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How I finally learned to meditate

anyone can learn to meditate simply by learning how to count

I had been trying to learn how to meditate for years unsuccessfully. There was just something in me that recoiled in terror each time I think about trying to sit without doing anything for more than a few seconds. I am not alone in this reaction. Each time I recommend meditation to people they have this huge skeptical look on their faces. I think we’ve been too conditioned with non-stop stimuli surrounding us every second of the day — our mobile phones, internet, TV, people, work — it has become a dopamine addiction:

With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google…Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text. — source

Our brains do not know how to endure silence, they cannot tolerate a second without stimuli.

My brain does not know how to stop thinking. Sometimes it auto-ruminates, other times it digs itself deeper into negative irrational rabbit holes. It makes me anxious, depressed and unable to sleep.

Two years ago my nervous system went out of control and developed a life on its own. I started to have palpitations while trying to sleep, and nothing could intervene. I was always anxious and I carried a lot of fear in my body. My muscles were always tense. My body was chronically inflammed, resulting in chronic dry eyes and migraines.

I quit my job, rested, started exercising regularly. It made me feel better, but I was unable to fully overcome my symptoms. The science pointed me to meditation, again and again:

Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating. — source

It is one thing to think of meditation as an abstract concept that it makes us feel better, but it becomes a powerful driver to learn that it changes our brain physically:

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress — and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. — source

But it wasn’t till I read “The brain that changes itself” that I was fully convinced and determined to learn how to meditate. The book contains case studies of how the brain can rewire itself with deliberate reconditioning. The book connected the dots for me: that if the brain can be wired to do or believe almost anything, if it can be wired to be fearful and anxious, it can too, be wired to be calm.

The trick is to start small

Most guided meditation programs try to make you meditate at least for ten to twenty minutes. I have found them to set me up for failure, because we can’t expect ourselves to go from a stimuli-addicted mind to a mind that is able to tolerate sitting for ten minutes. Many people try it a couple of times and give up.

I have found the “Breathe” app on the Apple Watch really encouraging, it makes you breathe about 7 times for just one minute.

The magic is in counting breaths

The “Breathe” app gave me and idea to count my breaths. I started trying to count my breaths for five minutes. I used an app on my Apple Watch to time myself. Five minutes is about 35 breaths for me (it differs from person to person, my partner can do it in 4 breaths 🤔). All I needed to do is to develop the patience to count till 35 while deep breathing. I can at least count to 35, right?!

Counting also allows me to know where I am in the process and there is an end-point to look forward to so I wouldn’t start twitching and become bored(I know this is not very zen-like but sometimes we have to meet ourselves halfway).

It worked, I managed to have my first ever seven-day streak:

Timeless app

Wait, isn’t meditating supposed to be about clearing our minds?!

There’s different ways to meditate depending on the school of thought. Mindfulness meditation is about observing our thoughts non-judgmentally and coming back to our breaths, some people (e.g. transcendental meditation) just repeat a mantra over and over again, etc.

It is all about trying to train your mind to focus on doing one thing and not let it run wild.

Counting breaths allows us to focus on counting. It is actually surprisingly easy to lose count when you start getting distracted with thoughts, especially when you’re trying to count more for a longer meditation. It takes practice and focus to maintain the count instead of drifting.

Practice is also magical

Because I started with just five minutes, I was able to do it every day for about two months without breaking the streak. It didn’t feel that painful to drop everything I was doing and put aside just five minutes out of sixteen hours in a day. One day, I started trying to meditate for twenty minutes and it didn’t feel hard anymore. I don’t know how it works, how it is really simply about getting the brain used to a new state.

Even if you don’t believe in meditation, believe in deep breathing

Maybe some of us have a mental block with the word, meditation. You can just do deep breaths without trying to close your eyes or you don’t have to feel religious/spiritual/mindful. Deep breathing itself is beneficial:

Part of the reason slow breathing can affect so many other bodily systems has to do with its ability to activate the vagus nerve: A winding cranial nerve that exits the brain and interfaces with the heart, lungs, and digestive tract; and links together all of these disparate autonomic functions. The vagus serves as a sort of neural brake, slowing down your entire system. Slow exhalations, in particular, activate this nerve, and cause your entire autonomic nervous system to basically chill out. — source


Anyone can learn to meditate simply by learning how to count!

Originally published on Medium.

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