Time is a funny thing. It has a firm grip on our lives, dictating where we go and what we do by the minute—yet for something so central to our daily lives, it can feel totally arbitrary. Occasionally it seems to inch by at a snail’s pace (like when you’re sitting in meditation, and start to think maybe you forgot to set the timer!). But mostly, time moves so quickly that it escapes us altogether.
With so much on our plates, and the constant pressure to get as much done as possible before the Earth completes another rotation (crazy to put it in perspective, right?!), meditating can feel like yet another “to-do” for which there’s just not enough time. And with other, seemingly more important priorities competing for our limited time, it’s no surprise that meditation often gets crowded out—even in spite of our sincerest intentions to practice and our deepest desires to reap the many benefits.
Yet I would argue that, in the same way using energy to exercise gives you more energy for the rest of the day, taking just a little bit of time for meditation actually buys you more time in the long run by empowering you to be more focused and productive. By gently training the brain to return to a central focal point—the sensation of your breath going in and out—when you notice your mind wandering, you become less susceptible to life’s many distractions… and more likely to conquer your to-do list.
Knowing this, however, doesn’t necessarily make it easier to fit meditation into a hectic schedule. Here are some practical tips I’ve found helpful in my own efforts to make meditation a daily habit:
1. Make a date with yourself the night before. Meditating in the morning is a lot like washing your face. Just like you rinse and pat your face dry to feel clean, refreshed, and ready for the day, taking just 10 minutes to do nothing else but breathe first thing upon awakening—before you get lost in your smartphone!—helps you start the day with a clean slate and a calm body and mind. You wouldn’t go to work with crusty eye boogers, would you? Likewise, meditating in the morning clears away the “mind boogers” that tend to gather in the corners of the mind—residual tension from your dreams or nightmares, negative, self-limiting beliefs, and anxious thoughts about the day ahead.
Whether you write it on your to-do list the night before or simply set an intention as you’re falling asleep, it’s important to make a date with yourself. I say “date” because, like washing your face, meditating in the morning is an act of self-love and self-care. Don’t do it because you think you should, which just makes it feel like another obligation; do it because you love yourself and know that you deserve “a tiny island of peace” (as yoga and meditation teacher Anne Cushman puts it) before the busy-ness of the day kicks in. An extra 10 minutes isn’t much. Commit yourself to caring for your own well-being—and don’t walk out of the house with eye boogers or mind boogers!
2. Hit “pause” in the natural gaps between your daily activities. A healthy human nervous system has a natural up-and-down rhythm to it: the sympathetic nervous system (think “fight or flight”) becomes aroused, for example when you’re working intently to meet a deadline; then, it completely deactivates, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) to arise. When you rush frantically from one activity to another, holding onto tension, worry, and anxiety, it’s like having your “on” switch turned on at all times—never allowing the body and mind to return to their baseline.
To get back in sync with your natural rhythm, look for the gaps between each activity you undertake throughout the day—after you get ready and before you head out the door, between tasks at work, after cooking and before you start to eat. As often as you can, use these transition times to close your eyes and take 3-5 natural, relaxed breaths. Even just a minute or so of conscious breathing and stillness can help de-escalate the stress response and bring you back to center. You can do this anywhere (at your desk, in your car, in the bathroom, at home), sitting or standing with a tall spine. The more you practice taking very brief meditation breaks, the more it becomes your natural response to turn to your breath in stressful situations. As Chris McKenna, Program Director at Mindful Schools, says: “Short moments of awareness practiced over time become automatic and continuous.”
3. Use waiting time to take an “inner selfie” and consciously absorb your surroundings. There’s nothing a habitually busy mind hates more than having to wait. That’s why we often reach for our smartphones to fill the empty space with something—anything!—to keep us entertained. The next time you’re in line at the grocery store, waiting at the doctor’s office, sitting at a red light, or stuck in traffic (hello, Angelenos), challenge yourself to resist the gravitational pull of your device and instead, check in with yourself. I call this “taking an inner selfie.” You might ask yourself:
-Where can I feel my breath right now? In my nose, throat, belly, chest? (awareness of breath)
-How does my body feel? What sensations are drawing my attention? What parts of me feel calm and relaxed, and which parts feel tense or agitated? (awareness of body/physical sensations)
-What am I thinking right now? Does this thought serve me well, or can I allow it to drift away? (awareness of thoughts)
-How am I feeling? What emotions am I experiencing? (awareness of feelings/emotions)
Once you have a snapshot of your inner landscape, look around and take in your environment. We often get so caught up in our digital world that we become locked in tunnel vision and neglect to see the reality of the moment. When we put down our devices for a minute and click the “zoom out” button of our minds a few times, we can open our eyes to the bigger picture. Look around and notice all the interesting shapes, colors, textures, smells, and sounds that make up your present experience. You may find it helpful to think of the mantra, “alert, aware, awake” as you do this.
As it turns out, there are many opportunities to practice meditation and mindfulness throughout the day. All we need to do is plan ahead, commit to our own self-care, and be content to hit “pause” now and then. When we expand our definition of meditation beyond the traditional “sitting cross-legged on a cushion” model, we find that any activity, any moment can be a meditation if we bring our full, wholehearted attention to it. And there’s plenty of time in life for that.
Where and when do you like to meditate for a dose of calm?
Also by Annika: 5 Yoga Stretches for Lower Legs
Related: How to Practice Tonglen Meditation for Compassion and Courage
5 Tips for Meditation from a Yoga Teacher
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Photo: Joe St.Pierre via Flickr