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Like its sibling mindfulness, meditation was a hot topic in 2015, with mainstream, non-hippie celebrities extolling benefits like improved focus and happiness. You might be genuinely interested in trying it (it’s free!), except for that whole not-having-enough time thing.
One of the most popular practices, Transcendental Meditation, typically calls for 20 minutes of silent self-reflection twice a day — which can feel like one more task to add to an already unrealistic to-do list. But Pedram Shojai, doctor of Oriental medicine (O.M.D.) and author of the forthcoming book The Urban Monk, says that’s the wrong way of looking at it.
“People don’t realize that it’s a reduction process, not an addition,” says the former Taoist monk. If you’re more present for everyday tasks, not only will you be more efficient and calm, you’ll also be more likely to say no to things that aren’t worth your time.
Five-minute chunks of meditation are well worth the effort for your prefrontal cortex. This area of your brain is called upon when we’re asked to regulate ourselves, says Lynn C. Waelde, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology and director of the meditation and psychology emphasis at Palo Alto University. Studies suggest that meditation activates it and thereby could help a person negate poor impulses. In Waelde’s own research, when people caring for a family member with dementia practiced meditation, they had fewer feelings of depression and anxiety and were more confident in their ability to rein in negative thoughts than a control group.
“Mindfulness and meditation techniques are designed to hit that sweet spot, helping people become more aware of themselves and simultaneously be able to tolerate the contents of their feelings and their thinking,” Waelde explains. Not being able to regulate our behavior is “at the heart of a lot of unhappiness and disorders that people experience.” (It should be noted that though meditation can help people make positive changes, it isn’t a replacement for therapy.)
The “Doing” Machine
Many of us feel like we’re programmed to be doing things constantly, and that’s hard to shut off. “A lot of people I work with feel as though they’re being yanked one way or the other all the time by their mind,” Waelde says. By fostering a process called decentering, meditation can help people gain power over their thoughts and feelings, she says. “You take a step back and say, ‘I’m anxious now but I know if I take a deep breath and let it go, it will pass. It’s not something that I can’t tolerate.’”
When you sit quietly and watch your mind, you start to observe what Shojai calls “the doing machine” and you become hyperaware, as he says, of just “how fricking crazy you are.” You’ll never stop your brain from churning, but with time you’ll realize that you are not those pinballing thoughts. “If you’re just listening to all the noise in your brain and being reactive, you’re gonna lose it. And that’s normally where we live,” Shojai says. “Being able to find a place of stability outside of that noise means first disengaging and understanding that it’s noise and it’s not you.”
As Shojai explains, “you release the energy that you’ve plugged into that doing machine and then you only do the things that are worth doing.” If your life is a garden, you only have room for so many plants to flourish, he says.
So what exactly does it mean to meditate? It bears repeating that it’s not about “turning off your thoughts” or “doing nothing” — it’s about being present. Sit down, become mindful, follow your breath, and engage in the moment. When your mind starts to wander, Shojai suggests doing a scan of sorts. Ask yourself, “What am I doing right now, besides breathing?” Whatever it is, stop.
Your thoughts will definitely swarm back in, but your task is to not follow them. “Stay in your mind and watch it, but don’t go with it. You don’t have to wrestle with it,” he says. It’s about the process of becoming aware of what you’re doing and then disengaging. “When people notice that their attention is wandering, that is actually the practice: to observe what your mind is doing,” Waelde says.
You might find the endless thought stream frustrating in the beginning, but trying to will it away won’t help. “It’s more an easy, gentle process of saying, ‘I’m going to redirect my attention now,’” Waelde says. There are simple things you can do to help anchor your focus, like counting or “following” your breaths, repeating a mantra, or paying attention to the sensations of your body, like the feelings in your feet or hands.
Shojai suggests repeating this sequence for five minutes: Inhale for the count of four, hold at the top of the breath for two seconds, exhale for four seconds, and again hold the breath for two seconds. Some people prefer to imagine the flow of their breath as it comes in through their nose, past their throat, into their lungs, and then back out again. Others silently repeat a mantra as they breathe — like “Hum” on the inhale and “Sah” on the exhale, used in Waelde’s Inner Resources meditation program.
Would it be good to do this for 20 minutes with your eyes closed in a dark, quiet room? Of course, that’s the gold standard, Shojai says, but taking a few minutes to be present in the room you’re in is a great start.
“Twenty minutes twice a day is too rigid for most people right now,” he says. Instead, he suggests starting a habit of meditating every time you find yourself having to wait for something. “People get pissed off, like, ‘I can’t believe there’s three people in line in front of me.’ Well, there’s your five minutes to meditate instead of whipping out your phone.”
Instead of allocating additional time for your new habit, just work it into the time you have. For instance, if you’re already going to the gym, focus on your breathing and be mindful of every single squat or curl. Try a five-minute practice while you’re walking, or sitting on the train, or even driving, like Shojai does. Every little bit helps.
That said, Shojai admits that it is helpful to “front-load” some time in getting to know your consciousness. It’s sort of like dating, he says. When you’re first getting to know someone, you generally have longer conversations. Then, later on in the relationship, you can have meaningful interactions in less time, like while you’re waiting in line for your 2 p.m. coffee.
For some people, the most realistic time to meditate is when they first wake up, but others might have no problem following a scheduled prompt in their phone. (Shojai says if you have a specific goal, like 30 minutes daily, it needs to be in your calendar; otherwise it just won’t happen.)
If you require more instruction, there are plenty of guided-meditation apps to try. A real, live teacher can also be very beneficial. “It’s a little bit like playing the piano or learning to be a really good basketball player — could you learn these things from an app? Some people can and it’s brilliant, but I couldn’t,” says Waelde.
The Power of Persistence
Regardless of how much time you’re spending with your inner self, both Shojai and Waelde agree that meditation should be a daily practice. It is, after all, a skill that requires honing, not a button you press when you need help. “These techniques have become so popular and hyped that sometimes people may have the expectation that they’re kind of magical or instant,” Waelde says. “They may try them for a short period and then stop if they’re not getting a dramatic benefit.”
Waelde compares meditation to toning a muscle. “It’s an inner strength, just like people go to the gym and work on their core strength,” she says. “The more you practice, the stronger you get and the more fluid your practice is in your daily life.” After all, the point is to learn how to be present and then harness that focus in everything you do. “Do it every day, and over time you’ll become very strong on the inside.”
And remember that the goal is a more enjoyable life, Shojai says. “Do what you’re doing when you’re doing it. That’s meditation, that’s the key — to be present and be effective so that you have time to play.”