How to Meditate

Meditation is simple but not easy.

Meditation and balance

Meditation: Simple But Not Easy

  1. Sit comfortably, in a chair or on a pillow on the floor. Don’t lie down because most of us sleep deprived human beings will fall asleep very rapidly if we try to meditate lying down.
  2. Turn off your phone and other devices that might interrupt you. Close your eyes or at least let your gaze fall so that you’re not looking at anything in particular.
  3. Take several deep breaths and focus on the breath either where the breath comes in or out of your nose or on the rise and fall of your chest. This will be the primary focus of your mindful attention during meditation. Watch your breath in either of those two places.
  4. Your mind will wander away from your breath. Be gentle toward yourself regarding your wandering mind. I often suggest to people that they simply note, in a gentle internal tone, the type of distracting thought. If it’s a thought you can say to yourself “thinking thinking”. If it’s a sound you can say to yourself “hearing hearing.” If it’s a sensation, you can say to yourself “feeling feeling.” Once you have gently noted the type of distraction then simply refocus your attention on the breath. Just watch your breath, don’t try to change it or modify it.

When To Practice and For How Long

With meditation practice the key is to actually do it so the when to doesn’t really matter as long as the time is convenient for you and encourages you to practice. Some say that after a big meal is not ideal, and I’d probably agree, but other than that it doesn’t matter whether you practice early in the morning, late at night, or in the middle of the day.

In terms of how long you should practice, I would say start small. I’d start with 10 minutes a day, and once you get comfortable with that push that time up to 15 or 20 minutes. I suspect that beyond this there are diminishing returns, but up to 30 minutes a day is probably beneficial. Experiment with different time frames and see what works for you.

What you will find as you practice is that initially your mind is a “drunken monkey.” It wanders more than it focuses on the breath. This is completely normal and you should not allow yourself to get frustrated by it. Meditation is a learned skill and as you continue to practice you will find it easier and easier to focus on the breath, to notice distracting thoughts, and then to return to the breath. Eventually, you will be able to mostly hear silence in your mind which is a very peaceful feeling.

You can also practice mindfulness in other situations without doing formal meditation. For instance, when you take a shower, just feel the water on your body. Don’t think about your to do list. Or you can be mindful even when doing mundane tasks like washing dishes; feel the water on your hands, notice the shape and the sound of the dishes, and be completely immersed in the present moment.

That’s it, meditation practice made simple. Happy meditating!


Of Mellowness and Mice: The Effects of “Meditation” Training on the Mouse Brain

Meditation word cloud


Clients often ask me, “What is the effect of meditation practice?” I’ve written about effects of meditation here and here.

Today the New York Times had an interesting article called Of Mice and Mindfulness, which answers that question a little bit. They report a study conducted at the University of Oregon by Cristopher Niell and others.

They cite past studies that found that people who meditate tended to have more white matter around the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Meditation also increases the theta wave activity of the brain. Some researchers have wondered if the increased theta wave activity increased the white matter.

Theta waves run at a frequency of 8 Hz, and researchers at the University of Oregon figured out that they could test the effects of this frequency with a very complicated research design. Previously scientists there had developed a breed of mice that had genes that were responsive to light. By beaming light into the mice brains at the same frequency as human theta waves they found that this turned on the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortexes. The researchers also beamed light at a frequency of 1Hz and 40 Hz as a control.

Each mouse got 30 minutes of light therapy for 20 days, which was an attempt to mimic the intensity of human meditation. After, the mice that were exposed to the 8 Hz theta wave frequencies of light were mellower; they hung out in the lighted area of a special cage, while their non-meditating counterparts hid in the shadows! (The 1Hz group also were mellower, which does call into question the specificity of the theta frequency needed to create mellowness in mice.)

So what can we learn about this study of the murine mind? (Yes, who knew that the word murine refers to mice and other related rodents.) The research suggests that there is something about lower frequency brain stimulation that leads to lowered anxiety and increased bravery. I think it’s probably a stretch to assume that this research directly supports the same concept in humans, since nobody is going to replicate this research with people. Nevertheless, it adds to the idea of the mechanism of meditation, which may actually change your brain when practiced diligently for a month.

Now I’m going to take a writing break and meditate…

P.S.  Please see my article How to Meditate if you want to start meditating. 

Suffer From Insomnia? Best Insomnia Drug Is Not A Drug, But Rather Cognitive Behavioral Therapy According to Consumer Reports

Do you suffer from insomnia? Have you tried sleeping pills? When a major consumer ratings agency such as Consumer Reports endorses cognitive behavioral therapy over drug treatment for insomnia, it is big news.sleeping dog

In the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports (CR), there is an article entitled Why the Best Insomnia Treatment Is Not a Drug.  In earlier versions of their articles on sleep and medications for sleep they had reviewed various different sleeping agents but in this updated article they conclude that at best, the newer sleep medications add only between eight and 20 minutes of sleep time, and don’t improve how people feel or operate the next day.

They also reviewed a recent systematic research study by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) that compared multiple treatments for sleep problems including drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and alternative therapies. This study concluded that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a safe and effective way to treat insomnia, and is more effective and safer than other treatments.

So Consumer Reports’ Best Buy drug pick is actually not a drug at all! It is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They recommend at least one session and optimally suggest three to six  sessions of CBT with a psychologist.

They also have a good description of how CBT works for insomnia. They explain how you meet with a psychologist and work on changing your beliefs about sleep, as well as changing certain behaviors that may contribute to insomnia. CR also includes a concise chart about bad sleep habits and how to fix them. They have an excellent description of CBT for insomnia here.  If CBT was a sleep medication, promoted by a powerful drug company, it would be a multibillion-dollar product!

insomnia slide

I have previously written about CBT for the treatment of insomnia in the article Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) Outperforms Drugs for Insomnia,   Want to Sleep Better? Get Brief CBT-I Therapy for Sleep Instead of Sleeping Pills, and Good News! You May Be Getting More Sleep Than You Think, Especially If You Suffer Insomnia! so I will just summarize some of the conclusions from those articles.

The bottom line for these articles was that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia was safe, effective and long-lasting in its effects. What is clear from virtually every study of sleep treatments is that CBT may be the only treatment for sleep problems that doesn’t have side effects and negative impacts into the next day. According to a 2015 Consumer Report survey, 36% of people who took a sleeping pill felt drowsy the next day. They also report a study of 410,000 adults published in the American Journal of Public health which found that those who took sleeping pills were twice as likely to be in automobile crashes. The researchers in this study concluded that people taking sleep medications were as likely to have car accidents as people with blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit!

So what are the recommendations and interventions used in CBT for insomnia?

  1. Spend only seven or eight hours in bed, and don’t compensate for insomnia by lying in bed for ten or eleven hours, as that just teaches you to be an inefficient sleeper.
  2. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  3. Don’t go to bed unless you actually feel sleepy. If you can’t fall asleep get out of bed and do something peaceful and relaxing until you are sleepy, and then go back to bed.
  4. Try to get regular exercise but don’t exercise in the evening.
  5. Use your bed only for sleeping (or sex), don’t read or watch TV or look at your smartphone in bed.
  6. Don’t nap.
  7. Reduce your intake of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially later in the day.

Now it’s time for my nap—no, my mid-day exercise!