Mindfulness is a concept that originated in Buddhist meditation, but has branched out into the secular mainstream as a brain-changing way to regain perspective, reduce stress and anxiety, and cope with a bustling modern life. Maybe it sounds a little too Birkenstocks and kale chips for you, but it works.
A single 15-minute breath meditation can actually help people make smarter choices, according to this research from INSEAD and The Wharton School. Two scientists found mindfulness to actually “enhance the integrity and efficiency of the brain’s white matter,” leading to better decision making and problem solving. It can also dramatically alter our bodies at the genetic level, raising our ability to ward off disease and illness. It has helped soldiers in battle, trauma victims in recovery, and businessmen before meetings. Best of all? It’s free, and you can really start with just a couple of minutes.
Mindfulness is the art of letting the present expand into our awareness and move through, as if our thoughts were clouds. You pay attention to everything: what you think, what you hear, what you feel, and what is going on around you. In this sense, it is not quiet at all. In fact, once you start drawing such awareness to these different parts of your experience, in the moment, you will find it quite noisy. This is all right! The noise is something you learn to let move through your experience, without attaching judgments or feelings to it. However, if you happen to attach these things, it’s all good. You just make note of it and let it toss itself out, like a crumpled piece of paper.
Because of all of this noise, the breath is a good place to return to. For even just one minute, you can bring awareness to your breath. Let’s start here.
Let’s say you’re in the office. Not a big leap of the imagination, here, is it? Maybe it’s been a rough day, or maybe it’s just been a busy one. Either way, you’ve found yourself leaping a bit. Maybe you are over-thinking what you need to accomplish in your afternoon meeting, and the pressure is beginning to make your mind clamp. Maybe you’re just moving too far out of the present, wistfully dreaming of what you’re going to do next weekend, and you need to really focus on the current assignment. Or maybe an encounter with a co-worker has raised your stress level, and now you’ve suddenly considered what it might be like to single-handedly lay a brick wall, using trowel and all, right between your cubicles.
You need to de-stress. And maybe you’ve already started to judge yourself about this, too. Why can’t I de-stress better? What’s wrong with me? I should be living off of organic persimmons and chia seed, drinking whatever bazillion liters of filtered water a day they now recommend, soaking in gentle and nourishing herbal baths and taking off for week-long retreats into the forest full of downward dogs and contemplative cognitive behavioral therapy with rocks.
But look at me. I’m just sitting at work, and I can’t escape, and I can’t make anything better, and I feel like all of those options just might be a bit too extreme. Fair enough.
So what can you do now? A quick breath meditation.
While the art of mindfulness does eventually hope to permeate into your everyday thoughts and reality, putting a strange, loose pressure upon the way you react, consider, and assume, you may not want to start there. Sometimes it’s just too much noise. This is why we often start with the breath.
If you can get to a quiet place, that’s great. If you can’t, no worries. Wherever you are will do just fine. Sitting is nice, but standing isn’t detrimental. Just take a moment to move back, away from whatever you are doing.
Sit or stand up tall. Recognize your breath. Start where it starts, noticing that it might come from your belly first, then radiate up through your chest, spread out through your shoulders, leave at the top of your head. Your breath moves like a tree: up the trunk, then out through the branches and leaves. (Sorry, that is pretty hippie of me. If you know me, you know I can’t resist it.)
Now begin to draw more awareness to it. Notice whether it is shallow or deep, fast or slow. Consider where else in your body you might feel this breath: your heart, your throat, your fingers.
You might notice that your breath has two parts: an in-breath (inhalation) and an out-breath (exhalation). You may, if it feels right, want to start counting. This can help steady or secure your thoughts a bit, if you find you are wavering. Wavering, however, is natural. So don’t beat yourself up. You could pick a number like 30, which gives you a nice bit of time, but isn’t terribly overwhelming. Count backwards from 30 for each in-breath and out-breath: 30 (in), 30 (out), 29 (in), 29 (out), 28 (in), 28(out), and so forth. When you reach zero, you can stop. Or you can start right back up again. And if you lose count, just pick up wherever you can last remember.
If you count, you’ll find you might end pretty near a couple of minutes. If you don’t count, you still will probably get a good break. You can also download a meditation timer right on your phone, with an app like this one from Shambhala, and keep track.
Doing a small meditation like this can bring extraordinary benefits. Over time, they build up upon each other and tumble into your normal headspace. But even in just the moment, the stress moment, it can really do wonders.
Start right where you are, and just see where it goes. Who knows? Maybe you will find yourself revitalized and relaxed enough to start eating chia seed and put down the trowel.