Meditation. What do you think of when you hear that word? I think of peace and serenity, calm contentment, even happiness. I think of focus. It’s a state of being to which I aspire.
I also think, though, of how much my knees hurt when I sit cross-legged on the floor for an extended period of time, how my lower back starts to bother me, how I get twitchy as I start to wonder how close I am to the end of the meditation time.
Then I think of the times I tried it lying down, doing my best Savasana, or Corpse Pose. I fell asleep every time.
Yet many studies tell us that mindfulness and meditation are important for a better life. Employers recognize its benefits and incorporate it into wellness programs in the office. Schools recognize the benefits and incorporate it into the school day.
The David Lynch Foundation reports the following results for its Quiet Time program:
- 10% improvement in test scores—and a narrowing of the achievement gap
- Highly effective for increasing creativity
- Improved teacher retention and reduced teacher burnout
- Greater happiness, focus and self-confidence
- Reduced ADHD symptoms and symptoms of other learning disorders
- 86% reduction in suspensions over two years
- 40% reduction in psychological distress, including stress, anxiety and depression
- 65% decrease in violent conflict over two years
A New York Times article reports on programs developed to close the achievement gap in schools: “The results of 17 studies conducted to date in the Bay Area, varying in duration from three months to one year, showed benefits across parameters including reduced stress, increased emotional intelligence, reduced suspensions, increased attendance and increased academic performance.”
Scientists who study the health benefits of meditation report significant benefits have been found for many health conditions, including heart disease, cholesterol, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic pain, cancer, and immunity.
The results of meditation are dramatic. Who wouldn’t want to meditate if this is what happens? But then there are those hurting knees, lower back pains and twitchiness.
The good news is, there are ways to achieve those results other than sitting in the lotus position for hours. A good start is to cultivate mindfulness, whether through meditation, yoga or focused attention on daily activities.
Through research studies and pioneering work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he is founder of its world-renowned Stress Reduction Clinic, Jon Kabat-Zinn made mindfulness meditation part of the toolkit of western medical practitioners treating pain reduction.
As one student describes Kabat-Zinn’s approach, “his kind of mindfulness, like that of the other great practitioner teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, is as much about how you take out the garbage, speak to the waiter or sales clerk you deal with, or operate at work as it is about finding ‘enlightenment’ or ‘oneness with the universe.’ In fact these are things that happen naturally in their own time and way if you pay more of the right kind of attention to yourself in your daily life.”
Among Kabat-Zinn’s books are these: Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, Meditation for Optimal Health, Eating Meditation, Adventures in Mindfulness, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, Letting Everything Become Your Teacher: 100 Lessons in Mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
Far from esoteric philosophical treatises, these are practical guides to assist people in reaching specific goals. “Rather than withdrawing from the world, meditation can help you enjoy it more fully, more effectively, and more peacefully.”
Americans can use some skills in enjoying the world more fully and effectively! The 2016 World Happiness Report (p. 22) lists the top ten happiest countries in the world. The U.S. is not among them. Ahead of us are Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Israel and Austria.
For the World Happiness Report, researchers ranked countries based on factors including healthy life expectancy, social support, GDP per capita, the happiness of a country’s children, social capital, the civil economy, the absence of corruption, and subjective well-being.
Authors of the study indicate that “subjective well-being encompasses three different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride), and negative ones (pain, anger, worry).” Well-being links to a stronger sense of community, and overall, viewed against other similar studies, the report shows “the happiest countries are those that build stronger social ties, better-managed commons, and a strong sense of community.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn also reports a deep connection between mindfulness and the greater compassion required for strong communities. Mindfulness “training” is a practical program to improve well-being and strengthen social networks. It decreases anti-social behaviors in schools and improves specific measures of health and well-being.
So there’s no question: meditation and mindfulness can improve our health, happiness and quality of life. Now back to the question about those knees and backs and twitching. It keeps rearing its twitchy head. If, like me, you’re one of “those people,” trying to sit uncomfortably for long stretches of time will soon convince you that meditation isn’t for you. Don’t give up, though!
Here are five things you can do today to bring greater mindfulness into your life and start enjoying its benefits:
- Write down and keep this definition of mindfulness in view wherever you spend significant time: “Mindfulness is the act of being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment — without interpretation or judgment.”
- Never multi-task. It decreases focus and intelligence and generates stress. Mindfulness research tells us that less task-switching = more happiness.
- Practice mindfulness with a simple, every day activity. Eating is a good one. Pay attention to every mouthful. Chew your food carefully and thoroughly. Pay attention to aromas, textures, flavors. Gradually stretch the boundaries of your engagement with what you eat, moving toward real food that you make yourself from fresh, whole ingredients. Prepare your environment to eat with loving attention to what will allow you to relax and focus on the meal.
- Take daily mindfulness walks. Be aware of each step, how you place your feet, how you hold your body, how you breathe, what you hear, what you see, what you feel, the breeze against your skin.
- Journal. For 15 minutes every morning, write continuously about a word or phrase. Don’t stop writing during that time. Keep your journal and pen ready, and keep words or phrases in a jar to draw on. Don’t worry about spelling or sentence structure. Just keep writing about that word or phrase. You’ll find yourself paying more attention to your life each day as you look for key words or phrases or thoughts to drop into your jar.
Who knows? With some work on mindfulness, you might start to enjoy sitting meditation without twitching. It’s a great way to begin your day! And taking the deep, cleansing breaths that you’ll learn as part of it is a good technique to reduce stress and enhance mental clarity in difficult situations.
But if sitting meditation isn’t for you, you have other options to improve your health, happiness and quality of life with mindfulness. You can start today.