Om Sweet Om

A 5-minute meditation tryout: no mountaintops, robes or chanting required

Posted Apr 26, 2010

Worldwide recession. Personal financial strain. Partisan Political anguish.

I hesitate even bringing up something so intangible as meditation in the face of today's hard, cold realities. Many think of meditation as a way to empty people's brains, making them vacant. Or, they imagine the disciplined life of a monk in some quiet, far off monastery.

Rather, meditation is really the practice of simply paying attention to what you're thinking, feeling, and sensing. It helps people to be fully conscious of their experience in the moment - to have an experience while also observing that experience. For instance, they can feel sad and anxious about financial losses while also seeing that they feel sad and anxious.

You might ask why anyone would want to do this. To the logical mind, seeing yourself feel emotional pain while actually feeling it would double your pain. But in reality, the opposite happens. Meditation allows people to experience life - even the distressing parts of life - with a sense of calm and acceptance.

This is called mindfulness. So, for instance, consider someone who mindfully responds to losing all of their savings in a bad investment. That person will probably feel sad, but they won't compound it with self-condemnation, regrets about what could have been, and fears about the future. He or she will be aware of when their brain takes a detour into needless self-criticism, or regret and they will return to the primary experience of the moment (their sadness and sense of loss). It is this ability that helps mindful people to avoid needless suffering, though they certainly do not avoid the pain inherent in life.

Mindfulness focuses on accepting thoughts, feelings, and sensations, rather than suppressing or avoiding them. And, research about suppression and avoidance has provided indirect support for the mindfulness approach. Trying to avoid thinking about something takes a lot of energy (as measured by blood glucose), which tires you out. And, it can lessen willpower. So, you will eventually give in to your desire for that piece of chocolate cake-the one you keep saying you don't want.

Also, attempts to suppress thoughts or feelings can make you experience them more. For instance, in 1987, Daniel Wegner and colleagues conducted a study in which they found that participants who tried not to think about white bears actually thought about them more than those who did not try to suppress their thoughts about white bears.

So, trying not to think about the bear market (white or otherwise), or the job you might lose, will only exhaust you and increase your distress. Mindfulness through meditation can help you cope.

Meditation is much more accessible than many people realize - no mountaintops needed. It can be done in two basic ways. Some people engage in a formal practice each day for a given amount of time, often half an hour or more. Sometimes when people feel too busy, they meditate for twenty minutes once or twice a day. It is important to note that the more a person practices, the more easily they are able to be mindful. Another approach to meditation is to have an informal practice. This entails being mindful while engaging in life - for instance, you can mindfully take a shower or eat your dinner. Although this is clearly less intense than formal meditation, it can also be very powerful in helping people to be mindful and to relieve their stress.

Still skeptical? Try this five-minute experiment. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Close you eyes and pay attention to your breathing; don't try to control it. Be aware of how you are feeling and of your thoughts. Notice any sensations in your body. Whether these experiences are pleasant or unpleasant, don't try to do anything. Just notice each sensation, thought, or feeling; experience it; then let it go. After about five minutes, gently open your eyes. - That's it. By doing this, you can get a sense of what mindfulness is about; allowing yourself to be in the moment without judgment or evaluation.

If you'd like to learn more about meditation, two good books to consider are: Wherever you go there you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn; and the mindful path to self-compassion by Christopher Germer.

By incorporating meditation or mindfulness practices into your life, you can learn to remain more in the present. You can be less consumed by the financial losses of the past and fears about your uncertain economic future; wasted energy for things you cannot change. And, although you might still have realistic concerns that need attention, you will not be carried so far down the road of despair.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She is also the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Sex and Relationships Health Exchange.