I’m a mess when it comes to meditating. I feel like I break all the rules. I fidget. I daydream. I am a stream of thoughts. (Not a relaxing stream. Think more of the whitewater rafting variety.) Thoughts about what I’m wearing later that day. Thoughts about how this meditation is torture. Thoughts about what I’d like to eat. Thoughts about what I’m going to do in 2012. I feel like I’m in a constant battle with my brain and body (and they’re winning).

Many people also get frustrated with meditation or simply have no idea where to start. Meditation is meant to be enjoyable, according to Mary NurrieStearns, a licensed clinical social worker, yoga instructor and co-author of Yoga for Anxiety: Meditations and Practices for Calming the Body and Mind.

Below, she talks about what meditation really is, its tremendous benefits and how people can start meditating without getting overwhelmed.

What is Meditation?

The word “meditation” has many definitions. NurrieStearns’s favorite definition of meditation comes from Father Thomas Keating, who says that meditation is like sitting down in the lap of G-d and being with the divine. It is that “which is quiet, transcendent [and] lives in the stillness of our hearts,” she says. Of course, being religious is not a must for meditation.

NurrieStearns also offers a more technical, as she puts it, definition of meditation: Meditation gives one’s mind something gentle to focus on, so it has an anchor to hold onto. Anchors include saying a mantra (syllables, a word or phrase used in meditation) or breathing.

Holding onto these anchors helps quiet our minds. It’s from this “safe place [that] we learn to observe how the mind is working,” and “we connect with something that’s eternal [and] more essential than our worry thoughts, our ruminations and the busyness of the mind,” she says.

“Meditation is like sitting at the shore of the ocean of your mind and just watching the waves come and go,” another definition that NurrieStearns likes. This means that you’re not pushing your thoughts away, shaming or judging them. Instead, you’re simply watching your thoughts as you’d watch the waves while sitting on the shore of the ocean, she says. There’s also a sense of connection to something bigger than you can comprehend. As you feel a “palpable presence at the ocean,” you can feel that same palpable presence during meditation, she says.

The Benefits of Meditation

Meditation offers a variety of benefits which have been well-documented. For instance, meditation can produce healthy physiological changes. One study found that saying “Sa Ta Na Ma,” a meditative practice of Kirtan Kriya tradition, helped to improve memory.

Also, many of us don’t know how to truly relax, NurrieStearns says, but meditation is a great teacher. When we meditate, “significant changes occur in the brain that begin to quiet the body and quiet the sympathetic nervous system,” she says.

Specifically, meditation engages “the prefrontal cortex and sends inhibitory neurotransmitters down to the emotional brain,” causing heart rate to slow down and the breath to deepen. In other words, as NurrieStearns says, meditation “recalibrates the body into a more relaxed state of breathing.”

(Here’s more research on meditation’s benefits out of Harvard University.)

Easing into Meditation

NurrieStearns offers the following ideas to help beginners start meditating:

Say a mantra, and breathe. When NurrieStearns teaches seminars, she does back-to-back meditations with mantra and breath. She commonly uses a mantra she shortened from Thich Nhat Hanh: “ breathing into my body, breathing out release.” When trying this, inhale when you say “breathing into my body” and exhale as you say “breathing out release.” This helps to put the attention on your body and breath, which helps you relax. When your mind is quiet, you can repeat the mantra, she says. Or just let your mind stay quiet. If your thoughts drift from time to time, return to the mantra.

Try a sacred mantra. Studies have tested whether sacred or secular mantras are more helpful. According to research by Kenneth Pargament at Bowling University, a sacred mantra, versus a secular one, is more helpful in supporting pain tolerance. A sacred mantra is using the sacred name for the divine, such as “Our father,” “Abba,” or “Dear G-d.” But as NurrieStearns emphasizes, how you meditate will depend on your preferences and “fit within [your] philosophy or theology.” Other sacred mantras include “Om,” “Amen” or “Shalom.”

Sit in a comfortable place. “Meditate in a place you love,” NurrieStearns says. While there are different schools of thought on this, her favorite approach comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, who says to move in the direction of comfort.

Picking a comfortable place that’s readily available helps us to “feel safer, and we’re more apt to come back to [the] practice.” Plus, not surprisingly, it’s “easier for the mind to be quiet when the body feels at ease,” she says. For instance, you can sit on a chair, a cushion on the floor or your mat to meditate.

Start small. Begin meditating for five minutes a day, NurrieStearns says, and then move up to 12 minutes, and so on. “Some research has shown that 12 minutes a day can make a difference in the brain,” she says.

Make sure it’s quiet. NurrieStearns says she’s partial to silence. But if you’re not that comfortable with utter quiet just yet, you can listen to soft music in the background. “Eventually [you do want to] move toward silence,” she says. When we become quiet, we’re better able “to connect to our inner wisdom.”

Link your practice to something familiar. For example, if you like drinking tea, meditate right after your morning cup, NurrieStearns says.

If you fidget, incorporate gentle movement. According to NurrieStearns, studies have shown that people who are anxious do better with gentle movement. She suggests the simple movement of touching your thumb to each finger. Another option is to bring your arms over your head to your heart and then to your side. You also can try to “Rock the body gently side to side, and then go back into seated stillness again.”

To quiet buzzing thoughts, try more active meditation. For instance, you can repeat the above mantra, “breathing into my body, breathing out release,” she says. The key is to avoid judging yourself or getting upset. You can acknowledge your thoughts in a friendly manner by saying something like “My goodness, look at my busy mind,” and return to your mantra. When you do this, you’re “being intentional rather than drifting off in unconscious tendencies,” NurrieStearns says.

She says that even during these times of active meditation, you’re still experiencing the benefits of learning to be more aware of what your mind is doing and taking the attention from your thoughts to the safe place of your breath. Over time, like the “waves working on the rocks and wear[ing] them down” to create finer sand, meditation produces a “quieting effect that wears those thought patterns down,” she says.

Another option is to deepen your breath. NurrieStearns quotes Andrew Newberg, who says that deepening your breath “…lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, which in turn lowers blood flow in other parts of brain and reduces cognitive activity.”

Also, keep in mind that your torrent of thoughts is simply your brain at work. Father Keating once told NurrieStearns that one’s mind doesn’t function differently just because you’re sitting quietly. Now, you’re just getting to witness how your mind operates.

Remember, too, that mediation is meant to be pleasant, NurrieStearns emphasizes. She compares meditation to brushing your teeth. You pick a brush and toothpaste that you like, similar to picking a comfortable spot, you do it on a regular basis for the most benefit and you feel wonderful afterward.

Photo by Toshimasa Ishibashi, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.