I’ve been doing some mindfulness meditation lately. It’s about the simplest “activity” you can imagine – you just sit on the floor, on a cushion, close your eyes, and breathe. And I’m not just doing this because I’ve moved to Vancouver and gone all yoga. Okay, it’s partly that. But it’s also been scientifically proven to build you a better brain.
Studies have shown that you can improve blood pressure and anxiety levels, increase cognitive capacity, and stave off aging just by sitting and doing nothing at all. A Harvard prof has done research that shows that it only takes 8 weeks of a meditation practice to rewire your brain. The brains of the meditators actually got thicker in areas involved in attention and sensory processing. It’s like doing pushups for your brain! (And here I thought it was a bad thing to have a thick head…)
The science is saying it’s a go, my yoga instructors say it’s a go, so I’ve been giving it a go. Every day for the last month I’ve been doing a marathon session of anywhere from 5-15 minutes. (I know!! extreme!) My goal is to work gradually up to the Harvard study volunteers’ 40 minutes a day. It’s not as easy as it might appear. Actually, it’s a lot easier to just go out and run for 40 minutes. Or 60 minutes. A LOT easier.
Take today. I plonk down on my pillow, cross my legs, turn my iPhone timer on for 15 minutes and close my eyes. I relax my shoulders, straighten my spine, take a deep breath.
My shoulders are so tight! Maybe I need to loosen the belt on my bathrobe so I can breathe with my belly. Shut up, brain. Breathe. Should I go for a run or a walk later? Did I answer the tax accountant’s e-mail? Are we going to owe taxes in the US again this year? I hate taxes.
My brain clearly didn’t get the memo. What you’re supposed to do here is “gently bring your consciousness back to the breath.” Okay. Breathe in. Breathe out. Cool air going in, warm air going out. A little mantra can be helpful. As I breathe in, I think – here. As I breathe out, I think – now. I sail along on my here-now breaths for a little while. I’m a compulsive counter, so the breaths start to pick up a rhythm. I’m synesthetic, so I start to see colors in my brain. 1-2-3-4, black, red, blue, yellow… Anxiety bubbles up.
I shouldn’t be counting. Think of the ocean, waves. Calm. This is silly. I want to get up and go get a cup of coffee. No, it’s just fifteen minutes. Breathe.
What, exactly, is so friggin’ hard about sitting still and doing nothing that my brain is practically jumping out of my skull in its efforts to get me to escape the experience? Can it really be all that bad? And it hit me. The thing that’s so anxiety-provoking, so hard about doing nothing for 15 minutes?
It’s just me here, with no thoughts to hide behind and nothing to do to distract me or numb my feelings.
And the next thought came in a flash, as well –
Fifteen minutes? Hah! I’m me forever. And this is where I might get a glimpse of the underpinnings.
You would think the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of my day would be the hard part, all that ego, all that activity, all that sensory input, all that work at shoring up and tearing down.
I filed those thoughts away for later – I’ll write a blog post on this – and went back to my mantra. Breathe in – here. Breathe out – now.