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How to start meditating with these 10 simple steps

The well-known adage that change is life’s only constant is truer than ever. In theory, we knew it all along. We see it with the literal flip of the calendar year and during transitions, from aging to relationships to family to jobs to health to suffering to grief.

But change now rules our lives, along with a growing fear of uncertainty. It’s easy to get caught up in these unknowns which can manifest as stress and tension, or more seriously as anxiety. Nearly 7 million Americans suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). When GAD is combined with rapidly unfurling national circumstances, it’s no wonder we’re finding it more difficult to manage our minds.

Anxiety reaches for the future while depression lingers in the rear-view. Keeping our brains in the present means recognizing what we can control and letting go of what we cannot. But this requires some habit-shifting.

Two-and-a-half years ago, my mother was admitted to ICU after the onset of a sudden illness. My brother and I kept round-the-clock vigil at her bedside. When she died two weeks later, my therapist urged me to begin meditating.

“Now?” I thought. I’d just lost my mother; I was certain trying to calm my mind would be a waste of time. What I didn’t know was that during times of upheaval, our body’s sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response. This floods our bloodstream with a stress hormone to get our minds and bodies through the traumatic event.

Meditation, one breath at a timeMeditation, one breath at a time — Photo courtesy of J. Dana Trent

While this is useful, it’s not sustainable, which is why our alert, anxious state of being is not beneficial long-term to our body’s homeostasis. However, the body’s antidote (its parasympathetic system) offers a relaxation response, a “cure” for the constant flushing of stress chemicals that keep us running or fighting.

The body’s relaxation response is stimulated by intentional deep breathing which activates the vagus nerve – one of our body’s longest nerves, running from our brain to our abdomen. Evidence-based studies show how meditation stimulates this nerve and is therefore physiologically beneficial during times of stress because it lowers blood pressure, heart rate and overall anxiety.

Behaviors are difficult to modify in “normal” circumstances, without the added pressure cooker of chaos. How do we keep our calm amid such shape-shifting modern lives? When each new day brings worse news, how do we even consider mindfulness practices? Where do we start? How can we sustain it? The answer is simple: The ABCs, one breath at a time.

It seems silly to take such an elementary approach to a complex problem. But a preschooler’s mnemonic yields the ancient, accessible wisdom to keeping our cool in a panic. These simple steps have helped me start and maintain a meditation practice when everything in my life changed instantly.

1. Remember the ABCs

Write down your intentionsWrite down your intentions — Photo courtesy of E+ / MundusImages

Acknowledge feelings. Be present. Choose calm.

It’s essential to acknowledge how we feel. Rather than reaching for the phone, do a quick check-in. Are you stressed? Do you know the root cause? Aim for presence. Sit with your feelings – whatever they are – and take six deep breaths. Avoid grabbing for an unknown future, nor reach back for a regretful past.

Choosing calm gives us back our power. Every moment, we have a choice: panic or peace?

2. Name your intention

Considering the “why” of meditation is just as important as the “how.” The why of something maintains and sustains it. Write your why down.

3. Pick a time to meditate

Pick a time that fits your natural schedulePick a time that fits your natural schedule — Photo courtesy of iStock / Pra-chid

Put it on your calendar. Meditation requires time, which we now (ironically) have more of. Choose a time to meditate that you believe works best with your body’s natural rhythm and life circumstance.

It can be morning, lunchtime, evening or before bed. Anytime is appropriate. If you find the time does not work, adapt until it feels natural.

4. Commit to just three minutes per day

Whether you are beginning, maintaining or jumping back in, starting small is the key to winning. Begin with just three minutes of meditation per day. You can always add minutes to your practice.

5. Don’t necessarily count on fancy apps

Keep it simple with timersKeep it simple with timers — Photo courtesy of iStock / Lazy_Bear

Tech is not a substitute for the practice itself. The app won’t meditate for us – but digital tools can provide accessibility, structure, accountability and community. If a meditation app offers more distraction than peace, try an old-fashioned egg timer, stove timer or your phone’s basic timer.

6. Begin with the breath

Get comfortable in your chair or on the floor. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Inhale, exhale – deeply, smoothly, slowly. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous systems, the body’s relaxation response.

7. Use counting or key phrases as you breathe

Count as you breatheCount as you breathe — Photo courtesy of E+ / hobo_018

Inhale through the nose and count silently “1, 2, 3, 4.” Exhale through the mouth and count silently “4, 3, 2, 1.” Adding a simple phrase like, “I am…here now,” draws us into the present. When thoughts enter your mind, just return to the breath.

8. If you forget or skip a day, dive back in

Skip a day? Jump in where you are and don’t be afraid to adapt. No judgement, just gentleness. Be as consistent as possible; this is where calendar reminders can be useful. This is not a one-size-fits-all.

Don’t be afraid to switch up the time of day, counting, phrases or location.

9. Practice loving-kindness

Think positive thoughtsThink positive thoughts — Photo courtesy of E+ / PeopleImages

As you establish your breath meditation, you can add the ancient practice of loving-kindness meditation from the Buddhist tradition.

Repeat these phrases about yourself and others: “May I be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace. May my neighbor be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace. May my enemy be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace. May everyone be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace.”

10. Aim for progress, not perfection

This is not a competition. Being hard on ourselves will not inspire us to breathe deeply. Instead, look for the tiny wins.

Life will continue to change. But a sustainable meditation practice equips us to weather changes while being present in our mind and body. When we do, we become mentally stronger for ourselves and others.



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