Being alive in this fast-paced modern age can often feel overwhelming. With everyone owning a smartphone now, it’s easier than ever to disconnect from the reality around us and stay glued to that bright screen in our hands. We are constantly bombarded with flashy and frantic advertisements urging us to think and act certain ways. Sometimes it can feel impossible to turn off all this white noise that seeks to rule over our time and attention, and I myself often feel the urge to step away from this incessant racket to find peace and quiet. For me, that typically meant turning on the desk lamp in my dark room and laying there while the sounds of Grizzly Bear or Radiohead lulled me into a soft trance. And that certainly is a relaxing routine that I still practice, but it never really helped me to calm my mind or to think more clearly. I was desperately seeking a quick-fix way to compose my swirling thoughts and emotions, and once I found meditation, things improved more than I could have ever imagined.
The first time I ever thought about trying meditation was during my junior year in college. I was living in my fraternity house, which was occupied by about 70 other guys. Needless to say, quiet times were few and far between, no matter the time of day. I was feeling starved of privacy and opportunities to reflect, so without doing any prior research, I sat up in my bed with my back against the wall, put my headphones on and started an Explosions in the Sky track, closed my eyes, and began to “meditate.” Shockingly, the only thing I got out of the experience was a ten-minute power nap. I awoke to the same noisy reality as before, and my mind was still just as discombobulated as it ever was. I didn’t try to meditate again until about a month ago, when I was once more desperate to sort out my thoughts and, as a semi-recent graduate, hopefully gain some clarity on what I should do with my life.
This time, I actually had the sense to do some research before I dove into this brand new activity. All it took was a quick google of “How to meditate” and I was up and running; but more accurately down and sitting. After getting an aggregation of tips from multiple sources, it seemed like the basic necessities were:
• no music or outside sound of any kind
• keeping a solid, upright posture
• focus on your normal breathing
• count your breath as a sort of mantra to maintain focus
• keep your mind clear of fleeting thoughts
• enjoy the process
So I slumped myself down on the padded folding chair in front of my desk, lit a scented candle, set a timer for ten minutes and began to count my exhales to four. One…two…three…four…one…two…three…four, and so on until the timer went off shortly thereafter.
After a few weeks of taking ten minutes a day to meditate, the benefits had already become apparent. I could feel myself thinking much more clearly than before, and I was able to mentally resolve some of the stress that I had been feeling prior to beginning this routine. One great effect that I was surprised with was that I had lost a little weight, which I could certainly afford to do. I realized I had become much more conscious of my daily food intake, rather than reacting off of all-too-frequent hunger impulses. It also helped me to prioritize tasks more efficiently, and soon I was going to the gym almost every day and getting much more work done than before. I was quickly convinced that all of these sudden improvements in thought and behavior were largely due to my newfound practice of meditation. I still haven’t yet quite figured out what direction I want my life to go in, but I already know meditation will be a major companion on the journey.
I recently came upon a Harvard Study done in 2011 that showed that after only eight weeks of mindfulness meditation, subjects were found to have increased their gray matter density in the hippocampus, which is paramount to memory and learning. In such a short time of practicing meditation for about 20-25 minutes a day, the brain is able to completely restructure itself in a way that promotes cognitive and psychological benefits. These days, with all the possible entertainment options we have at our fingertips, it can be difficult to find that kind of time to relax and refocus. But all it really takes is a short pause in the day, whether it be right after waking up in the morning, during a lunch break, or upon returning home at night. All around there are studies and articles claiming how beneficial this simple practice can be. At this point, it’s really just a matter of making the commitment to yourself and thusly making a positive impact on your mental health and overall happiness for the rest of your life.
I believe that now, more than ever, people need to unplug from technology for just a few minutes a day and take a step back from life. With how quickly things move these days, it’s so unbelievably easy to get caught up in everything going on around you. People start to worry about future responsibilities (I’m certainly guilty of this) or dwell on shortcomings in the past (guilty), when what we really need to do is ground ourselves in the present. Because as we learn time and again: tomorrow is promised to no one, and the past cannot be changed. So why not work to improve today, and in doing so set ourselves up for a healthier and more mindful future.