The Stressed-Out Newbie’s Guide to Meditation

(Photo: Tim Goedhart on Unsplash)

Admit it: the first image that pops into your head when you think of meditation is a woman with a flowing robe and flowier hair, sitting cross-legged and chanting Buddhist mantras while a stick of sandalwood burns. But the search for zen is no longer just for monks and hippies. It’s now de rigueur for the stressed-out and teched-out (who isn’t?).

The practice has taken hold in Silicon Valley—Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reportedly gets up at 5 A.M. every day to meditate for half an hour—fueling the rise of multimillion-dollar apps, like Calm, Headspace and Lucid. If you can’t put down your iPhone for even five minutes without getting twitchy, then at least you can use it to chill out.

Given my struggles with depression and generalized anxiety disorder for most of my life, I began to wonder if something as seemingly simple as meditation could finally give me a little peace of mind. Here’s what I learned when I hopped on the bandwagon.

1. Yup, regular meditation may help with mental health.

So suggests science. Our brains are plastic, which means they continually rewire as we age, have experiences and develop new habits. There’s some research that mindfulness meditation—which focuses on breathing and being consciously present in each moment—can actually train the brain to better handle stress, regulate emotions and reduce fearful thoughts. Regular meditation is also believed to help reduce activity in the pain regions of our brains, so we don’t perceive physical suffering as strongly.

2. There’s no wrong way to meditate.

Technically, there are different types of meditation, like transcendental, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), guided visualization and kundalini yoga, but meditating can also be as simple as sitting in a quiet space and concentrating on breathing in and out for a few minutes. You don’t have to sit a certain way (go with whatever is comfortable) or chant mantras.

You can even “mindfully wash the dishes,” says Emily Thring, Pilates instructor and founder of The Quiet Company. The new Toronto pop-up studio runs meditation classes “for modern minds,” including newbie-friendly, 45-minute sits at Lululemon’s The Attic (318 Queen Street West, Toronto). “You think: What does the temperature of the water on my hands feel like? What is the weight of the glass I’m holding? What does the soap smell like?” explains Thring. “It brings focus and attention to where you are and what you’re doing, rather than planning your grocery list.”

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3. Designating a special spot for meditation elevates the experience.

Yes, you can meditate anywhere—walking around or rush-hour commuting, which is when you’d probably appreciate some serenity now—but I found that creating a little space where I could lounge on a cushion each morning made me want to take the time out of my day. I placed a pillow on the floor beside a window, lit a candle (I love Cire Trudon x Giambattista Valli Rose Poivrée) and played a spa-vibes soundtrack, all of which helped me get in the zone.

4. It’s not about blanking out your brain.

It’s a myth that meditation’s primary goal is to learn to think of nothing at all. Instead, the purpose is to train the brain to redirect wayward thoughts—“I need to buy tinfoil. I’m worried about my big presentation next week. Everyone hates me”—back to the present moment, your breath, specific visualizations (like the image of a great love coming into your life and how that would make you feel) or sensations in your body.

5. Meditation is highly personal.

Before I started meditating, I knew I wanted to work on the sadness I carry in my body like a black mass beneath my rib cage. Spiritual guru Gabrielle Bernstein has a great meditation in her book The Universe Has Your Back for this very issue. It involves acknowledging the pain and breathing deeply into it while thinking kind, loving thoughts about yourself. I liked to imagine someone soft and warm giving me a hug and telling me my pain is valid. Then you envision golden light filling your core.

A different meditation might work better for you, depending on your goals. If you’re experiencing anxiety, for example, Toronto-based yoga/meditation teacher Tara Good suggests grounding yourself by imagining your body sinking into the earth and roots wrapping around your legs and holding you safe.

6. A quickie can still do you good.

Meditation requires patience and focus, so if you’re a newbie, diving into an hour-long session right away will probably end in boredom and frustration. Instead, start by setting your alarm a little earlier in the morning and “spend five or 10 minutes meditating a few times a week,” says Caitlin Ryan, who recently founded The Meditation Club and runs pop-up classes in Toronto. “Gradually, you will find that the time you sit will lengthen, and you might find yourself craving the time and space on a daily basis.”

7. You can DIY or with a group.

I found meditating on my own more peaceful and less distracting than trying it with others, but some people thrive on group energy or want the in-person guidance. In New York’s trend-setting wellness scene, stylish studios devoted to modern meditation, like Inscape (founded by Khajak Keledjian, former owner of luxury retailer Intermix) and MNDFL (a “must-visit,” says Vogue), are popping up to meet the need.

“There are hundreds of apps you can use to meditate on your own,” says Thring, pointing out that Headspace is one of the biggest apps on iTunes. “But meditating with a group is a really unique experience. You get a different connection and build a community.”

Though I wouldn’t say that my brief-to-date dabbling in meditation has been enough to rewire my brain, I’ve become more aware of the thoughts that lead to my paralyzing sadness and anxiety—mainly because they kept rudely forcing their way into my attention like a bossy puppy every time I tried to focus on my breath. (My actual puppies also tried to force their way in a few times for head scratches.)

Ideally, I’ll keep setting aside daily quiet time, because every regular meditator I’ve asked says it’s helped them better cope with stress. Unfortunately, the problem I’m trying to correct is a catch-22: depression benefits from meditation, but it also makes getting out of bed early (or at all) a monumental task. But if I can stay motivated, maybe one day I’ll be able to tell those thoughts to GTFO once and for all, because man, they’re harshing my mellow.

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