In this day and age, just about everyone associates meditation and mindfulness with improved well-being. Especially now, as people deal with COVID-19, there’s an invigorated interest in staying well—mind, body, and soul.
But many people aren’t sure where to start. In my experience, cultivating a meditation and a mindfulness practice that works for you is the most important thing to do, no matter where you are in your wellness journey. This approach sets a solid foundation for improved mental, emotional, and physical health. For me, meditation was instrumental in recovering from fibromyalgia, intense chronic pain, depression, and anxiety. It helped when nothing else did.
Since the key obstacle many people face in adopting healthier habits like diet and exercise is mental resistance, starting with a meditation or mindfulness practice is one way to improve your ability to break through.
Meditation and mindfulness practices have a profound impact on mental and emotional well-being, and can improve willpower, focus, and clarity. But don’t let this fool you into thinking that they only work on your mental health. What happens in the mind has a direct impact on the physical body, too.
Meditation Versus Mindfulness
Meditation is about sitting still, and using at least a portion of that time to sit in silence. Meditation is a quiet and contemplative practice.
Mindfulness is more about tuning into your thoughts and feelings. It can include the active things you do to become more aware, or to train your mind.
Meditation is something you do to the exclusivity of other things. You only meditate. Mindfulness is something you can bring to everything you do.
For example, are you being mindful about your eating habits, or your breathing? Are you able to tune into what you are hearing, seeing, or feeling at any given moment?
Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
Meditation and mindfulness do wonders for our health because they resolve one of the fundamental problems of modern living: an imbalance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
All too often, the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system goes into overdrive, not allowing the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system to do its work.
If this goes on for too long, you can get ill, stressed, depleted, burned out, or face a chronic condition. That’s because the hormones and physiological changes that come with an overactive fight-or-flight response deplete the body.
Meditation works to restore a healthy balance so that your body’s parasympathetic nervous system—its self-healing mechanism—kicks in. This ensures a strong immune response, better hormone balance, improved mood, better sleep, and so much more. Your body begins to regenerate and heal, working on many different aspects of wellness at once.
Mindfulness practices, meanwhile, can help us tune into our feelings of stress or anxiety and be more aware of what sets them off. That can help keep us from falling into a state of enduring stress that can occur when we are constantly revisiting stressful thoughts. If we are mindful, we can also take a break to meditate when needed, and that will help us to quickly calm down.
It’s now well established that improved mental health leads to improved physical health. Improved mental health is correlated with all those wonderful physical health benefits mentioned earlier, like improved immunity, better hormone balance, decreased cortisol (the body’s stress hormone), and more. People who identify with a sense of purpose and meaning in life also fare much better mentally, emotionally, and physically than those who don’t. Even people who are just happier on a day-to-day basis have improved health outcomes.
So knowing this, where do you start? If the mind impacts the body and the body impacts the mind, couldn’t you argue that doing anything good for the mind or body will improve your overall well-being? Yes, you can absolutely argue that, and you would be correct. But for those who want to make a rapid, noticeable lifestyle change for the better, my experience is that meditation is the fastest path to success. That’s because it helps the different branches of your nervous system work harmoniously together, which has a direct and nearly immediate impact on the mind and body.
Because meditation helps get your body into balance, it sets a very solid foundation for everything else. You’ll notice it makes creating a mindfulness practice easier thanks to increased energy, stamina, and focus. Without being mindful and intentional in life, it’s very difficult to make necessary changes that lead to sustainable health, happiness, and well-being.
In my many years of teaching meditation and mindfulness, the most common complaint I get is, “I can’t meditate, I can’t clear my mind.” There are so many reasons why you may think you can’t meditate, but I assure you, you can. Acquiring a life-changing skill isn’t like sitting in a hot tub. You should expect to put in some effort and improve gradually. There are some tips below to help you get there.
If you’re looking for a magic pill to change your life, those don’t exist, but I can say that meditation gives you a way to reside more deeply in yourself and develop a sense of tranquility that becomes available in your everyday life. Your health, mindset, relationships, and more all improve when you develop a consistent meditation practice. And since meditation makes it much easier to be mindful, you’ll find it a win-win.
How to Begin a Meditation Practice
Tip #1: Slow your breathing.
Before you try to sit and meditate, work on lengthening and deepening your breath, which slows down your breathing rate. Your breath is directly connected to that hamster wheel in the mind, and the more you’re able to slow your breath, the calmer your mind will become. Take five minutes a day to work on your breath, and within two weeks or less, you’ll find your breathing has slowed down and meditation has become easier.
Tip #2: Meditate in a clutter-free space.
What goes on outside impacts what is happening in the mind, and vice versa. It can be hard to focus and sit still when you are surrounded by clutter. A clean and clutter-free space gives your mind space. You’ll feel calmer, more focused, and more open. This will make it easier to meditate.
Tip #3: Meditate every day.
Even meditating five minutes a day can change the neural connections in your brain. Daily consistency is key to establishing a new habit and rewiring the brain to be successful at something. Start with a few minutes a day, something easily attainable, and grow from there. You’ll find that this growth happens automatically when you commit and stick with your routine, even when it feels difficult.
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.