The Helpful Mind
Does the old sit-and-breathe routine leave you antsier than ever? Try these techniques and reap the benefits of mindfulness om-free.
Meditations for fidgeters and short attention spans
AS YOU AND THE REST of the world may have heard, meditation is as beneficial as physical exercise: It can improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and even help with chronic pain. Though I’m intimately familiar with stress and insomnia—and a recent tumble off a bike has added pain to the mix—I long avoided mindfulness, telling myself that only the deeply woo-woo put those pouf pillows to use. I managed my stress by jogging to the bad boy anthems of Machine Gun Kelly. Then I learned that even MGK meditates every morning, and I knew it was time to reassess.
According to a Harvard University study, the average person’s mind wanders 47 percent of the time, and a wandering mind is an unhappier one. Thankfully, there are innumerable ways to tap into meditation’s calming, head-clearing powers. “Meditation doesn’t have to happen on a cushion,” says Jamie Price, cofounder of the mindfulness app MyLife. “Some of the most rewarding experiences can come from things like walking through your neighborhood or eating a meal.” Here are some techniques I discovered, from the simple to the slightly more esoteric. None of them require a lifetime commitment, but be warned: They just might change your life.
The One That Doesn’t Feel Like Meditation
Those overachiever cooks who say an hour of stirring risotto is “meditative”? They’re onto something. As the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Washing the dishes is like bathing a baby Buddha.” While you’re at the stove, try focusing on your breathing, or the scent of the sauce you’re making. “Any activity can be meditative when you bring awareness to your five senses,” Price says.
The One You Can Do with Your Devices
Mindfulness apps offer a slew of options, like calming soundscapes and guided meditations. And now some apps are teaming up with streaming services, so you can tune in while you’re, um, tuning in: Headspace has programming on Netflix, and Calm has a series on HBO Max. I fell for Headspace cofounder Andy Puddicombe, a circus-trained, former Tibetan Buddhist monk who leads many of the guided meditations. After a week of listening to his soothing British accent, I’d made a new best friend.
The One That Moves You
If you’re fidgety, that’s OK. Moving meditations, such as walking, can deepen your focus and sense of peace. A recent study showed that older adults who went on weekly “awe walks”—in which they shifted their attention outward, striving to see familiar objects in fresh ways— felt more upbeat than their non-awewalking counterparts. (An even cooler finding: The walkers’ selfies started to feature more of the world in the background, while the control group’s selfies remained dominated by their own faces.)
Kyle Miller, a yoga and meditation instructor in Los Angeles, suggests going outside for a five-minute stroll and concentrating on the sights, smells, and sounds. “When your mind wanders, simply bring it back,” she advises. For a musical accompaniment, composer Murray Hidary offers 30- and 60-minute SilentWalk meditations, available to download for free at mindtravel.com.
The One That Comes with Love
If the idea of inhabiting the present moment is overwhelming (by which I mean underwhelming), try lovingkindness meditation, a form of mindfulness that involves mentally sending good wishes to the people around you, from your closest loved ones to strangers on the street.
Sound corny? German neuroscientist Tania Singer’s research shows that compassion (as demonstrated in loving-kindness) produces positive effects in the brain. “It helps strengthen a sense of interconnectedness,” explains Lesley Desaulniers, a yoga and meditation teacher in West Marin, California. She recommends sitting for 10 minutes and focusing on yourself or, if that’s hard (it generally is), someone from your life—a family member or a person you often see at the grocery store. Repeat, “May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be free.”
If there’s someone you struggle to feel compassion for, try envisioning them as a baby, Desaulniers suggests. “Picture their little fat faces and see how they need somebody to hold them too.” I tried this technique on a challenging person in my life (who may or may not be a family member). I saw her with pudgy cheeks and a vulnerability I’m not used to associating with her. The next time she called, I was happy to see her name light up the phone.
The One That’s (Sort of) Transcendental
Transcendental Meditation, whose celebrity devotees include everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Katy Perry, entails repeating a personalized mantra. Diehards commit to two 20-minute sessions a day. However, teacher Tony Lupinacci, who practices a mantra meditation called Vedic Meditation, says you can start with five minutes: “Consistency is what’s important.” He recommends focusing on the sound “shreem,” which comes from Sanskrit. Mantras aren’t supposed to be attached to meanings, but a little research told me that “shreem” is associated with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of good fortune and wealth. Who am I to turn down Lakshmi’s treasures? I found a quiet corner of my apartment and chanted “shreem” over and over. A vision of mushrooms spun through my head, then faded and gave way to a bigger sense of uplift. Good vibrations indeed.
If you’re fidgety, that’s OK. Moving meditations, such as walking, can deepen your focus and sense of peace.