Do you often wake up and immediately start thinking about your doubts, fears, worries, and embarrassments? How about your 9am meeting, a fight with your friend or a parent? And, oh yeah, how about that you’re definitely going to be late for that meeting? We all find ourselves following thoughts and feelings down rabbit holes.
Think of it like beginning a Google search with “How to Change a Flat Tire,” only to find yourself reading reviews of crockpots on Amazon. We’ve all been there.
I, on the other hand, have always experienced a “monkey mind”. It’s a Buddhist term meaning unsettled, restless, uncontrollable, and inconstant. These terms describe that frantic google search and shine a light on our thinking minds. Of course, thinking is not all bad. It’s an essential part of what makes us human. The thinking mind led us to the creation of the internet and all the technological advancements that have made us a more prosperous, safe, and healthy society. The paradox here is that not all thinking is productive.
When I began practicing meditation about four years ago, my mind was my worst enemy. I was a baby faced, naïve, recent college grad working at a high-profile firm steps from the White House. I was the youngest employee by about 10 years, and I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t relate to anyone, the environment was toxic, and the work was stale. Bottom line, I was miserable.
My transition from college life to work life prompted extreme discomfort, stress, and anxiety. Que the incessant unproductive thinking mind. I was paralyzed by insults, negative self-talk, and anxiety. My mind mirrored the hate-filled tirades from the all too familiar Trump Twitter machine; painting static pictures of myself perpetuated by self-compromising stories about why I can’t do x, y, and z; how I should feel, and how I should act.
Thanks to my uncle, I learned about meditation. He has been practicing for over 30 years. As a Mediation Attorney, his daily stress levels should be high, but he is one of the calmest people I know. As I began to sit with my thoughts, day after day, moment to moment, I began to see them more clearly; the good, bad, and neutral, pulling me in different directions and draining me of energy. I started recognizing my thought patterns by being aware of when my mind is wandering and then redirecting my attention, and reconnecting with what is most important. Meditation teaches you to see your life unfolding in the present moment.
Meditation is a tool that has strengthened my ability to be more mindful in everyday interactions with myself and with others. Like lifting weights, meditation is a workout for the mind. The muscle of mindfulness becomes more agile as you practice. And the more you practice, you strengthen your concentration and improve your ability to regulate emotions. I am able to recognize my thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a moment-to-moment basis, in full awareness of what I am experiencing in the present.
When I begin to fall into unproductive patterns of thinking, I recognize it as thinking and come back to whatever I’m doing. Each time I sit down, I practice control over my monkey mind.
It is so amazing to know that you don’t have to be swept away by your thoughts and feelings every moment of every day. It’s like waves on the surface of the ocean. Slowly, I could see there is calm under the surface. No matter how rough the surface waters, the ocean beneath is always there.
As my awareness has become a habit, so has my ability to bring calm and focus to my daily thinking. It is possible for anyone to experience this same sense of calmness because it is always there, we just need to figure out how to tap into it. Mindfulness has given me control over these things and the ability to see them as separate from who I am.
Why Millennials Can Benefit from Meditation?
It’s no secret that Millennials are drowning in student loan debt and generally experiencing less success across the board in comparison to our parents. After graduation, we all experience the pressure to do more, be more, and cross more things off the to-do list. We’ve been taught to win life. Internships, extracurricular activities, sports, networking, and straight A’s put us in a better position to compete. The thought is the more things I can cross of the to-do list and put on my resume, the greater my chances are of success.
Anne Petersen’s Buzzfeed article, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” paints a painfully familiar picture of life for millennials today. Petersen, a fellow millennial, writes that while our parents’ generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X, could “show up with a diploma and expect to get and keep a job that would allow us to retire at 55, … the next generation needed to be positioned to compete.” According to Petersen, “Millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible.” She goes on to describe how our generation has been primed and sharpened for the workforce since grade school.
These types of expectations have proved debilitating for many. Suicide, anxiety disorders, and depression in young people have skyrocketed over the past ten years. Antidepressants and SSRI’s are given out like candy, and we seek out therapy more than any other generation. While there is no single solution to this problem because everyone responds to therapy and medication differently, the body of scientific evidence pointing to meditation’s benefits has increased significantly.
Show Me the Science
The millennials who are skeptical of meditation rest assured; scientific exploration of this topic has increased tremendously. According to a Harvard Gazette article citing scientific findings, randomized controlled trials on meditation increased from 11 during 1995-1997 to 216 during 2013-2015. While there is still much scientific debate as to the validity of studies boasting positive effects of meditation on a variety of physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and psoriasis, there are other areas of study, such as depression, chronic pain, and anxiety in which well designed studies have shown benefits.
Take the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), for example. Jon Kabat Zinn created it in the early 1980’s. It started in the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and is now offered in more than 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world. MBSR is a daily, 8-week training program in meditation. Participants learn how to meditate through learning numerous mindfulness-based activities, such as yoga, walking, and sitting meditations and body scans. Instructors assess participants before and after the program. Then, researchers use that information in randomized clinical trials to understand how mindfulness effects people at the level of brain and biological systems.
The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has awarded many grants to research the efficacy of the MBSR program. More than 35 years of studies have found that pain-related drug utilization decreased, and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased for the majority of participants. To date, more than 24,000 people have completed the MBSR program. You can read more about the MBSR program here.
How Does One Meditate?
When you meditate, you don’t need to do anything. You’re not checking another box. Instead, it’s time for you to relax and re-establish the calmness that is always there. Be aware of whatever comes up. Whether a thought, feeling, or emotion, note it as that and then let it go. Then return to your breath and to the sensations of your body, and the space around you.
Follow these steps:
- Find a place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit upright in a chair or lie down on your back with your eyes closed.
- Use your senses to become more aware of the sensations around you. Feel the contact between your butt and the chair or floor, become aware of the sounds around you, and notice any smells or tastes.
- Begin to follow the rhythm of your breath; count them as they pass. One on the in breath, two on the out breath all the way to ten. When your mind wanders, note the distraction and gently come back to the number you were on. Imagine you are sitting on the side of a busy street. The passing cars are your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. As you meditate, you are simply watching the traffic. You’re not getting involved in the traffic. You are watching, non-judgmentally at what arises and returning back to the sensations of the breath in the body.
- When you first start meditation, don’t try to wrestle thoughts out of your head. An analogy that resonated with me was the mind as a blue sky. Sometimes it’s clear, not a cloud in the sky. Sometimes, you see a few clouds. Sometimes, we experience a stormy sky. However, underneath this, there is the blue sky, the calm mind.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to meditation. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.