minutes is ideal (you may see more improvement over the longer time frames). Above twenty minutes – between twenty to sixty minutes – the level of improvement is rather small. You can see clear shifts in even ten-minute sessions, so this is not much time commitment at all.
What about the time of day? Whatever time you can practice is the most effective time. If you do have some options, morning is helpful. In many cases, if you have a ritual or practice that you knock out in the morning, it leaves you with a certain amount of confidence and accomplishment that can benefit you throughout the day. Also, for many people, they have a better chance of guarding and controlling their morning in a way to make meditative practice more plausible. So, mornings are great, but again, do not let that be a barrier, as anytime can work.
Where should you meditate? There is no wrong setting. Some people have done this even on commutes on public transportation. It is possible. Ideally, you want a quiet space in which you will not be interrupted. If you have access to a natural setting, you will probably receive even more benefit. Just seek a quiet space where people will not interrupt you, and you have all distractions, like your phone, put away. It is helpful to have passage of time calibrated, so have something like a timer that will gently chime (not one that is loud and abrasive) after your time has passed. Make sure it works properly. I have been in meditations before where I am thinking, “Okay, it should have been twenty minutes. How long has it been? Is the timer going to go off? Is it going to be done sometime soon?” – you can get stuck in a spiral! I actually have done sessions where I did not set the timer right, and after a half hour, I checked and what I was thinking was right – it was too long. So, choose your setting and use a good-working timer.
How do you want to be situated when you meditate? You want to be anywhere your back is straight. Sitting in a chair is great. If you are flexible in certain ways, you can do lotus postures or sit cross-legged, but the important thing is having your back straight and aligned, comfortable and supported. You do not want to be lying down, or you will totally fall asleep and zone out!
When meditating, what goes on inside your head? There are two parts to this: What you intend to do and what is inevitable. We will talk about both. First, let’s talk about what you intend to do. I am going to encourage a variation of meditation, called mantra meditation. This has had one of the largest amounts of research and the least amount of complexity. You want to choose things to repeat. What I love to do is simply count while I am breathing. There are no overtones, no concepts and nothing for your mind to pattern off. I inhale and mentally count, “one-two,” then exhale and count, “one-two.” So you want a pace about like that. As you sit there for a few moments, your breathing often gets slower, so you can then move to a “one-two-three, one-two-three,” or a “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” count. Using simple numbers is easy to maintain. The idea here is that you are using a pace that will keep your mind engaged. Your conscious mind stays more occupied and more focused. This seems to shift us toward the state of repair, rejuvenation and resiliency. Again, you are really just sitting, breathing and mentally (not verbally) counting on the inhale and starting your count again on the exhale. This a simple, intentional, mental technique.
Second, let’s talk about what is inevitable. A lot of people say, “Hey, I cannot meditate. I am restless. My mind gets distracted. I start thinking about things.” Well, guess what? That is totally normal. That is what everyone goes through. That is to be expected. Do not be alarmed. Do not think you are broken. Do not think you are lacking the yogi gene because none of this stuff is true! That is totally normal as this is what our bodies do. It’s just like any other exercise or training. After a few weeks, it will get smoother and easier. Do not beat yourself up if you were planning a five-minute session, and at four minutes, you are just going nuts. Throw in the towel and call it good, but come back to it again tomorrow, and you will make it to five minutes just fine. It does take practice and time, but it is not difficult. So, go into it expecting your mind to race. Your mind will wonder. You will start building to-do lists and thinking, “Oh, I could have said this,” and “I should have said that.” This is totally normal. We are training our minds to function in a more strategic and intentional way, and it does respond. It is something that does take a bit of time. So, don’t expect you will be perfectly focused and on track – maybe ever – and do not think that you have to be. Do not think that you have to reach some blissed-out, perfect, mental state before you see the benefits because that is just not true. They have shown that you can fumble through (as most of us do) when we just start and try to get the hang of it, and you will still see big, tangible, changes to your health. They have shown that within just a few days, with no prior training, people see clear improvements in stress response measurements and blood pressure. So, no matter how bad it goes, it is still very helpful for you. What will happen, over time, is you will become more and more aware of these distracting thoughts but not attached to them. At some point, they will be to you what clouds are passing through the sky. You don’t choose to have the clouds passing through the sky, but you don’t dislike them. It will be the same with your thoughts. Even though random thoughts will come up, you will not have to follow them. They will not grab your attention or distract any longer, which is one of the clear benefits of meditation. That same equanimity and poise will spill over into your everyday life. You will able to stay on task and do what is important to you.
So, give this practice a shot. I am going to challenge you to do it for a week. Do ten minutes in the morning. If you are not doing it already, it is an awesome habit just to touch base with what is going on inside of you. Watch what is coming out of you as you journal. If you don’t journal, start to. Open a dialogue with your inner feelings, your needs and your wants, and see where you are overall. It shifts just after a few days of meditation. You can look back at your notes and see your level of clarity and real engagement in what’s important to you. So, give it a shot for a week. It is that crazy easy, and it is super helpful.
Thanks for tuning in, and I look forward to seeing you really soon.