If you’re like me, your inner monologue during this COVID-19 outbreak is incessant: fluttering from one extreme thought to the next. And it’s seemingly impossible to turn off those thoughts.
But now is precisely the time to quiet our minds. When we allow our minds to be yanked back and forth by jarring news headlines and our own endlessly racing thoughts, we end up jeopardizing our own wellbeing.
If we’re going to make it through this crisis with our health intact, we need to be able to keep those ruminative thoughts under control. An effective, completely free way to quiet racing minds? A meditation practice.
The Science Behind Meditation
If you’re also like me, meditation seems far-fetched. Too out there. More new-age peddling than anything rooted in actual data or science.
The amount of meditation studies that keep surfacing is just about as endless as those racing thoughts.
Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has some of the most authoritative findings on meditation’s impacts on the brain.
According to Dr. Lazar’s first study on the benefits of meditation:
When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.
The results were intriguing, but they also brought to light more questions. So, Dr. Lazar and her team conducted a second study:
We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups:
1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3. The temporoparietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala area (the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear, and stress in general) got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
Dr. Lazar’s studies show that meditation rewires the brain to stress-reducing capacities. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
How to Start Meditating
Meditation is designed to wake you up to your inner cacophony so that you have a different relationship to it. It allows you to recognize fundamental truths and welcome them into your life, rather than cower beneath them.
The mere act of sitting and trying to watch your breath -- and, inevitably, getting distracted over, and over, and over again; then, noticing you’re distracted, what’s distracted you, and attempting to find your breath again -- gives you, over time, more visibility into your inner thought patterns and the storylines embedded in you.
Once you can clearly see those thoughts and anxiety loops, they have less of a chance of owning you. Meditation becomes a circuit breaker for those repetitive, inner thought loops.
And the science proves it.
But how does one get started? Ironically, many of us know that meditation would be hugely beneficial to us, but the idea of getting started is so overwhelming we never do. Which creates an entirely new stress loop.
What we can do is lower the bar for ourselves. We don’t have to meditate for 30 minutes a day. Instead, start with just 1 minute a day.
Meditating: A 1 Minute Exercise
1 minute. 60 seconds. To sit, listen to your breath, and ease your mind. 1 minute is doable, beneficial, and over time you will be able to deepen your practice.
And that 1 minute isn’t sequestered to being alone in your room, sitting in a lotus position. It can be while washing your hands, washing the dishes, taking the trash out. You can turn anything you’re doing into a meditative practice just by paying attention to the act that you’re carrying out.
Since we’re all washing our hands multiple times and at length these days, let’s use that as an example.
Sure, you can sing a song for a minute. But why not use this time to start your meditation practice?
Start by acknowledging your senses, as many as you can.
- What are your hands feeling from the water?
- What does the water feel like on your cracked hands?
- What does the soap feel like at first as a gel, and then as a foam?
- What does it feel like as your fingers intertwine?
- What does the water sound like as it comes out of the faucet, and then as it lands in the bowl?
- What do those water streams look like?
Each time you get distracted -- which you will, by the family picture hanging on the wall, the speck of dirt on the floor, the fantasmical projections into the future -- gently catch yourself. Take note of your thoughts and bring them back to those senses.
That’s it! You’ve just practiced meditation.
Calm is Contagious
Many of us are holding our breath with anticipation during this current coronavirus outbreak. Anticipation for what’s to come, anxious about possible outcomes.
But rather than succumb to the anticipation, the anxiety, or the panic, try letting the calm sink in by way of meditation. Small doses (just one minute!) are all you need to get started. Watch what happens when you choose to quiet your mind with meditation for just one minute each day.
Calm is contagious. And calming ourselves -- and those around us -- can change how we react, both mentally and physically, to the chaos.