I believe that meditating has many benefits—but I seldom manage to actually do it. Usually, I give up after just a few minutes of “om-ing” because I can’t seem to settle into the right frame of mind. If you, too, are a frustrated would-be meditator, you may have experienced the same problem.
Solution: Proper preparation. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, a meditation teacher and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, told me, “A few simple steps, when taken at the beginning of your meditative sessions, lay the neurological foundation for a better practice.” To prepare yourself to meditate, get into a comfortable position and spend about a minute on each of the following steps…
Silently say to yourself, My mind is calming and settling. This marks your intention to meditate and activates the executive systems in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, thereby directing other systems in the brain toward the goal you’ve set—in this instance, calming the mind.
Take a few deep breaths with long exhalations of about 10 seconds each, either through your nose or mouth. This activates the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system—the part that controls “rest and digest” body functions without conscious effort—thus helping to relax and steady your mind. Slow exhalations also tone down the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system that triggers the fight-or-flight response, Dr. Hanson said, further calming your body and mind.
Remind yourself that you are safe. “We have evolved to be vigilant and nervous. That helped keep our ancestors alive but also makes it harder to bring attention inward,” Dr. Hanson explained. To counter that, meditate in surroundings or situations that help you feel protected and secure, such as in your home or with other people who are meditating. Then focus for a few moments on that feeling of safety…on the resources inside you and around you…or on a memory of being with someone who cares about you.
Activate positive emotions. Think about something that makes you feel good, such as a mountain retreat or beloved pet. Or give a half smile—the facial expression activates associated feelings of well-being in your neural networks. “Encouraging even mildly positive feelings brings more peacefulness by dialing down the stress response from the sympathetic nervous system,” Dr. Hanson said. This also activates the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, which help you stay alert and focused on your meditation so you don’t get distracted by worries or other thoughts.
Now you are ready to meditate. For the most beneficial experience, consider these words from Dr. Hanson: “Our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. This evolved to help our ancestors remember and react to threatening events.” To counteract that, take a moment from time to time throughout your session to really enjoy the good feelings of your meditation.