By Dr. Colleen Long, PsyD
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My patients and clients often ask me, "if there is one thing that you would tell everyone to do to improve their overall lives, what would it be?" Every time my answer is- meditation. However, I usually get a blank stare or they immediately classify me as one of those therapists who burn incense and experiment with LSD.
I practically stumbled upon meditation myself, both as a clinician and a person. I was in the very beginning of my “happiness groups,” in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. These groups based on a positive psychology framework where patients were encouraged to focus on what was going right in their lives versus what was going wrong. It was a different way of thinking, but began paying off significantly.
Instead of digging through old baggage of the past, we focused on exercises designed to boost one’s sense of well-being, regardless of the hand they were dealt (you have to keep in mind, many of these people had endured childhoods and young adult lives most of us would read about or only see in a movie). Some of the exercises were designed to teach them how the brain was not necessarily designed to “default” on happiness- that we mostly defaulted to fear and anxiety, which is an adaptive mechanism, once protecting us from lions or other tribes in the distance.
We would put together gratitude journals, and practice focusing on helping someone else that day. As I began searching for new techniques to incorporate in the group, I came across a research study that boasted the effects of meditation on our mood. The research showed that peoples’ left pre-frontal cortex (the area in our brain believed to be responsible for feelings of well-being) were showing dramatic changes after just three 20 minute sessions per week.
So we tried it. We would finish the last 20 minutes of each group with a meditation session. After the first time, I didn’t really notice anything different. Yet, after just a few days of doing this exercise with many groups, I was noticing something. A shift. I was actually a bit more calm, and was present. I remember brushing my teeth and having no running thoughts other than “I’m brushing my teeth.” It was freedom.
John Kabat-Zinn was one of the pioneering psychologists who discovered how meditation effects our brain. Meditation has also been shown to have various other health benefits, most notably with its connection to the Vagus nerve, which helps to decrease cortisol production (the hormone responsible for giving us those little stress guts). Meditation is ours for the taking. It does not cost us anything but a few minutes of our time and patience.
The following are the basic tips for meditation that are sure to get you started in the right direction:
1)Posture- Make sure that you are sitting on a firm surface or firm pillow. You can either sit on the floor with legs crossed or in a chair with legs shoulder width apart. Just make sure that you are not leaning back on the chair back. Ensure that your back is upright, as if you are sitting on a horse. This posture helps remind the body that the mind is in control. It is a posture of dignity and respect, and symbolizes the act of meditation for yourself each day.
Make sure your chest is lifted and open. This shows that you are open and receptive to what this meditation brings. Make sure that your shoulders are back and relaxed, and that your mouth and jaw are also loose. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends you try slightly smiling.
2) Detachment- A common misconception is that meditation should be an absence of one’s thoughts. This is not possible. View your mind’s energy as you would a flowing river. Each leave that passes, represents a thought. It is your goal to observe those thoughts without judgment, like leaves on a river. Once we are able to separate ourselves from our thoughts, they can no longer bring us the same pain they once did. We soon become comfortable just being with our thoughts, even the most painful. As a thought comes to view, we might think “oh that is interesting that thought has come up now,” and let it pass down the river.
3) Routine- Make sure that you set aside some time for meditation-at least three to five days a week, at first. My guess is that once you start to notice the benefits, you will be doing it seven days a week. Most of my patients were on a medication regimen, so I advised them to set aside time for their meditation at the same time they took their medication every day. Another favorite time is right after you wake. This is when the mind is the freshest and most restored. Some prefer right before bedtime. Just make sure that you are not confusing meditation with napping. Meditation requires an alert state of mind.
4) Hands- Your hands can be in one of several positions. These are known as mudras. Each position evokes different feeling states, such as balance, openness, or groundedness. One is the classical forefinger to thumb position. This can signal to the mind an on-the-spot concentration that is often needed for meditation. Another hand position is each hand on the knees, palms facing up. This signals a receptivity to your meditation, an openness to what comes. Some people prefer the traditional Christian prayer position, with both palms pressed together under the chin. The last position is hands on each knee, palms facing down. This envokes a feeling of groundedness, strength, and balance.
5) Eyes- Many people prefer that their eyes are closed. This can be a good thing in that you are not distracted. However, if you find yourself becoming sleepy, you may want to pick a spot about 4-6 inches on the ground in front of you and focus on this during your meditation.
6) Sound- You can meditate quietly or use music if you are more musically inclined. I prefer to listen to Liquid Mind on Pandora radio, which helps to put me in a tranquil state.
7) Breath- As you get started, simply focus on the breaths coming in and out of your body. You can start by inhaling for four, holding for two, and exhaling for four. This puts the body in a deeper state of relaxation (you may even find yourself getting a slight buzz from the amount of oxygen you are taking in) because we do not normally breathe at this slow pace. As you inhale, notice your belly start to rise, as you exhale notice it grow smaller. Remind yourself that each breath is cleansing, like a broom sweeping out the cobwebs of the soul.
8) Ending- At the end of each meditation, many choose to clasp their hands together in the traditional prayer position, bowing their head in gratitude for the meditation as well as showing respect to a higher order in the universe.
Putting it in to Practice
I like to start each day with meditation. It is a time when my mind is at its freshest. I am able to clear my mind of thoughts without falling asleep (because I have just had eight hours of rest). I often like to start with a 3-5 minute visualization exercise, where I visualize where I want to be. I concentrate on the smells, the sounds, what the environment looks like around me, what people are saying, and even how they feel about me.
After this visualization exercise, I usually do a 20 minute meditation, where I clear myself of thoughts and focus on being in the present moment. Many of those that are trying this for the first time will find that the first minute, even 30 seconds is difficult. This is normal- our minds are not used to this way of being and will resist at first. It is only a protective mechanism. Practice acceptance towards our minds wanting to protect us and allow yourself to continually return to the present moment.
As thoughts come up, simply view them as passing leaves on a stream. Don’t make judgments, simply let them float by. Eventually you will be able to remain in the present moment for a full minute, and this time will increase with practice.
Dr. Colleen Long is the author of “Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E,” and practices in the Los Angeles area under the supervision of Dr. Richard Oelberger (PSY22186) . Dr. Long works mainly from a positive psychology framework as it applies to addiction, depression, relationships, body image and weight loss. Her website can be found at www.DrColleenLong.com. All public speaking/media event requests handled through FreudTV (info@FreudTV.com).