Psychologize: Meditation

Historically, psychology has looked to improve the human condition by investigating mental health disorders and their treatments, the idea being that people would default to being happy if all their problems were resolved, but more recently positive psychology has grown as a discipline, investigating the conditions that improve mental health and happiness. Similarly, folks generally seek out counseling when there is a significant crisis threatening their way of life. But psychological research and intervention can also be used to improve how we think and act. This Psychologize column is all about exploring how we can apply advancements in psychology for practical effect.

How to meditate

Mindfulness meditation is a trendy topic lately. Counselors teach it to their clients to improve cognition. Business consultants want you to meditate at work so you can work more efficiently (or cope just a little while longer with the mental anguish of spending the better part of your waking hours feeding the corporate machine). There are even tech startups, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, making apps to try to get you to meditate. It is understandable considering all the research that demonstrates the benefits of mindfulness with no drawback except your time. Studies have shown that after just an hour of meditation it “reduce[d] negative mood, depression, fatigue, and confusion, and heart rate. Longer practices have shown to be effective at controlling pain, improve attention and planning, and more.

There are many ways you can start meditating. You don’t need to read a book, or go to a class, or download an app. All you need to do is to find a quiet place and get started with the following steps. (You can download a copy of the instructions here.)

PreparationSit in a comfortable position—or in an uncomfortable position. Or stand or lie down—choose a pose you can sustain for at least 20 minutes. You can set a timer so you don’t have to think of the time or meditate as long as you feel is appropriate.

Step 1Notice your breath. Mentally observe how your chest expands as you inhale. Then observe how your chest contracts as you exhale. Do not change how you breathe, just notice rising as you breathe in, and falling as you breathe out. Do not think the words rising or falling, think them as mental impressions.

Step 2As you breathe, your mind may wander to other thoughts. Notice your wandering thought. Then return to mentally following your breath. Do not resist the thoughts or ignore them. Notice every thought like a projection on your mind, having noticed it, return to your breath. Any thought that

You may have a judgement of your performance—that this meditation is going better or worse than it should be: nonverbally think judgement, try to let go of judging, and return to your breath. You may feel a sensation in your body, like an itch or a pain—notice it with the thought, sensation, and return to your breath. You may hear a sound or notice something around you—note sound and return to your breath.

If you may want to move—to scratch the itch, or adjust your position—notice the impulse to move, impulse. It is not required that you be absolutely still during a meditation, but you can choose to be still. If you feel the desire to move, notice that desire, then consciously choose either to move or not move. Then return to your breath.

Optional Step 3As you practice meditation, you may find your mind drifts less or you can notice your thoughts simultaneously to noticing your breath. You may then choose to follow your breath while simultaneously expanding your awareness to other experiences: you may follow the rise and fall of your breathe, while noticing the sensation of sitting, or the beating of your heart, or the noises around you. Consciously notice these experiences as impressions, and the return to focusing on your breath.

As you practice meditation, following your breath will become an instinctive behavior and become the foundation upon which you can practice and grow as a meditator.

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