“Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain.” ~Eckhart Tolle
I completed my meditation teacher training in 2022 and continue to practice two to three times each day.
I was initially skeptical of what this practice could possibly offer me. But, as someone who had been riddled with daily anxiety, periodic bouts of depression, and an exhausting inability to maintain focus that left me depleted energetically, I was keen to learn more and discover for myself what sort of support this practice could offer me.
While the religious roots of the practice originated in the Hindu tradition and were later established in Buddhism, we now have a strong, scientifically based understanding, backed by evidence, that likely makes the practice a little more digestible to Western cultures. The key is to experiment with a few different approaches and go with what works for you.
Let me explain. Meditation is a formal practice of mindfulness. It requires a person to intentionally direct their attention to a single point of focus in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment.
While there are some fantastic guided meditations and educational resources that you can download and use on Apps like Calm, Insight Timer, or One Giant Mind, I love simplicity and don’t like to overcomplicate things. Less is more.
For me, when I’m meditating my preference is to simply focus on the only thing in my body that is both constant and noticeable—my breath. In and out. That’s it.
Try this now. Just for one minute.
Set a timer for one minute on your watch or phone.
Close your eyes or lower your gaze to a steady point of focus in front of you.
Release any tension in your body, from your head to your toes.
Now notice your mind focusing on your breath going in, then out. Now let’s play a game with your mind: How long can you sustain this focus until you notice a thought enter your mind? Ten seconds? Three seconds? One?!
Gently let the thought that has arisen go and return to noticing your breath. Try again. How long until the next thought pops into your mind? Let it go and return to observing. Continue in the same manner for one minute.
Tricky, isn’t it?
Now here’s the thing. Your mind wants to think—that’s its purpose. It thinks to help protect you and keep you safe. It needs to remind you about your dentist appointment tomorrow, or to decide what you should cook for dinner tonight and, therefore, which items you need to pick up at the supermarket. Or perhaps it wants you to unpack that meeting you had with your boss yesterday, and now you’re worrying about what he or she thinks about your productivity levels.
Your mind wants to protect you by solving all the problems in the world (either real or imagined), whether you are in the middle of meditation or not! And this is the point where many beginners will say, “My mind won’t stop thinking—this is too hard. Meditation doesn’t work for me,” before they give up.
But just like weight training and running are exercise to strengthen your muscles and increase your fitness levels, meditation is exercise to strengthen your brain. Just as you can’t run a marathon when you’ve tried running for ten minutes, you can’t strengthen your brain after meditating for ten minutes. And yes, you’re probably going to be all over the place when you start, in both cases!
When you first begin a meditation practice, your mind will wander ALL. THE. TIME. I mean, it’s going to go everywhere—up, down, backward, forward, and around in circles. That’s good—it means it’s doing its job! But we just need to rein it in a little and keep it under our control, much like when out walking the dog, we pull on the leash when the dog starts to pull away.
We only need our mind to do its job when we need it to do its job, and we can train it to work more efficiently and effectively for us than it may currently be.
Now more than ever, we need to strengthen our brain. Human beings exist today with the most highly developed brain of any species on the planet. Unlike any other living creature, the human brain can produce and communicate ideas and engage in creativity and planning, which we have used to continually shape and evolve the world around us, making it what it is today.
This unique capability has enabled us to build a world that is so technically advanced, scientists have discovered that in our fast-paced modern world, the brain is now continually exposed to 11,000,000 bits of sensory information per second, even though it has the capacity of processing only sixty bits of information per second.
So, while civilization has progressed enormously, the human brain, which has barely changed in structure nor cognitive capacity in the last 500,000 years, now finds itself existing in a world where it is failing to function and serve us effectively in its efforts to adapt.
In the highly stimulating world we live in today, we find ourselves attempting to spread our bandwidth of sixty bits of conscious attention across all incoming sensory information. What we now observe is that we are in a constant state of distraction as our brain endlessly alternates between the vast load of stimuli vying for our attention—commonly known as multi-tasking.
When we engage in task switching, as it is known in the world of psychology, our stress levels increase, as do the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bloodstream. We have low self-control, and we’re fatigued as our conscious present moment awareness is reduced.
In addition, we now observe that the amygdala, buried deep in the lymbic system, responsible for the processing of emotions and essential to the survival and protection of the human species, is being continuously triggered in response to incoming stimuli that we evaluate, attach meaning to (whether accurate or not), and interpret as being threatening. This could be an imposing deadline at work, or the examples of the dentist appointment, the shopping list, and the meeting with your boss mentioned earlier.
With its connection to so many other parts of the brain, the amygdala organizes physiological responses that are subsequently felt throughout the physical body.
This examination of society has revealed that the source of our progress as a species, our brain, is also the source of our unhappiness.
While we have witnessed technological advances throughout history, we have also seen a surge in mental illness, including chronic stress, anxiety, and depression; an increased reliance on medication such as anti-depressants; and also a rise of a myriad of medical conditions from high blood pressure to migraines and eczema.
The mind is like an instrument, but rather than the mind playing us, we must master it so we can use it to do what it has been so beautifully created to do. Serve us.
We are constantly being played by our minds when we allow them to distract us with text and email notifications. Or when we allow it to tell us self-comparison stories about how our business will never measure up to our competitors, or that we’ll never be able to run a marathon, or that we can’t fly in a plane because the chances are too likely that it will crash.
Meditation allows us the opportunity to stop and practice observing our thoughts. Each thought that enters our mind is like coming to a fork in a road.
If we observe a negative thought, we can either choose to take it with us and head down one path, along which we will continue to encounter many other negative thoughts that we will attach to our first thought—thereby creating the story spiral that we all know too well; or we can let go, gently place that thought down in front of us, and carry on down another path that will allow us to gently return our focus to our breathing.
The first option creates feelings such as tension, worry, stress, anxiety, or anger in the body, which are manifested physiologically as symptoms such as tight muscles, shallow breathing, or an increased heart rate. The second option allows us to maintain a state of homeostasis, a stable internal environment, and we feel calm, relaxed, and grounded.
We can’t do much to change our wider world, so the question is, how can we change ourselves by changing our habits so we can adapt? How can we use meditation to achieve a state of calm centeredness in our fast-paced, adrenaline-inducing, chaotic world?
There are three elements that make up a repetitive cycle that we need to understand and follow when practicing meditation.
Notice, Accept, Redirect.
When you have closed your eyes, relaxed your body, and drawn your attention to your breath, notice the following over the duration of a minute:
Your ability to notice when your mind has wandered from observing your breath to a thought or chain of thoughts.
Your ability to accept your thought or thoughts for what they are, and not cast judgment over them by labelling them as “good” or “bad.”
Your ability to redirect your mind back to your point of focus (in my case, and for the purpose of this article, that’s my breath).
You will find yourself moving through this cycle over and over and over again as your mind, well-practiced in running its own show, jumps from thought to thought to thought. This is normal—it’s doing a job that it has learned over years of conditioning.
What we are trying to do is to help it relearn how to slow down and to maintain focus on just one thing at a time, and not allow it to unnecessarily trigger alarm bells of fear and panic, which we feel as unwanted sensations throughout our body.
And just like any physical workout, you will have some experiences in meditation where you will notice you are calmer and more focused than in other experiences—just as I do most of the time when I meditate, particularly in the initial stages when my mind is trying to settle. (Think of the settling of your thoughts like tiny pieces of glitter that have been shaken up in a jar of water and have now been left to slowly settle at the bottom of the jar).
But as tempting as it is, try not to label your experiences either during or at the end of your practice. Remember that we are also practicing non-judgment. And just as a negative judgment will likely create a build-up of resistance to what you are trying to achieve, a desire for things to be anything other than what they are creates tension—which is exactly the thing we are trying to ease. Just accept the experience for what it is—it’s a practice, and every practice brings you closer to your goal of creating awareness to help master your thoughts.
As you develop both your awareness of thought and agency over your thoughts, in time you will begin to gradually apply these skills to your daily life. You may notice that you are able to sustain focus on a task, whether giving a presentation for work or having a conversation with someone, and be fully engaged in the present without your mind kicking into default mode where it wanders and starts thinking about unrelated events. (Ever noticed your mind thinking about your day at work when you’re prepping the veggies for dinner?)
With an awareness of your thoughts you are able to create space between them, which will enable you to pick and choose which thoughts are useful and of benefit to you, and which are not. In addition, with consistent daily practice, you will experience improved emotional stability, reduced fatigue, and reduced physical ailments resulting from allostatic load or long-term stress.
I have begun my practice with just thirty to forty minutes each day—once in the morning, once at lunchtime (if I can manage it), and once in the evening. You may be wondering where on earth you could possibly pull that time from. I’ve simply substituted a portion of the two to three hours a day when I would get lost in checking my phone and mindlessly scrolling, or watching random stuff on TV, with my practice.
Identify the habits in your day that you consider unproductive—for example, scrolling, video games, and TV. Or perhaps you can save time on trips to the supermarket by creating a list of things to buy in advance, or allocate blocks of time when you will check your emails rather than constantly monitoring your inbox throughout the day.
To help create and reinforce your new habit, identify set times throughout your day when you will meditate, just as you do with brushing your teeth.
Interested and want additional tips on how to get cracking with your practice?
- Start with small and achievable. Set yourself the goal of doing one minute at least in the morning and in the evening. Allow yourself to extend this time whenever you feel the urge or desire. No pressure.
- Keep it simple and don’t overcomplicate things. Simply focus your attention on your breath—in and out. When your mind wanders, without judgment, gently bring your focus back to your breath, just like the analogy of the dog pulling on a leash.
- I like to use my earplugs and add some gentle music. There are plenty of appropriate musical options and choices available on Spotify or YouTube.
- Start in a comfortable position, with some type of support for your back. And if you find yourself falling asleep, no stress. Just let the session go and start again later in the day. (This could also potentially be an alert to check your sleep stores—are you getting enough rest? Our brain waves slow down when meditating so we remain alert and focused, but we don’t want them slowing down so much that we are falling asleep.)
- If you get interrupted (the kids start making noise, someone comes to the door, or your phone starts ringing), again, no stress. Just let that session go too.
- Alert people when you’re devoting time to your practice. I have taught the members of my family to let me be when I am meditating. Unless it’s an emergency and the house is burning down or someone’s arm is falling off, it can wait!
It is important to remember that our worries are the stream of jumbled thoughts and stories that we tell ourselves about a given situation. With the awareness of thought that evolves from a consistent meditation practice, we empower ourselves to choose to let go, or to do as we please with these thoughts, thereby opening ourselves up to improved physical and emotional well-being.
About Olivia Toms
Olivia is a teacher, writer, and mum of two girls. She has experience in community engagement and is currently completing her life coaching accreditation. Olivia is deeply passionate about understanding mindset, and exploring the ways in which we can find happiness and thrive in a complex and rapidly changing world. She can be found on LinkedIn.