Why give meditation a second chance
I’ve been meditating almost daily for over 6 years. Now let me qualify that : I assume the position on the sofa first thing every morning then set InsightTimer for 20 minutes – it marks the start and end of my session and every 5 minutes inbetween with a rather lovely singing-bowl sound.
As for the bits between the singing-bowl, I have to admit that I am not in a Zen state, mind empty of thoughts. Very often, the 5-minute bell sounds and I realise I’m carried away in thought, often about future plans, or dwelling on something, invariably negative.
I then refocus on my breath and physical sensation before sooner or later drifting off in thought again and the cycle continues. Sometimes I beat the bell to it having realised my attention has been drawn away and return to my breath or sensation with a disproportionate sense of achievement!
The reason that I share this with you is that there seems to be a misconception that meditation is about stopping thoughts.
Not only that, but that we can somehow rewire our brains in a couple of sessions. When I ask stressed-out coaching clients what they’ve tried to manage their stress, they will often say, “I tried Headspace a couple of times, but I couldn’t stop thinking”, or “I tried meditation and it didn’t work.”
Let’s reflect on the evolution we’re fighting with here.
First of all, we’ve evolved with an in-built negativity bias – it was much better to imagine there was a tiger in the bushes (perpetual anxiety) than there wasn’t one (certain death). Research says we have around 70,000 thoughts a day and around 70/80% of those thoughts are negative.
Secondly, as Chris Bailey shares in his excellent book Hyperfocus : How to work less to achieve more, our mind wanders 47% of the time (for many of us it may feel more than that). We have evolved to be on the look-out for not only threats but also resources in our environment. So put these two together along with the firehose of information and communication in today’s environment and that’s a recipe for struggling to be present.
Yet the brain is the most malleable organ in our body. We can rewire it so it works for us not against us : it just takes effort.
A number of studies have shown that the most dramatic examples of changing the brain’s function and structure have involved meditation – MRIs showed less activity in the amygala (the part of our brain responsible for our fear response) after an average of 8 weeks of meditation – whilst another study showed that the amydala actually shrank and remained smaller (thanks to The Confidence Code for this).
Every time we realise we’ve been carried away by our thoughts and shift our attention back to our breath, we are rewiring our mind.
At the very least, sitting still for 5, 10, 20 minutes whilst taking some intentional breaths enables the body to calm down.
In scientific terms, we are activating our para-sympathetic nervous system – our “rest and digest” state rather than our “fight or flight” one which we spend way too much time in given the constant stressors in our environment.
I invariable feel calmer and slower after 20 minutes’ of stillness, however active my mind has been, and my practice has become so habitual that I don’t like starting the morning without it.
How about giving meditation a second chance?!
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.