As much as I’m loath to admit it, I’m not a fan of meditation. It comes unnaturally to me, despite my 36 years of martial arts study and interest in self-improvement, health-hacking, and general enlightenment.
I realize this speaks poorly of me as a person, kind of like my opinions on aikido, jazz music, pumpkin pie, and “A Prairie Home Companion.” That I’m not fond of them doesn’t mean they’re bad, it means I’m not as good as I could be.
Worse yet, when I do regularly meditate, I find my life is better. Stress is lower, my health improves. I can focus more on my work, and am less likely to say things I regret to my friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Problems seem smaller. I seem bigger.
And I’m not alone. Over the past few decades, a host of research has supported the conclusion that meditation is good for us, and that we should all meditate a few minutes each day.
- Meditation has been found again, and again (and again) to reduce stress, with all the physical, social, and emotional benefits that provides.
- Multiple studies have found meditation can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
- In 2003, researchers learned that regular meditation helped to boost immune function.
- Meditation can help control pain, according to several studies, including these in 2016and 2017.
That’s just the tip of that particular iceberg. Bottom line: meditation is good for me, and for you, no matter how much we might not want to do it. Kind of like eating a vegetarian meal once or twice a week.
So, from one resistant but learning meditator to others, here’s what I’ve learned about meditation and how to make it part of improving your life.
You don’t have to just sit around
Non-practitioners sometimes imagine meditation to be boring — and perhaps if not done a certain way, it can be. But there’s more than one kind of meditation available, so you can easily find one that suits you. Here are just a few alternatives:
- Walking meditation calms your mind when you focus on your strides and movement of taking steps (rather than, say, focusing on your breath). Walking in a labyrinth is a centuries-old practice of contemplation common among many spiritual faiths, including Catholicism.
- Kata is the formal practice of martial arts, including tai chi. The motions of this practice are so complex it becomes impossible to think of other things, allowing for profound meditative focus. See also yoga.
- Listening mindfully to music, especially music without lyrics, produces the same impacts of meditation by allowing you to be transported by the sounds, away from stray and extraneous thoughts.
- Daily task meditation iswhere you take the process of a task — like doing dishes, cooking a meal, or getting dressed — and focus on it the way a kung fu master might focus on her forms.
Those are just a few examples. Other options for meditation include loving-kindness meditation, guided relaxation, breathing meditation, zazen sitting meditation, awareness meditation, Kundalini, pranayama…
The point is there’s a kind of meditation that works well with your needs, tastes, and general outlook. It’s just a matter of finding the right match.
Your brain might mess with you
Meditating is supposed to be a quieting of the mind, where you think about nothing in particular (or nothing other than the actions of the meditation) to allow that background noise to filter out and let you rest. That’s why exercise can be meditative: at a certain point you’re only able to think about the exercise.
But along the way, throughout each session of meditation, your thoughts are going to keep zooming in and trying to distract you. This happens all the time in the beginning, but here’s a secret: It happens all the time to the masters, too.
The trick with meditation isn’t to totally eliminate those stray thoughts. It’s to let them pass through your mind without you grabbing hold of them.
In the first stages of learning, you’ll fail a lot of the time. You’ll be meditating for a while and suddenly realize you stopped somewhere along the way to think about your to-do list and what you’re making for dinner that night.
Eventually, that will happen less and less, and you’ll start distracting yourself by getting frustrated that the thoughts intrude at all. You will ultimately be able to let them pass through and over you without taking root, so you can continue your meditation for as long as you wish.
Speaking of “as long as you wish….”
It doesn’t have to be for very long
Yes, I read the stories about Gichin Funakoshi (aka The Father of Modern Day Karate) meditating for an entire day while standing under a waterfall, and about retreats where people spend the entire weekend in some kind of a trance. And probably, some of those stories are true.
No, they don’t mean you have to meditate for hours to get anything out of meditation.
The studies I mentioned above had subjects meditate for less than an hour, in most cases less than 15 minutes, and even those sessions resulted in significant improvements to physical, emotional, and psychological health.
Some of the masters I’ve personally spoken with go one further, advising us to start with just one minute of meditation per day. That won’t be enough to reap huge, long-lasting benefits, but it has two advantages:
- You will succeed. Anybody can meditate for a minute, no matter how busy or distractible they are.
- You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much of a difference it makes for the next 10 minutes of your life.
I personally found those two factors combined to be an excellent motivator. Under the powerful motivation of immediate success and feeling the short-term impact of that minute, I committed more fully to learning how to meditate.
You don’t have to be a certain ‘type’ of person to meditate
Meditation has shed the new age or ‘hippie’ reputation it once had. Anyone can do it. Here’s an incomplete list of groups that actively practice meditation or encourage their people to meditate regularly:
- professional athletes in the NFL, NHL, and UFC
- actors including Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger
- SEAL Team Six and other special forces branches of U.S. and worldwide militaries
- an impossibly long list of CEOs and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk
If Randy Couture and the guy who plays Wolverine meditate, you can do it too. It only takes a minute — literally — and you can start today.