By Julie Rosenberg, MD
Our minds are filled with chatter. We worry. We think about our ongoing to-do lists. We brood about hurtful things that happened in the past, and we create “what if” scenarios for the future. Mind chatter makes it nearly impossible to slow down and enjoy the present, much less focus on an important task at hand. Meditation can be an effective way to cut down on that chatter. It helps us respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively. It provides a fraction-of-a-second delay in our thought process—just enough time to reconsider whether you really want to do or say what the voice in your head is urging.
However, many people fear meditation. They view it as a daunting task, reserved only for individuals with a high tolerance to sit cross-legged on the floor in a dark room, silently breathing for hours. When I first engaged in meditation, I thought it was a really weird practice. I wasn’t sure of the point, and I doubted whether I would get anything out of an activity that involved sitting, breathing, and then just getting up and going about my business (which was how I perceived it). However, I acknowledged that I needed help to better manage my career and my personal life, as I too often became overwhelmed and irritable. I wasn’t always nice to be around. So I asked myself, What do I have to lose by trying meditation? Nothing ventured. Nothing gained.
At first, the results of my meditation practice were limited. However, after about a year, the impact was profound. I was less stressed, less reactive, and less judgmental. It was an incredible difference.
The techniques of meditation are available to all of us, and they can be used at any time to calm mind chatter. In meditation, our goal is to focus our attention on our breath or a mantra. Thoughts will intrude, but we are able to let them pass rather than indulge them. In so doing, we can learn to tame our “monkey mind.” By mastering the ability to remove your attention from things that are negative or not serving you and to put it instead on the things you want (and keep it there), you gain the ability to create what you want both in yourself and in your life. The practice will help lead you to an inner stillness that supports you as you deal with the stresses of everyday life.
So how can meditation be made easy? Here six simple steps:
Pause. Turn off your cell phone, shut down your computer, and give yourself a few moments of quiet. Even if you only achieve this step, you’ll feel an immediate physical impact: your brain activity will almost instantly less frenzied.
Find a comfortable seated position. You don’t need to sit cross-legged on the floor (unless you want to) to meditate. You can also simply find a comfortable yet firm chair or cushion and sit upright with a straight spine and your chin level to the floor. Don’t stiffen your back; your spine has a normal curvature, so let that curve exist. Relax your shoulders away from your ears. Position your upper arms parallel to your upper body, with the palms of your hands on your legs. What’s perhaps most important is to find a place of calm and quiet.If you don’t have a quiet, private space in your workplace, perhaps there is a space nearby—a library or a café, even your car—or perhaps you can find time to practice in your home. The simpler the location, the better, as your physical environment should not be a distraction.
Focus on your breathing. As you sit and begin to relax, gently close or hood your eyes and observe the in-and-out of your breath. Staying focused on that sensation, begin to breathe from your diaphragm, not your chest; you’ll know the difference when your belly starts to move up and down with your breath. (Think of how a child or even a dog breathes naturally and fully from their abdomen.) When you notice your mind wandering (as it inevitably will), return your attention to your breath. Take a few deep, full breaths, and exhale loudly, expelling any extraneous noise from your head. Eventually, you will begin to feel your entire body release and move in rhythm with your breathing. But “eventually” may take a while. Be patient and try to observe your thoughts without reacting to them. Return to your breath, over and over again, without judgment or expectation. Remember: Meditation is a practice.
Gently lift your gaze or open your eyes. Take a moment to notice how your body feels and observe your thoughts and emotions. Has there been a shift? Perhaps write a few notes about how you feel in your journal so that you can return to them later and see how far you’ve come.
Aim to practice every day. Meditation is like training any other muscle—you need to keep at it for it to work. But it needn’t be overly length or long. A meditation session can be a short as a few minutes. For those of you who think you don’t have a minute to spare, schedule it into your calendar and find time whenever you can. There is no magic formula here, but you’ll soon start to notice the benefits of your practice, which will keep you motivated to continue.
Minimize your expectations. If you are attached to goals and time frames (as I can be myself), meditation can be difficult for you. It’s important to try to let go of those expectations. Meditation is a process. Don’t focus on being “the world’s best meditator.” In the beginning, focus simply on creating the habit of meditation. Resist the urge to continually evaluate yourself. Let go of self-criticism, comparison, and expectations as soon as they arise. The process will feel more wholesome and enjoyable.
I try to find time to sit and meditate for a few minutes in the mornings and evenings, but I don’t always accomplish that goal. What I do accomplish regularly—actually many times per day—is pausing. I pause whenever I can. If a meeting is starting late, I might sit and breathe while everyone gathers. If I’m waiting in line, I’ll take that time for myself to breathe and refocus while I await my turn.If I’m stuck in traffic, I breathe in the car (keeping my eyes open in this scenario, of course). Integrating these pause moments into your regular routine will help you strengthen your ability to find calm and handle stressful moments with better clarity and confidence.
And if you miss a day or two, don’t worry—just remember to stop and breathe whenever and wherever you can.
Julie Rosenberg, MD is a physician executive and experienced healthcare leader who oversees global drug development programs in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, Julie has devoted the last 15 years to the in-depth study and practice of yoga. She received her advanced teaching certification from Down Under Yoga in Boston in 2015. Julie views yoga as preventive medicine. She teaches yoga primarily “beyond the mat,” helping individuals and groups to apply the principles and practice of yoga to their daily lives and to support their overall health and well-being, to achieve greater success, and to become more effective leaders. In 2017, she was selected by Number 1 executive coach and leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith from among 16,000 applicants as one of the MG 100 coaches. Her first book — Beyond the Mat: Achieve Focus, Presence, and Enlightened Leadership Through the Principles and Practice of Yoga — is published by Da Capo/Hachette Books (2017). For more information, visit her at www.julierosenbergmd.com.