Meditation can change the brain from a mass of neurons twitching with anxiety to grey matter humming on a Zen wavelength. And you needn’t be a Buddhist monk to benefit.
Neuroscientists have discovered that after just eight weeks, non-meditators who start a mindfulness practice show decreased brain activity in the amygdala – the brain region that controls anxiety – and increased grey matter in regions involved in perspective-taking and regulating emotions.
Too bad the idea of meditation stresses people out.
People think they have to sit in a formal cross-legged pose and “get rid of their thoughts,” says Dee Willock, the Vancouver-based author of Falling Into Easy: Help For Those Who Can’t Meditate.
But any comfy position is fine – as long as it doesn’t induce sleep, Ms. Willock says. Efforts to suppress or eliminate racing thoughts are futile, she adds. The goal is to put antsy thoughts in the background while the mind focuses elsewhere.
Beginners may find it easiest to simply notice how each breath feels in the body, Ms. Willock says. Or be aware of bird calls, car beeps and other ambient sounds. Likewise, try using the drone of a ceiling fan or other white noise to sink into a meditative state.
Urgent thoughts will intrude (“What if I tank in the meeting?” or “Did I turn off the stove?”). Acknowledge their existence, she says, but then tell them you’re going back to your focus. “It’s like training a puppy.”
Fears of being at the mercy of negative thoughts is a “huge barrier” for newbie meditators, notes Ms. Willock. She suggests imagining that each breath brings joy, or by filling in the details of a happy memory. While it may seem contrived, she says, “as soon as you describe it to yourself, you’re there.”
Busy people can meditate anywhere, even if it means sitting in a living room full of kids, Ms. Willock says. Start with 15 minutes a day, since the mind tends to calm down around the 10-minute mark. It’s okay for some sessions to feel more meditative than others, she adds. “Meditation has a cumulative effect.”