Focus your breath to focus your life
“To think we are too stressed to train the mind, is like thinking that our head hurts too much to take an aspirin” (Headspace).
When this was said to me during a guided meditation from the wellness app Headspace recently, it moved me for the first time in my journey with the mind-calming practice.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try meditating daily to see how my life changed, or didn’t change. I was curious to discover how my constantly churning, overthinking and stressed-out brain would react to some stillness.
If you’re anything like me, you would agree that eradicating all thoughts and simultaneously remaining motionless is impossible. But that’s where you — and I — are wrong, both in the plausibility of that happening, and in that being the goal.
Meditation, in its simplest form, is focusing your mind for a period of time, often using your breath as a guide. It takes a lot of training to have the capacity to clear your mind absolutely without exercise or some other form of dopamine-inducing distraction (meditation itself actually releases dopamine). While some reach that point, what many achieve through meditation is simply a tranquil moment amid the hustle-bustle of life, meant to recollect and reframe your thoughts and emotions.
Doesn’t that sound nice?
I think so, but it wasn’t so simple at first. Even with about a year of yoga under my belt, where controlled breathing is the name of the game, focusing on my breath with the goal of clearing my head seemed to induce just the opposite. The first time the relaxed voice coming from my phone told me to sit still and take a breath, my mind went straight to something I hadn’t had the time to think about yet, be it an assignment, person or idea — I was thinking.
But then the gentle voice returned, reminding me to not be hard on myself for getting distracted, to just notice that I had gone off track and return to my breath. Still, I wouldn’t call it effortless. But it does get easier.
Several days into waking up and meditating in front of a window, guided by an app, I heard the quote at the beginning of this article and I realized how perfectly it described my experience up to that point. I had always thought I was too impatient for meditation — remember my churning mind? — but after a few tries, I felt more at ease. I was more productive, less stressed and in a better mood. Being “too stressed” to meditate indeed doesn’t make sense because that stress is exactly what meditation combats, as aspirin does a headache, and that’s when I realized how effective this process had been for my mind.
As highly cognizant beings, we are pretty much in overdrive all the time. Meditation offers a way to turn off the hyper-processing in our heads, at least to the high-level knowledge we’re constantly inputting. Even when we think our mind is relaxed, doing something like reading fiction, we are still intaking and processing heaps of information. Think about it — even knowing your mind is relaxed requires some complex analysis of the thinking you are or are not doing.
This was my second realization. It’s not just about following your breath to clear your mind. It’s about taking a step back from the constant movement of life and recentering yourself. Even with all of those high-level processes going on, we often don’t give ourselves the time to stop and think about who we are, what we want and why we want it. This practice makes way for reflection and a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Pushing away thoughts that we usually have — what work do I have, what should I eat, when can I do this — leaves room for the thoughts we don’t always entertain. I have found that while meditating, thoughts come about my life or personal goals, and I welcome them. It’s your time at the end of the day, and I say if you are given the chance to take a deeper look within yourself for five minutes, it would be a disservice to yourself and to your mindfulness not to.
And last, my final point: Meditation is practiced by you, for you. Just like with any hobby or pastime, you get to shape your experience. You’re doing it for you, so you make the rules. Meditation isn’t so different. It is a learning opportunity, a process of growth and reflection, and it should be pursued in any way it will benefit you.
At the end of the day, I think the goal is inner peace and happiness. Throughout the past few weeks of training my mind to be calm and clear, I have come away with not only an improved ability to be still-minded (this is cool!), but a heightened sense of self and productivity driven by motivation rather than by stress. This may or may not be your goal, and it wasn’t necessarily mine, but I went in with an open (and moving) mind, and I am continuing to see the benefits of slowing down, if only for a few minutes, with that much more peace as I go.
Written by: Allie Bailey — email@example.com