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Learning to Be in the Moment, Even When the Moment Sucks

Meditation isn’t just for monks; center yourself and relieve stress


Illustration via Getty Images

Many of us first learned to meditate when we were small children, though we didn't know it – when a loved one in our lives told us to take a deep breath or count to 10 when we were upset. If we were asked to write something on the chalkboard over and over, as Bart Simpson does, that can also be meditation. Or to stop what we're doing and take a walk around the block. The concepts of how to meditate are pretty simple.

The more complex question is why. For centuries, meditation has been a spiritual practice – done every day by billions of faiths but also the stuff of monasteries and the isolated wilderness, of silence and solitude, mysticism and contemplation. It's entwined with prayer but is also different – as an old maxim goes, "Prayer is when you talk to God; meditation is when you listen to God." You can define "God" in that sentence quite liberally, as do nontheistic Buddhists or nonbelievers in recovery, for whom prayer-and-meditation is the 11th of the 12 Steps – seeking "conscious contact" with one's Higher Power, the "god of one's understanding."

But what if you just want to relax, or relieve your stress, or get better sleep? Meditation has become a common tool in the "wellness" and "self-care" toolbox, for seculars as well as those seeking enlightenment. That's created some tensions, much as one sees around yoga, about the original spiritual traditions being devalued. It's also prompted skepticism of some more exuberant, less evidence-based claims of meditation's benefits.

Is "mindfulness" (a label often given to meditation as mental health care) really as or more effective than antidepressants? Can a meditation practice boost your immune system and combat COVID? Does a yoga nidra body scan actually take the place of sleep? As with most consumer health claims, there's a lot of noise. As for some more exotic New Age-y fruits of meditation – like tuning into "high vibrations" through "the law of attraction" to "manifest power and abundance" – your mileage may vary, just as with your horoscope. But you shouldn't seek to reimagine your reality through your practice as an alternative to asking for worldly help you need and deserve.

That all said, most secular-friendly meditation practices (not the strenuous and ascetic ones of the monks and saints) are completely safe, and with consistency can produce empirical results, like better sleep, that will make you feel better. It is, after all, a practice. For many novices, the first forays into sitting meditation, or breathwork, or body scanning can be uncomfortable and stressful – am I doing this right? Is something supposed to happen? Why can't I quiet my mind? (Because you're human.)

Sitting, focusing on the breath, or on a repeated mantra or sacred word, or scanning for sensations in different parts of the body, are all ways to locate yourself in the present moment. That's the important step from which others follow – learning how to be here, just as you are, however that is, right now. If you become depressed about the past or anxious about the future, compassionately give yourself permission to return to that present moment. That's the calmest, safest place to be in trying times.


FACT

Taking a few slow, deep breaths reduces carbon dioxide levels in the brain, which controls levels of the stress hormone noradrenaline. It's more effective if you breathe as meditators often recommend – in through the nose, out through the mouth, exhale longer than you inhale.

TIP

The app Breethe has released a series of guided "Election Stress Relief" practices, with titles such as "News-Induced High Blood Pressure," "Not Losing Your Sh*t on Social Media," and "Mindful Mail-in Ballot Opening." Breethe is a subscription service, but the election collection is free to all app users. If you're an election worker or volunteer, you can claim a free subscription.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Stress Issue 2020, meditation, Breethe

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