Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking - S.J. Scott, Barrie Davenport (2016)

Part I. DECLUTTERING YOUR THOUGHTS

Mental Declutter Habit #2: Meditation

“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there—buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.” – Deepak Chopra

You don’t have to be a Buddhist, a mystic, or a crystal-carrying ex-hippie to practice meditation. You can belong to any spiritual or religious faith or have no religious affiliation at all to reap the benefits of meditation and use it as a tool for decluttering your mind.

If you’ve never practiced meditation or you’re not familiar with it, you might be put off by the idea of sitting quietly in the lotus position and emptying your mind. But don’t let the clichés about meditating cave dwellers prevent you from giving it a try.

In his book 10% Happier , Dan Harris says, “Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem…. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain.”

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and Chinese traditions. There are dozens of styles of meditative practices, but most practices begin with the same steps—sitting quietly, focusing attention on your breath, and dismissing any distractions that come your way .

The goal of meditation varies depending on the type of meditation practice and the desired outcome of the meditator. For our purposes here, we suggest meditation as a tool to help you train your mind and control your thoughts , both when you are sitting in meditation and when you aren’t.

The benefits of meditating translate to your daily life, helping you control worry and overthinking, and providing a host of health benefits that we’ll discuss below.

The key to finding satisfaction with meditation is simply to practice . By making a daily commitment to meditation, you will improve your skills and discover how the mental, physical, and emotional benefits increase over time.

Barrie has noticed that, on the days she meditates, she is less anxious and agitated and more focused in her work, especially with writing. She has also noticed an increased ability to stay in the present moment and redirect herself back to the task at hand whenever she feels tempted by a potential distraction. Finally, Barrie uses short meditation breaks during the day to help her relax during particularly stressful times.

The steps to meditating are simple and straightforward, but the practice is not as easy as it seems. You’ll discover that, at first, trying to quiet your mind and maintain focus is like attempting to train fleas. But the more you practice, the easier and more enjoyable the experience becomes.

As professor David Levy describes it to USA Today , “Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle.”

Of all of the strategies outlined in this book, meditation is the one that can have the most profound impact on your overall well-being. Meditation has long been touted as a way to improve concentration and focus, but only recently have studies confirmed these claims.

·                   A study from the University of Washington showed that meditation increases productivity and promotes focus.

·                   Another study published in Brain Research Bulletin supports the claims that meditation can decrease stress.

·                   A University of Massachusetts Medical School study has shown meditation can boost your overall brainpower in a number of ways.

·                   Other studies have shown how meditation can help preserve the aging brain, improve the symptoms of depression and anxiety, thicken the learning and memory areas of the brain, and help with addiction.

·                   Research has found that meditation also promotes divergent thinking, a type of thinking that fosters creativity by allowing many new ideas to be generated.

Our main point in sharing this research is to reinforce the profound benefits of meditation—benefits not only demonstrated by thousands of years of anecdotal evidence, but also validated by solid scientific research. If you have any doubt that meditation is worth your time and effort, hopefully you’re beginning to shift your opinion.

Let’s get started with the very simple 10-minute meditation Barrie and Steve practice that you can begin today . There isn’t anything fancy or complicated about the practice. You don’t need special clothes or equipment. All you need is a quiet space and the willingness to stick to it.

Here is a simple 11-step process you can use to build the meditation habit:

1.                 Select a quiet, calm space for your meditation practice where you can close the door to be completely alone.

2.                Determine a specific time of day for your practice. If you’ve begun a deep breathing practice, you can use this as your trigger (and starting point) for your new meditation habit. Or you can choose another trigger and practice meditating at another time of day.

3.                Decide whether you want to meditate sitting on a pillow on the floor or in a straight-back chair or sofa. Try not to recline as you meditate, since you might fall asleep.

4.                Remove all distractions and turn off all digital devices or other devices that make noise. Remove pets from the room.

5.                Set a timer for 10 minutes.

6.                Sit comfortably either in a chair or cross-legged on the floor with a cushion. Keep your spine erect and your hands resting gently in your lap.

7.                Close your eyes, or keep them open with a downward-focused gaze, then take a few deep cleansing breaths through your nose—we recommend three or four breaths at a time.

8.               Gradually become aware of your breathing. Notice the air moving in and out through your nostrils and the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. Allow your breaths to come naturally, without forcing them.

9.                Focus your attention on the sensation of breathing, perhaps even mentally thinking the word “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale.

10.            Your thoughts will wander a lot in the beginning. Every time they do, gently let them go and then return your attention to the sensation of breathing.

Don’t judge yourself for having intrusive thoughts. That’s just your “monkey mind” trying to take over. Just lead your mind back to focused attention on breathing. You may have to do this dozens of times at first.

11.             As you focus on breathing, you’ll likely notice other perceptions and sensations like sounds, physical discomfort, emotions, etc. Simply notice these as they arise in your awareness, and then gently return to the sensation of breathing.

Your goal is to increasingly become the witness to all sounds, sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they arise and pass away. View them as though you are observing them from a distance without judgment or internal comment.

Rather than your mind taking control and running away whenever a thought or distraction occurs, you eventually gain more and more control of your mind and your ability to redirect it back to the present.

In the beginning, you’ll feel you’re in a constant battle with your monkey mind. But with practice you won’t need to constantly redirect your thoughts. Thoughts begin to drop away naturally, and your mind opens up to the immense stillness and vastness of just being present. This is a deeply peaceful, satisfying experience.

Meditation masters refer to this space of stillness as the “gap”—the silent space between thoughts. At first the gap is very narrow, and it’s difficult to remain there for more than a few nanoseconds. As you become a more practiced meditator, you’ll find the gap opens wider and more frequently, and you can rest in it for longer periods of time.

You can experience a brief moment of the space between thoughts by trying this exercise: Close your eyes and begin to notice your thoughts. Simply watch them come and go for a few seconds. Then ask yourself the question, “Where will my next thought come from?” Stop and wait for the answer. You may notice there’s a short gap in your thinking while you await the answer.

Eckhart Tolle, author of the book The Power of Now , suggests this gap experience is like a cat watching a mouse hole. You’re awake and waiting, but with no thoughts in that gap.

You can also practice this “space between thoughts” exercise by putting yourself in a state of deep listening. Sit quietly and listen intently, as though you’re trying to hear a quiet and distant sound. Again, you are alert, awake, and waiting without the distraction of thought.

You may not experience a gap moment in your early days of meditating. In fact, you may find you are constantly redirecting your thoughts, noticing your physical discomforts, and wondering why you’re bothering with this silly practice at all.

You may judge yourself harshly for not “getting it right,” or wonder if you are making any progress at all. During meditation, your mind might wander off on a meandering dialog about how you’re feeling and how the meditation is going. Or, if you experience a space between thought moment, you might get distracted by the thrill of finally experiencing it.

Your job is always to simply observe and redirect your mind back to the present moment, to your breathing. The goal of your meditation practice is not to reach nirvana or have a spiritual awakening. It’s simply to strengthen your control over your mind until your mind gets the message and gives in. The results of your efforts will be a mental house that you control rather than the other way around.

Some beginning meditators prefer to use a guided meditation to help them get the feel for the practice and stay focused . You can find many free guided meditations online, and there are dozens of smartphone apps available.

We recommend three to get started:

1.                 Buddhify has over 80 custom guided audio meditation tracks on various topics.

2.                Omvana , with dozens of guided meditations by very famous authors, teachers, and spiritual celebrities.

3.                Headspace has a series of 10-minute guided exercises for your mind.

If you find you enjoy meditating, gradually increase your practice from 10 minutes a day to 30 minutes. Or you can try two 15-minute meditation sessions during different parts of the day.

Steve and Barrie find it’s valuable to keep a meditation diary to make notes about your experiences and feelings during meditation. Try to write in it immediately following your meditation so your memory is fresh. Write down how uncomfortable or distracted you felt, and whether or not you felt the “space between thought” for any period of time. Also, write about any changes in your daily mental state—whether you are feeling more or less anxious, stressed, or worried.

Over time, you’ll have a document reflecting how you’ve improved with your practice, as well as how the practice has impacted your overall state of mind.

Now, if meditation isn’t your thing, then you might want to consider a different habit where you learn how to reframe the negative thoughts that often pop into your mind. So let’s talk about that next.