Most guides to mindfulness, self-care and wellbeing make some mention of meditation. It appears in all manner of how-to lists, but often the advice only stretches as far as putting on some distractingly chill music and simply “focusing” or “being in the moment”. Which is about as handy as telling someone who feels like garbage to “cheer up”, if the whole reason you need to meditate is that you’ve got 5,000 thoughts bouncing around in your head and can’t get any of them to take a break for five minutes.
I used to spend the meditation part at the end of my yoga class thinking about what to have for dinner that night, or mulling over things I needed to do for work the next day – not actually meditating, but soaking in my usual mental noise from a laying down, eyes shut position. Fail.
So what’s a person to do when they try to meditate, but struggle to switch off the internal chatter? Here are a few tips that I’ve found to be genuinely useful.
1. Stretching before you meditate can stop you getting restless
One problem a lot of people have with meditation is that they start to get fidgety almost as soon as they try to sit still. Not all meditation has to be stationary, but if you are going to sit or lay down to meditate then doing a few basic stretches before you get comfortable can reduce the risk that you end up shuffling around, or fighting the urge to get up.
Helping to improve circulation and fend off restlessness, there’s no particular set of stretches that are necessarily better than others. Yoga poses like downward and upward facing dog are really common picks, but the kind of stretches you might do before going for a run are just as good. It doesn’t matter how mobile you are, but anything you can stretch, I’d recommend stretching before you settle down for a few minutes’ peace.
2. Meditation can be about sights, as well as sounds and sensations
Generally when people talk about meditation, they describe an activity where you keep your eyes closed and try to commit all of your focus to what you can feel in different parts of your body and any sounds you can hear. But sometimes having your eyes closed enables you to hide in your own head a little, getting bogged down in thoughts about anything other than the present moment. If this is proving to be an issue, there’s no reason you can’t use your eyes to help you focus.
Rather than keeping your eyes shut when you meditate, try observing things around you and using them as focus points. The typical meditation tactic of slowly thinking about the different sensations in your body is great for some people, but if you’re likely to get hung up thinking about a persistent ache or other frustration, step out of yourself for a minute and observe your surroundings instead.
Choose an object to focus on, and think about its colour, texture, structure, etc. I often count details rather than counting breaths, because I lose count and get frustrated that with breathing, I feel like I can’t start again from 1!
3. You don’t have to stay still
Meditation is typically thought of as a laying down or sitting down practice, but it can be a walking activity too. If you find that laying still isn’t working for you, and if you can, try gentle walking meditation instead.
You don’t have to go full Buddhist monk and describe what you’re doing as you’re doing it – I did get the giggles quite badly when I tried traditional walking meditation in Thailand and found myself saying “stepping, stepping… turning, turning…” over and over again – but if it’s a nice day then a stroll in the sunshine can give you a vitamin D boost and some fresh air as well as a moment to try and relax.
Traditional walking meditation is primarily walking backwards and forwards along a short, straight line, taking anything up to 15 minutes to walk 15 feet and focusing on exactly what you are doing in each second – lifting a leg, placing a foot, turning around. If the weather is rubbish or you find being outdoors even more distracting than sitting still, anything from slowly pacing around the kitchen table to walking up and down a landing or corridor in your house might help you focus on what you’re doing at that moment, rather than anything else.
4. Breathing really is important
Obviously you’re not going to not breathe, but it’s easy to write off an emphasis on timing or counting breaths as pointless or unnecessary, when nailing simple breathing exercises makes a lot of difference.
You don’t have to count every breath, or only breathe at a particular speed, but starting any meditation session with three or four big, deep, slow breaths in and out helps to settle you and steady the rhythm of your breathing for the rest of your time out.
‘Mindful breathing’ in itself can be a form of meditation, so if concentration is proving to be a struggle, try starting by dedicating 30 seconds at the start and/or end of each day to counting slow breaths in and out as a form of mindfulness. It’s an easy way to relax, and a good start point to build up to spending a few minutes or a longer period in meditation.
5. Practice makes perfect(ish)
Just like any new skill, meditation is something that can take a bit of practising. A few people have said to me that they tried it once or twice and couldn’t get the hang of it – but genuinely, it’s a bit like saying you tried to play the piano once and couldn’t nail a whole song by the end, or that the first time you kicked a football you didn’t score a hat-trick.
The idea that you need to improve at sitting still and thinking about your fingertips, or walking around counting your breaths, can seem a bit weird at first. Like, hello, I’m a functioning human being, I can sit around perfectly well without needing to practice, thanks. But training your brain to chill out for five minutes is easier said than done.
Whether you take two or three minutes a day, 30 seconds every other day or 30 minutes every weekend, the more you try to meditate or be mindful, the better you’ll get at detaching from distractions. Just like not everyone can play a killer guitar solo, not everyone can be engrossed in a deep meditative state for lengthy periods of time – but doing a little bit here and there can make a big difference to how you feel.
Once you start to get the hang of winding down or temporarily switching off, it can get easier to deal with everyday anxieties and stresses too. The same breathing tactics and moments of focus that allow you to meditate for a few minutes can help keep you cool-headed when things aren’t going to plan, and help you to ground yourself when you can feel tension taking over.
If there are any tips and tricks that have helped you to meditate or just to find a few minutes of chill in a busy day, please do share them in the comments below!