Stress. Pressure. Deadlines. Obligations. Responsibility. Frustration. Stress, stress, stress. These are things that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis.
Some people are naturally adept at managing these issues, ensuring that any unnecessary build-up of unhealthy energy is prevented. Others are not so lucky. I am one of these others. Stress and all its glorious relatives have been a big part of my life since long before the days of my high school career.
Normally, I am the person that uses daily stresses to fuel my productivity, but every so often it morphs from a channel of motivation to a reason for getting down on myself. And I really get down on myself. It’s incredibly un-pretty. Getting over and moving past these phases of overwhelming stress has been a great challenge for me over the years. I would tend towards finding distractions, procrastinating, self-pity, sleep (oh, so much sleep!), and binge eating. I would get really good at playing my guitar because I’d spend hours practising rather than properly dealing with the source of my troubles. When the moment in which I’d actually confront all the things that stress me out finally arrived, I’d end up freaking out because, at that point, allowing so much time to pass would have compounded the problems. Not a good situation to be in.
I “fell” into mindful meditation around five years ago, when I was struggling to find a career path I could believe in. For a long time before then, I was afraid of making any decisions that had the potential to drastically change my life. Knowing that I needed to make these big decisions in order to be happy… freaked me out. I needed to find a way to deal with the stress that accompanies taking risks like that, and a few of my many Google searches turned up with meditation as a solution.
Meditating can be daunting for someone with an especially active mind, and this is why I turned specifically towards mindful meditation as my go-to. Mindful techniques helped me to reign in my thoughts and become more conscious of my own presence. There are many techniques out there for meditating, mindful or no. Mine may not the best or most exhaustive; but they work for me right now.
My Mindful Meditation How-To:
1. Find Your Eden
There will always be certain places that make you feel more at ease than others. To meditate I need to be in a place that’s far enough from traffic or city noises that they don’t become a distraction, and I need a good amount of breathing room to really get into my zone. For me, that’s my bedroom, the beach, or any park during a weekday when there aren’t too many people around. You may find that you’re perfect spot is your office, or sitting in your car in a parking lot (I sometimes do this just before I walk in to work). I even enjoy meditating in the shower; it’s something about there being absolutely no distractions in there. Whatever works for you is great. The most important thing to keep in mind is having the distractions down to a minimum. To me that means my phone needs to be off, or at least on silent. If I have a good spot with very few distractions, my meditation becomes easier, not to mention much more effective.
2. Set the Stage
Essentially, this step is all about creating the environment that is most favourable to your meditative journey. This is not always possible, depending on your location, but is well worth the effort whenever the circumstances allow. I take full advantage of this whenever I meditate in my bedroom, because the privacy allows me be as extravagant as I desire. Aromatics have a big influence on my concentration, so I usually have lightly scented candles or incense burning. Any calming scent generally does the trick, and of course you can choose your preferences or none at all. I am also a fan of softly playing ambient music; instrumental or similar. I prefer playing music through my small portable speaker, but in a pinch I will use my phone, or even earphones. Clothing is another big factor for me. I like to dress comfortably, in something loose and flowing. My rule of thumb here is to make sure I feel no restrictions with whatever garb I adorn. Look at me being all fancy with my words :). Lastly, I like to make sure I have a really good seat. This could be a padded chair with good support, or even a few cushions on the floor against the wall. Posture is quite important. I’m not going to go into great depth, but Mindful.org has a great article that covers sitting techniques, here. Remember: comfort is key, but too much will just end in slumber. This is actually fine, in my opinion, if you’re goal is better sleep, but if what you’re after is relief from stress, and perhaps an energy boost, or focus, then I suggest to tread lightly with it.
3. Become One with Yourself
Now we finally get down to some actual meditating. The techniques that I mention in this post are my favourite, but of course there are many more out there. Once I’m sitting comfortably in my chosen environment, I like to begin inside and work my way out. This starts with focusing all my attention on my own breathing. First, I take a few slow, deep breaths and then gradually let my breathing normalise. While this happens I hone in on the feeling of air moving in and out of my lungs and listen to the sound of it rushing into my nose and out of my mouth. If I find my mind wandering during this process (as it often does), I just go back to focusing on breathing. This is likely one of the most difficult things that I have now learnt to overcome. I say difficult, not in the sense that going back to breathing was a mission, but because I would constantly get frustrated at myself for breaking the flow. It isn’t easy, but it is very important to not criticise yourself when this happens. We are human, after all, and we can’t be perfect at everything we do. Continuing to judge ourselves, or having unrealistic expectations of our abilities, will end up making the experience of meditation stressful. And that, my friend, is the very thing we are trying to eliminate. Time, patience, and practice will help.
4. Embrace Your Universe
When you’re ready for this next step (and I can’t really say how to know; sometimes I genuinely feel like I’m doing better and am ready to, sometimes it’s when I’ve had enough of just breathing), then it’s time to move your attention outwards. This is when I pull my concentration towards whatever is happening with my senses. I start with my sense of touch, the way my clothes and the air feels on my skin. I move on to my sense of smell and the way the aromas around me make me feel. Lastly, I focus on listening to the sounds around me. This is probably my most favourite sense to work with, because it can often become a challenge. If you are in a tranquil setting, chances are you will have the rustling of leaves, a whistling breeze, and perhaps some birdsong to enjoy. When you find yourself with a myriad of hustling, bustling, children and urban jungle sounds around you, however, then the fun really begins. The task is then to isolate one source of sound at a time: for instance, the rumble of cars driving past. I focus on this sound until I have formed the image of the car as it drives along the street in my head, before moving on to the next sound. Remember in Smallville when Clark Kent was given the ability to hear everyone’s thoughts as they occurred? He had to learn to pick out just one stream of thought, and drown out everything else. In a sense, you are trying to emulate dear old Superman in this situation.
Every now and then, when my anxiety levels are particularly worrisome, I like to take this step further in kind of an unusual way. I am a huge, crazy, maniac fan of adult colouring books. If ever I feel the need, I like to incorporate some relaxing colouring into my meditation routine. This time, I make use of a sense not yet mentioned: sight. Colour is a wonderful way to explore and express feelings, and alleviate some stress. Really concentrating on the intensity of the colours, the sound of the felt pens scratching on the paper, the smell of the ink (if you use ink). Any opportunity to be creative is a bonus for me.
After going through each of my senses I return to breathing. My entire meditation routine can range from 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on my state of mind, and how much time I have to spare. I also like to use this routine as a precursor and cool-down to a yoga flow. It’s a fantastic way to become centred and focused.
5. Take Advantage of Your New Perspective
More and more often I come away from mindful meditation feeling like I have a truer sense of my emotional state. I still have the responsibilities and frustrations of adult life to deal with, but my fear of confronting these things and actively having to address them is greatly diminished. My problems seem less daunting, and my ability to solve those problems feels stronger. This increase in self-belief and confidence is what you should utilise. The idea, I think, is to use your now balanced state of being to tackle your obstacles with a healthier and more reasonable outlook.
As I’ve mentioned before, these steps are just a basic guide to my own techniques for mindful meditation; what works for me personally. Hopefully you will find something here that will work for you. Maybe there is something here you haven’t tried, or can add to. I’m always open to trying and sharing new techniques that could make mindful meditation a more fulfilling experience. Let me know what you think.