The word “meditation” likely evokes the image of monks sitting cross-legged around a floor chanting something unintelligible. But did you know that meditation is so much broader than that?
It’s derived from the Latin word meditatum, which means “to ponder.” There are a variety of techniques that can be used to achieve this, but one of the simplest and most effective has to be mindfulness meditation. We’ll take a look at what it means to be mindful, what benefits you can receive, and how to implement this practice into your daily life.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
As you might have guessed based on the name, mindfulness meditation combines the practice of mindfulness and meditation into one activity. You can think of it as a mental training practice that only takes a few minutes out of your day. But during that time, you’ll be able to reduce stress levels and anxiety, let go of negativity, and have a better awareness of both your body and mind.
Techniques vary between practitioners, but mindfulness typically involves some measure of awareness and deep breathing. You don’t need any objects, like candles and incense, and you certainly don’t need to be religious (though there’s nothing wrong if you are). All you need is a little bit of free time to focus on being “in the now,” and on all of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that you might be feeling.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is often thought of as a purely mental exercise. But as you discover that every part of a person (body, mind, spirit) is interconnected with each other, things become a bit more multidimensional. To give you a few examples, here are some of the benefits you may experience from mindfulness meditation:
Mindfulness meditation is often praised as an activity that benefits your emotional health – and for good reason. It requires you to view the world and yourself through an object, non-judgmental lens, giving you the space to analyze and label your emotions. Once you have a better understanding of what you’re feeling, and perhaps why you’re feeling it, you’ll be able to regulate and take control over your emotions. This can make it easier to cope with your feelings, and perhaps lead to fewer emotional outbursts.
Mindfulness has also been linked to a decrease in depression and anxiety. In fact, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a form a therapy designed to help people become more aware and accepting of their thoughts and feelings. While the therapy is helpful if you need more guidance from a professional, you can achieve many of these benefits on your own by taking a few minutes to be mindful every day.
As you learn to let go of negativity, turn away from stress inducing factors, and focus on your breathing or the world around you, your body will undergo some changes. You see, most of us find ourselves trapped in a cycle of “fight or flight” due to whatever might be stressing us out in the moment.
In the morning, you’re probably stressed out about getting to work on time. Perhaps you overslept, missed breakfast, found yourself stuck in traffic, and wound up 10 minutes late to an important meeting. During holiday season, some of us spend a good 3 months in a state of panic. Between planning family get-togethers, buying gifts, and preparing food, it’s hard to enjoy those moments you worked so hard to create. Or, at the time of this writing, with inflation being so high in the US, I’m sure many of you are stressed about finances.
You get the point – we all (basically) live in a constant state of stress one way or another. Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which elevates adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies to give us the energy we need to either fight the situation or flee from it. Helpful when you need it in the moment, but detrimental to your health if it persists over time.
How Stress Affects the Body:
Living in a constant state of stress keeps your cortisol levels higher than they need to be. As a result, you may start to experience weight gain, insulin resistance, irritability, high blood pressure, fatigue, a suppressed immune system, and much more.
Likewise, chronic stress can cause persistent surges of adrenaline. This is linked to conditions like insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety, weight gain, and an increases risk for heart attack and stroke.
How the Parasympathetic Nervous System Can Help
Sounds pretty rough, doesn’t it? In fact, you may be experiencing many of these symptoms already, especially when you live in a constant state of stress. If that’s the case, you’re in desperate need of a method that can lower your SNS response, increasing the activity in your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).
Meditation is one of the most effective tools for doing this. While you meditate, your blood oxygen levels increase, you experience improved circulation and nutrient flow, and your heart rate will calm down. At the same time, mindfulness meditation requires you to look at the world from a detached, non-judgmental point of view. When you mentally remove yourself from the things that are stressing you out, your body naturally calms down.
Your brain is an amazing organ. Its ability to adapt and change over time demonstrates a level of plasticity found nowhere else in the body. The more you use a certain aspect of your mind, the more developed it will become over time.
For example, mindfulness meditation teaches you how to focus your attention for a lengthy amount of time. As you continue to practice this technique, you’ll find that other events during the day can sustain your attention for longer periods of time as well. On top of that, meditation will teach your brain both cognitive flexibility and cognitive inhibition.
Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift your thoughts and attention, despite any distractions present around you. Cognitive inhibition is what allows you to suppress certain thoughts that might interfere with your focus. When combined, these abilities help you to think quickly, adapt to changing circumstances, concentrate on tasks, and solve problems efficiently.
We talked about it briefly, but mindfulness meditation is an effective way to learn how to cope with emotions. As you become more proficient with this ability, you’ll discover that certain triggers don’t affect you as much as they used to – especially in relationships.
Let’s be honest, we all have at least one person in our lives that tends to drive us crazy. Whether it’s a spouse, a friend, or a family member, we can all point to one (or a few) people who test our patience with their annoying behaviors, quirks, and idiosyncrasies.
Again, mindfulness meditation is a way to objectively view yourself and the world through a non-judgmental lens. As you improve, you’ll discover that it’s much easier to accept your flaws and shortcomings, as well as these negative traits in others. Taking away overly critical tendencies and judgments makes it easier to improve yourself and others; it will also help you become more understanding of people who might be at different places on their journey.
How to Meditate
Contrary to what you might have expected, I don’t believe you need to lock yourself away in a dark closet to get the most out of mindfulness meditation. The goal is not to remove yourself from distractions, but to focus intently on what’s going on around you. Two of the most common methods for achieving this include developing your awareness and breathing patterns.
I’ve practiced martial arts for most of my life. The school that I go to places a big emphasis on meditating at the beginning of every class, as a way to reset our minds, preparing us for the training to come. Mostly, we’re taught to focus on our breathing, which I’ll talk about shortly. However, I remember one time when my instructor told us to tune into all the sounds and sensations around us instead.
The door was open, so we could clearly hear the birds chirping outside. Occasionally, there was the sound of the wind rustling through leaves, or a car driving down the nearby road. A storm had recently passed through, so the distinct smell of rain was still in the air. I could feel the humidity making my feet stick to the ground below me. During this time, I felt like I was experiencing the world in a completely different way, and it was incredibly peaceful and relaxing.
You can’t be mindful without being aware. And when you’re keenly aware of the things that are present in that moment, it’s easy to forget about the stress of the future and the trauma of the past.
Of course, you don’t have to practice martial arts to reap the benefits of meditation. Apply the same principles to whatever you do, whether it be camping, painting, or riding your bike, and you’ll notice a big difference in your mood and the way you view the world.
If you’ve ever practiced meditation before, you probably learned the importance of breathing. But if you’re new to this world, you might be confused as to why it’s so important to focus on that particular bodily function. Why not tune into your heartbeat, or even something unrelated to your body?
It’s a good question, and one that requires you to think about your daily routine. How many of you set yourselves on autopilot, and then wonder if you remembered to lock the door on your way out of the house? How many of you zone out while driving to work, only to “wake up” once you’ve arrived with no idea how you got there? Or, how many of you rely on muscle memory to complete your chores, discovering that you didn’t have to think about it once, and it still got done?
As humans, we like routines because they’re familiar and comforting. At the same time, they allow us to be mindless during the day – the complete opposite of the mindfulness we’re trying to accomplish here.
Breathing is no exception to this rule. It’s one of the few bodily functions that is completely automatic, while remaining something that we can consciously control if we choose to do so. When we aren’t grounded in the present, we lose control over the length and origin of our breath, which can have detrimental effects on our health. Conversely, focusing on breathing deeply and consistently can allow us to regulate our mind and body, anchoring us in the here and now.
How Spending Time in Nature Can Help
So, I’ve spent this entire article hyping up all the benefits that come from mindfulness meditation. But how does it fit in with spending time outdoors?
In fact, you may have already heard it called by a number of different names. Forest bathing, ecotherapy, the wilderness cure, and green time all refer to practicing mindfulness in nature. There are a number of reasons why the wilderness is such an ideal place to be mindful, but more than anything, it likely has to do with the lack of stressors.
It’s the best place to be tech free, away from social media, and removed from many of the things that are vying for your attention. When you have distractions, deadlines, and a routine that you like to follow, it’s easy to fall into mindlessness. You typically don’t have these things in nature, especially if you’re camping or backpacking in an area without cell service or electricity.
Camping also forces you to slow down and enjoy the moment. There aren’t an endless number of appointments to attend in your tent, and there’s only so much you can fill your schedule with when you’re disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s much easier to be mindful when a hike is the only activity on your to-do list.
If you’re like me, and you appreciate having more guidance during your meditation session, consider using the Flow app. You don’t have to do anything special, like closing your eyes, and it can be a helpful tool wherever you are in the world. Walking, hiking, and camping can be meditative by themselves, but sometimes it can be hard to enter the proper frame of mind, despite having all the environmental factors lined up. Flow is the little nudge that you need to prime your mind to enter a more mindful state at the campsite, on the trail, at home, or anywhere you go.
Mindfulness as a Way of Life
Whether or not you can escape to a more natural setting on a frequent basis, I hope you’ll take the time to practice mindfulness in your daily life. We’ve been taught to keep ourselves busy, never really thinking too deeply about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, or how we feel as a result.
Because many of us are walking through life in a daze, we’ve seen rates of depression and anxiety spike, as well as other physical health concerns. Perhaps you feel like life is just passing you by, or you just don’t have the energy to do the things that you want to do anymore.
Ideally, you’ll be able to take a few days to go camping, or find another way to break from your normal cycle. If you can’t swing it, though, try to find other ways to make mindfulness a more regular part of your schedule. When you’re doing dishes, pay attention to the warm water on your hands, the sound of metal and ceramic clanking around, and the shape of the bubbles. If you like to use workout equipment, focus on your breathing and where your body is in space. Even when you’re brushing your teeth, you can focus on how the floor feels beneath your feet, the sensation of your arm moving up and down, and the brush in your hand.
If you have children, consider looking into the resources provided by The Resilience Project. They have a lot of helpful content related to mindfulness, gratitude, and empathy that will benefit your whole family.