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March 3, 2020

A Science-Backed Guide to Meditation (& How to Find your Meditation Sweet Spot).

One time, I was in the work elevator with cute-Tom-from-finance, and the guided meditation I’d been listening to started blasting through the lift instead of quietly through my headphones.

“Just breathe” ripping through the lift in an airy yet forceful tone was mortifying, not relaxing.

These days, I have much more of a handle on meditation, and the researched benefits continue to grow—from reduced stress to improved blood pressure, from increased creativity to positive changes to the brain.

A 2019 Systematic Literature Review, which is kinda like the Meryl Streep of analysing research, showed that even brief mindfulness-based interventions (some as brief as five minutes) can benefit our health. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that focuses on drawing attention to the present moment without judgment.

The paper reviewed 85 studies and showed the strongest evidence for improving mental health outcomes, particularly depression and anxiety. Other benefits included improved memory and attention and better dealing with emotions like anger and sadness.

Though meditation is not a replacement for other health interventions, starting or keeping a regular practice is hugely beneficial.

Below is a list of five key tips for starting or keeping a meditation practice.

1. Start small and build up slowly to find your own meditation sweet spot.

The 2019 paper showed improvements even after as little as five minutes, with most of the studies being once-off interventions. These smaller sessions can act as the initial steps to a regular practice that provides long-term health benefits.

Like any positive new health behaviour, it’s best to start small, build up slowly, and find our own personal sweet spot. For some that could be five minutes a day, for others, 20 minutes most days of the week.

Ultimately, we want it to be something we enjoy and feel we can continue.

2. Drop any expectation of what meditation “should” feel like.

Having realistic expectations of meditation has been shown to support a long-term practice.

It’s normal to feel you’re just “not getting it” when first starting out. Everyone fumbles through. It just takes a bit to click. Clicking is different than reaching Dalai Lama status, by the way. It’s more letting go of any expectations of how meditation “should” feel and being okay with how it does feel.

Every session will be different. Some days, you won’t be able to get comfy; other days, you won’t be able to help planning what’s for dinner or stewing over Brad’s email. But others will feel easier, in the zone, and zen, even.

The most important thing is to keep showing up and giving ourselves the time and opportunity to just be still regularly. We still get the benefits, whether we feel “zen” or “zagitated” (just made that up, seemed fitting).

3. There’s no hard and fast rules about which style of meditation is “better.”

Some people prefer a certain type of meditation, like a body scan, transcendental, or mindfulness, for example.

Regardless of a favourite technique, there are some common threads. All involve being still, present, and concentrated with purpose, on a moment-by-moment basis, and most importantly, without judgment. It’s about being okay when thoughts pop up or you find yourself going off on a tangent. Noticing thoughts without judgment and coming back to the practice is the goal.

Like exercise, it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. We’re all different, and we all like different stuff. So if mindfulness is your jam, go for it. If a mix works better for you, go for that! You do you.

4. Find your teacher.

It doesn’t have to be a formal teacher, or a group-based setting, but a recent study into factors that helped people keep a long-term practice showed that having some type of teacher was beneficial. It could be a person or a public figure who does a certain type of meditation. It could be a phone app or a written guide. Whatever it is, having some form of teacher can be helpful.

5. Get comfy.

Sit how you like. Lie how you like. Place your hands how you like. Whatever allows you to focus on the practice. I used to prefer a lying down meditation; now I prefer seated. Finding a favourite meditation spot can work too. Is it the couch, the spare room, a comfy cushion, or the floor? Whatever works for you and makes you feel comfy means you’re more likely to settle in and keep up the practice.

Take-Home Message

Many of the “rules” for starting or keeping a meditation practice are pretty nonjudgmental, much like the practice itself. Positive health behaviours should feel accessible, not unobtainable.

Most people take up meditation to reduce stress. The opposite of stress is relaxation or lightness—joy, even! So why wouldn’t we approach meditation in the same way we’re often motivated to take part in it—with lightness and joy, and a bit of fun for good measure.

Certainly not in an elevator with cute-Tom-from-finance and a guided meditation on max volume.

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