Hello friends! It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and while behind-the-scenes posts usually cover some aspect of how HabitRPG, Inc. runs as a company, I’ve had several conversations with both friends and business contacts about how I established my meditation practice. It’s been a stressful year in a lot of ways, and meditation plays a critical role in making sure I don’t run out screaming into the night, never to return. This post is for those of you who’ve added a “Meditation” daily to your Habitica tasks, but haven’t quite managed to make it stick. Without further ado….
Why meditate? An introduction:
Before getting deep into the “how,” let’s begin with the “why.” There’s plenty out there about the benefits of meditation and why you should start. Wikipedia has an overview, the Buffer blog has an excellent post breaking down some of the physiological effects of a meditation practice, and finally, Chade Meng Tan’s book, Search Inside Yourself, covers a lot of the science and applications of a mindfulness based stress reduction practice, particularly in the workplace.
Some benefits that I’ve experienced personally since establishing a regular meditation practice:
- I can offset the effects of sleep deprivation if I take time to meditate, i.e. if I should have gotten 90 minutes more sleep, taking 20 minutes or so to observe my breathing helps balance out some of the crankiness and the tendency to overreact to things.
- It’s easier for me to recognize when my brain is basically a barrel of monkeys and take action to mitigate it or redirect my attention towards high-energy, low-cognitive load tasks.
- I’m better at engaging with people and being patient with them even as my first reaction is a negative one, like irritation, or annoyance. (Not perfect, but improved.)
For the remainder of this post I’ll be operating under the assumption that you know meditation is a thing, and you want to do that thing! Only you haven’t quite yet cracked the “how” of it and the daily is starting to go dark red.
The “How” of Meditating:
There are plenty of different types of meditation. Here, I focus on mindfulness meditation. (Technically, “mindfulness based stress reduction” pioneered for the secular corporate world by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn. Whatever title works for you!)
Basic Technique: Make yourself comfortable, whether standing, seated, or lying down. Focus on your breath. You know how to breathe! Keep breathing. That’s all: one breath in, one breath out.
Too simple to be true? Yes, in a way–when it comes down to it, a breath isn’t necessarily a straightforward thing.
- It has stages: when you inhale, when you hit the top of your inhale for a split second before pushing all the air out of your lungs, when you exhale, when you hit bottom of the breath but aren’t ready to inhale yet.
- It has qualities: the temperature of the ambient air. The speed at which you’re breathing. Whether you’re inhaling through both nostrils equally, or one side more than the other (hooray, allergies). If your breath hits the back of your throat, or hovers somewhere above the roof of your mouth.
- It has physiological effects: If you’re breathing too fast, you get lightheaded (and maybe should slow down a bit). Your chest may raise and lower, or your belly.
While you’re in a meditation session, you want to pay attention to your breath. I think of meditation as “dedicated time to get better at feeling myself breathe” and spend my session trying to pay attention to the above sensations.
One breath in, one breath out.
Repeat as necessary.
I’m going to assume you managed the aforementioned just fine. If that’s all you need, you can stop reading here and count it as a session! For others, that’s not enough–you don’t feel like you’re meditating yet. Keep reading.
One full breath-cycle of an inhale/exhale takes me about 10 seconds. It might take you longer, or you may breathe faster and require less time. In any case, you can manage a focused meditation session of one breath-cycle now, so your next stage is 3 cycles of breathing and breathing out. Doable, yes?
Now you’re ready for a minute-long meditation session. This is usually where people start feeling a bit daunted, especially if they’ve been trying and failing to build a sustained meditation practice. But if you think about it, a minute breaks down into roughly 5 or 6 cycles. My suggestion, when you’re at this level, is to use a timer–I like Calm, which is beautiful and has timers available in a web browser at : https://www.calm.com/meditate/program/Htq1PUleuW or in their apps for iOS and Android. But you can really use any timer of your choice. I personally gravitate towards soft bells to announce the end of a session, but there are plenty of other options.
Remember, the technique is: one breath in, one breath out.
Then repeat 4-8 times, however many breath-cycles it takes for the 1 minute timer to ring.
If you’re human (I hope you’re human! I’m pretty sure I’m not qualified to talk about how meditation works for non-humans) your brain is going to be bouncing all over the place like kittens being lined up for a photograph.
Don’t worry; that’s normal. Just notice it–and by “notice it” basically do the mental equivalent of nodding at someone in the hall like “oh hey, I see you” and continue on to your business. In this case, your business is BREATHING LIKE A CHAMP. (Seriously. Not dead? YOU WIN AT BREATHING.)
When the timer goes off, that’s it! Congratulations, you’ve completed a 1 minute meditation session. That’s really all you need to build the habit–a spare sixty seconds per day to ride your breath.
Moving beyond the 1 minute meditation session
At this point, you’re either nicely settled into the 1 minute meditations and feeling like you could take on more time because the sessions are too short, or you find yourself wondering when the timer will go off. There are a couple of different choices you could make here, all of which are equally valid:
- If you feel ready for more time, increment the session length. Calm’s timer intervals go 1, 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 minutes (…etc. Calm also does an 8 hour timed meditation that I suspect is more for sleep than for actual meditation). Consider this the “check-in” method. Doesn’t matter if you managed to have a focused session or you find yourself ten million miles away when the bell chimes. I have seen comments like “It’s called meditation _practice_, not meditation perfect” which is kind of a dad joke but also true.
- If you keep thinking “are we done yet?” try replacing the timer with a stopwatch. That is, instead of having something count down from an arbitrary period of time, have it count up–and give yourself permission to finish your session when you feel done. This was a trick I used to get myself to sit for my first sessions that were longer than 10 minutes. It is also useful because it lets you get a feel for what the best sessions could be like, when you get into the flow of returning to the breath and aren’t worrying about when the timer will go off.
- Try the stopwatch, but with intermediary chimes. Calm has an “open ended meditation” feature that lets you choose intervals for a bell to chime. The intervals are useful reminders to check in on where you are–are you watching your breath? (In my case, hardly ever–and the chimes are a cue for me to get back on track.) However, Calm’s intervals are set at 2 minute lengths. If 2 minutes is too long, Spotify (free!) has an album that does 10 minute sessions in shorter intervals:
Troubleshooting your meditation session:
Posture: Classical meditation has the practitioner sitting cross-legged, often on a pillow. If you can do that, great! If you can’t, great! You can also meditate while sitting in a normal chair, which helps decrease the likelihood that you’ll finish your meditation session and realize that your feet have fallen asleep. If you have terrible posture and sitting for meditation causes you stress, try lying down and doing your session that way! (I usually assume the corpse pose from yoga: feet relaxed apart from each other, hands a little ways out from the body with palms facing skyward, chin relaxed but lifted for easy breathing.)
Falling Asleep: Sometimes you might drift off while sitting quietly. If it’s chronic sleep deprivation, consider whether or not your time might be better spent sleeping rather than meditating. If you choose to tackle meditation, ramp up your sitting times slowly, or rely on the frequency bells as an outside reminder to bring your attention back to your breath.
All the monkeys in the brain: normal. Carry on as before: note that there are monkeys, then refocus on the breath.
A word on habit-building:
These days I meditate much the same way I drink water: usually at the beginning and end of the day, plus when I feel like I need to. To incorporate a regular meditation session into your routine, it’s easiest to schedule it before or after something you already do regularly–after sitting up in bed, before you log on to your computer, or after a meal. Don’t forget to reward yourself afterwards! Perhaps by checking off your “Meditation” Daily in Habitica?
What are your strategies for making meditation work for you? We’d love to hear them!