Meditation doesn’t just help us in the moment, the effects can be long lasting. In a 2012 study, Desborders et al. (2012)performed before-and-after scans on the brains of participants in an 8-week meditation course. At the completion of the course, course participants were scanned while looking at a series of pictures designed to elicit negative, positive and neutral emotional responses in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our emotional responses. After learning to meditate and practicing daily, the participants showed a significant reduction in response to all pictures shown, teaching us that meditation can help you control your emotional response even when you’re not actively doing it.
An area where so many of us can use support is in focus and attention. The effects of meditation on my own attention span has been remarkable. Dr. Amishi Jha (Jha, Krompinger & Baime, 2007) published a study in 2007 in which they assigned a group of 17 people who had never meditated to an 8-week course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, a type of meditation. Participants took a series of 3 hour classes in meditation, and then practiced daily for 30 minutes. When they compared the focus and attention of the class members with controls, they found that the meditators had far improved attention.
I can hear you saying “Eight weeks is a really long time – I would love to see improvement sooner…”. In another study from 2007, Yi-Yuan Tang and colleagues (Tang et al., 2007) had folks meditate for just 20 minutes a day for 5 days. Even after just 5 days of practice, participants reported lower stress and anxiety levels, better overall coping and improved focus. Which is not lousy, I say.
The problem with meditation
The only problem with meditation, for many folks, is getting your butt on that cushion and making it happen. So, you got the app. You took the class. You read the studies. You may even have opened the app this one time… Every week you put it on your To Do list: meditate for 30 minutes! And therein lies the problem. Unreasonable expectations keep us from success.
I’ve written previously about my deep belief in working with and reshaping our thinking – telling the story we want to believe about our lives. And for me and so many of my clients, working withmy brain, versus fighting it to bend to my own newly-decided-upon-will, means making a new habit accessible, instead of overwhelming my minds with goals that may not be obtainable. I’m not saying not to challenge or push yourself, just that if you’ve never gone for a run, attempting a marathon is probably not your best place to start. Run around the block. Then around two blocks. Push yourself to run a mile and work on up to that marathon, you Endorphin-loving beast, you.
The same kind of slow and steady plan works for mediation too, and for any challenge that may feel like a stretch for you.
Failures Get Hardwired
There is a part of our brains called the habenula, whose job is to record our failures as a way to protect us. Remember that not that long ago, our primary goal for the day was to survive, to find food in the jungle and to manage not to get eaten by a lion or tiger. The habenula has a useful role in keeping us from looking for food where are less likely to find it, essentially keeping us from wasting daylight when we could be doing the work of ensuring tonight’s survival. Bummer is, the habenula inhibits our motivation to give it another go, by suppressing the neurons in our brains that put out dopamine, a feel-good chemical. Without that dopamine rush, a lot of would-be meditators, novelists and marathon runners stop after that first unsuccessful try. When we measure our goals and achievements in success/failure language, we are asking that habenula to eventually say “Nope. You tried meditating. You failed. I didn’t like it. Fuhgetaboutit.”
Brain don’t like feeling lousy
The brain loves to keep score. Implicit memory is the term for the part of our unconscious that keeps track of patterns, and how they make us feel, which affects our ability to meet goals. Let’s say you set the goal of sitting in meditation for an hour each morning, on the cold floor, before dawn, in full lotus pose. You do it that first Monday because you’re excited. Tuesday you squirm a little more, and within a week or two, you realize you’re just not meditating at all. A client of mine recently decided that she wanted to run a marathon, after years of a successful and fulfilling gym routine with three fun aerobic classes a week and the occasional yoga. Dedicated to this new goal, Megan set a rigorous schedule for herself that included running each morning at 5:30 am. As winter came and the morning runs were more brutal, she found herself hitting snooze and eventually, not exercising at all. The implicit memory was taking note: This Sucks. I’m cold. It’s dark out. Stop it. Just…. Stop. And so she did. The hardest part of this is that because its your unconscious at work, you may not even realize that you’re slowly slipping away from your own goal.
A Meditation Goal You Can Achieve. For real.
I like to invite my clients, and anyone else within earshot at the grocery store or on the uptown Q train, to try this simple, easy meditation, that I guarantee you that you have time for.
This magical habit is the famed and revered Pee Break Meditation. It’s as complicated as it sounds, and because it’s easy, no stress, no discomfort, the habenula and implicit memory shouldn’t even catch wind of it.
Every time you go to the bathroom, take a Deeeep Slow Breath into your belly, and let it out. There. You’re done. You meditated. Feel a little better? Clearer? Take another deep breath.
It’s helping, right? It’ll do that if you give it a chance…
Meditation, in my world, is not about sitting perfectly still in lotus pose, mind perfectly blank, world gone, thoughts stopped. That just doesn’t work for so many of us. My monkey mind (that guy who needs to remind me of the laundry, the groceries, the everything, the second I sit to meditate) is a powerful voice.
The power of meditation in my life has come not from screaming “Shut Up Monkey!” but rather, from noticing. From gently saying “oh look at me, thinking again,” and then recentering my focus where I want it – on my breath and the movement of that breath through my body.
Some days I can sit for 30 minutes or longer, and some days the Pee Break is all that’s gonna happen. For me, the success comes in setting a reasonable and achievable goal, and meeting it. Success breeds success. Success works withyour brain, and not against it. And when I do what I said I would, that builds trust in myself and my capacity to take care of me on my terms.
Taking a few deep breaths while peeing sets you up to take a few deep breaths before taking with your boss, before yelling at your kid or picking a fight with a friend or lover. Meditation sets us up to move with the ebbs and flows of life, rather than letting life be a constant and ever looming tsunami on the horizon, which feels pretty darn amazing.
And if you’re a mammal who pees as much as I do, you’ll be zen in no time.