Stuck at home, stressed and in need of a distraction, many of us instinctually reach for our phones or TV remotes. But TV and Twitter aren’t what many of us need.
We need to reduce our stress, calm our minds and improve our sense of wellness. We need meditation.
“Right now, we’re all living with a heightened sense of threat, a hypervigilant kind of stress,” said Mariann Johnson, mindfulness and well-being instructor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. “Mindfulness can help us shift that lens to broaden our perspective and our sense of self-awareness to try and get into that calmer mind-set.”
But just what is mindfulness meditation?
Johnson is quick to point out that it’s not about “blissing out” and eliminating all your thoughts. It’s a way to be calm and reflect on how you’re feeling, to be present in the moment.
If you’ve never tried to meditate before, where do you begin?
Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. There’s no standard form of meditation and no shortage of options. The Twin Cities area has over a dozen meditation centers, many of which have moved to online practices.
The Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, which now offers group sessions via Zoom, practices Zen Buddhist meditation with both traditional and contemporary elements.
Contrary to popular belief, most meditations aren’t meant to create a particular mind-set or establish control over our thoughts, said Ben Connelly, a Soto Zen priest at the center.
The idea isn’t to get rid of something or trick your mind into relaxation, it’s to focus on how you feel in the moment.
“Instead of thinking we’re trying to control ourselves or make something happen, we offer attention to our body. And through doing that, we become more aware of what’s happening right now — what’s going on with your heart, your emotions and your mind,” Connelly said.
Begin by finding a quiet and comfortable place to sit. Keep an upright posture and set a timer — aim for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes for your first few sessions.
Observe your breathing. And if you find your mind wandering off, just return to your breathing. Distractions are normal, said Connelly, so gently redirect your thoughts back to your body.
As you sit, experience your posture, the body and the breath. By focusing on the body, you’ll inadvertently be clearing your mind.
“It’s not meant to be a hard, driving, goal-oriented practice,” Johnson said. “It’s training our minds to be in the present moment when we’re so used to distracting ourselves.”
Like most things that are good for us, it’s best if you can practice mindfulness on a regular basis. That may not be easy, especially when you’re first starting out. Finding a center or community online can help with consistency, Connelly said.
“This is a collective practice. We come together so you have opportunities to share, talk about it and let it grow within the context of community, with the support of a teacher,” Connelly said.
Mobile meditation options have never been more accessible — over 2,500 meditation apps have launched since 2015. Some popular programs like Headspace, Balance and Simple Habit are now offering their pro versions for free or at reduced prices during the pandemic.
If you go the app route, Johnson recommends you do a little research first. Do the teachers have credentials? Does their training match what you’re looking for? Does the app allow you to connect one-on-one with your instructor if you have questions?
No matter what method you choose, remember to cut yourself some slack. Mindfulness can be developed in many ways, not just through meditation. Sit quietly with a cup of tea. Take a slow, mindful walk. Just notice your breath.
“It’s a lifelong journey, and it’s a process that builds little by little, day by day, practice by practice,” Johnson said. “The most important thing we can do is be mindful of that and be kind to ourselves.”
Audrey Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.