In a world of total connectedness, the need for space is greater than ever. Constant stimulation, never-ending updates, and massive amounts of information have turned our world into a very high-pressure environment.
With an infinite stream of things vying for our attention and the increase of workplace demands, when do we have time for ourselves? Honestly, when was the last time you sat distraction-free for 30-minutes to think about your life? Think of the implications that have on your life.
The demands for superhuman performance are increasing the hours worked in a week and starting to overcome the lives of many Americans. This leads to a decrease in time for self-care and an increase in for exceptional performance.
Take a look at these stats:
- The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 5-6% of the population has ADHD. Doctors are diagnosing about 11% of today’s youth with ADHD and are prescribing Adderall. Some researches estimate that approximately 30% of college students take or have taken Adderall.
- Research suggests that approximately 40% of elite athletes turn to banned substances to enhance their performance. In a 2013 survey, conducted by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, they found that 11% of high schoolers injected synthetic Human Growth Hormone (HGH) at least once in the prior year.
- A 2014 survey of over 2,500 companies in 90 countries found that, on average, workers check their cell phones over 150 times per day.
- 1/3 of Americans get up from their desk for a lunch break. 66% of Americans either eat while working or not at all.
- 27% of Americans regularly work between the hours of 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. 29% of Americans work on the weekend.
- The average American worker leaves five vacation days unused.
- A 2014 survey conducted by Gallup, found that the typical American work week is 47 hours, not 40 hours.
- 53% of American workers report feeling burnt out.
In an effort to optimize your performance, your first task isn’t about performing, it’s about resting. You’re going to start creating space between you, your life, your circumstances, and your stressors. Starting off with 1–5 minutes per day.
The Benefits of Meditation
At the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, 16 individuals participated in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program. A set of functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of the participants’ brain structure were taken two weeks before and two weeks after the Program. The individuals spent, on average, 27 minutes per day doing mindfulness exercises provided by the Program, such as a weekly meeting involving mindfulness meditation and listening to provided audio recordings of guided meditation.
The participants were given a mindfulness questionnaire before and after the Program. The post-Program results showed substantial improvement in the participants’ stress reduction, self-awareness, and well-being. The post-Program fMRI images also showed impressive findings. They show an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus (primarily responsible for learning and memory) and pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s command and control center) and other areas responsible for self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala (primarily associated with anxiety, stress, and emotional reactance).
In less than 30 minutes a day over eight weeks, these 16 participants were able to change the structure of their brain with mindfulness meditation.
A well developed prefrontal cortex allows us to go from stress to rest and allows us to rationally respond to situations rather than just emotionally reacting to them. The stronger and more developed the prefrontal cortex the better we can notice we are becoming stressed and not be overcome by it. We become more self-aware the more we develop the prefrontal cortex.
Another study performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had two sets of participants, novice meditators, and expert meditators. They used fMRI scans to observe the brain as the researchers touched the legs of both groups with burning-hot wire. After the initial stress response and “Ouch” the participants’ brain activity began to diverge. The emotional center of the brain that prepares the body for a stress response – the amygdala – of the novice meditators “hijacked” their brain and they weren’t able to turn it off. The novices stayed in a stressed state. The expert meditators did not experience amygdala hijack and they were able to separate themselves from the stressor.
While you may not experience a scalding-hot wire being touched to your leg daily, you do experience modern-day stressors every day. Your ability to turn off the stress response and separate yourself from the stress allows you to stay focused on completing the task at hand, instead of getting derailed. Being able to step back and have a “calm conversation” with yourself to avoid amygdala hijack lets you deal with your instinctual emotions more rationally.
During a podcast with Tim Ferriss, Aubrey Marcus, CEO of Onnit, talks about riding the wave of anger. Here is an excerpt from Marcus:
“It’s that feeling you get. It’s that welling of energy, and it actually feels good. I think it was acknowledging there’s some part of you that when that anger is coming, it’s a sense of power that’s rising … You feel it rising, and it’s like the swell of a wave. There’s a choice right there where you either paddle, or you don’t paddle. But to really identify the swell and identify that power, putting on that mantle, breathing fire, it’s going to feel good in certain ways, but the ramifications never feel good, the burning bodies and the houses on fire. When you’re breathing that dragon fire, that never feels good. I call it mental override.”
Marcus is talking about amygdala hijack with respect to anger. How many times has this happened to you? Yea, it feels good at the moment, but just like Marcus says, nothing good ever comes out of it. The ability to rationally deal with those situations and respond accordingly comes from mindfulness meditation.
- Realize when need to “turn it off” and choose to leave the stress behind.
- Take six deep breaths whenever you feel yourself getting stressed, which will help lower your blood pressure and activate your prefrontal cortex, then have a “calm conversation” with yourself to help you disassociate from the stressor.
- The frequency of meditation greatly outweighs the duration. So even, if you can only meditate for a minute, find that time and do it.
How to Meditate
- Sit in a comfortable position, ideally in a quiet space
- Breathe deeply for a few breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Allow your breath to settle back into its natural rhythm and focus on only the sensations of breathing, noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath; if thoughts arise, notice them, but then direct your focus back to the rhythm and sensation of your breath
- Set a timer so you don’t have to think about time.
- Start with 1 minute 30 seconds and increase by 30 seconds approximately every 3 days or so with the goal of being sessions of at least 5 minutes.
Variations of Mediation
This is an important section which often gets left out of information about mediation. There isn’t only one right way to meditate. I’m going to list a few different variations and I would recommend you try each one for a week to two weeks to find which one works best for you. Regardless of which path you take, I would start with guided meditations through Headspace, which I’ll get into in more detail below.
Once again, this isn’t a comprehensive list, these are just a some I’ve come across and I recommend.
A guided meditation is “a process by which one or more participants meditate in response to the guidance provided by a trained practitioner or teacher, either in person or via a written text, sound recording, video, or audiovisual media comprising music [and/or] verbal instruction.”
I think guided meditation is a great place to start. You have someone walking you through the process, you don’t have to think about time, your thoughts, etc. They walk you through allowing you to be in a meditative state while giving you something to focus on. You can find these on YouTube or a quick Google search for “guided meditation” will yield a ton of options. My personal favorite is Headspace, while my second favorite is Brain.fm (I’ll get into more detail about these later).
This is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, you’re on your own. This is more difficult and most people transition to this after experience with guided meditation. Once you master that, then start to give unguided mediation a try.
As your first transition into unguided meditation, I’d recommend listening to binaural beats, isochronic tones, ordynamic attending theory (DAT). These are tones that are either listened to that cause brain entrainment. Brain entrainment occurs when your dominant brainwave aligns itself with the speed of these beats.
Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered binaural beats in 1839. When two separate tones are passed through the ear, our brain notices the difference between the two tones and then creates a third tone. The third tone is a difference of the two – this is a binaural beat. They require listening through headphones because each ear has a different tone.
Arturo Manns discovered Isochronic tones in 1981. Isochronic tones only use one tone that is switched on and off constantly to create repetitive beats. They can be used without headphones because it’s only one tone.
Dr. Mari Riess Jones developed DAT in 1976. DAT “posits that tone sequences presented at a regular rhythm entrain attentional oscillations and thereby facilitate the processing of sounds presented in phase with this rhythm.” There is more research done on DAT, and it is my preference to binaural beats and isochronic tones.
The ideal meditative brain state is called “Theta.” Theta occurs when your brain waive is between 4 and 8 Hz.
I’ll list my recommendations below for finding binaural beats and isochronic tones.
Box breathing is a breathing technique, that you can do in a meditative state. Instead of returning your breathing to normal before you start meditating, you’re going to inhale for a count of four, hold the inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold the exhale for a count of four. This is also known as four-square breathing. It’s recommended to start with a slow count of four, and then you can increase that as you become more comfortable with this technique. Try to focus on counting your breaths and remaining calm while you do this. You can also add this on to your mindfulness meditation routine.
Mark Divine, the author of The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed, recommends this practice as well. Here is an excerpt from his book:
“Position yourself in a seated meditation or other comfortable position. Your back should be straight, your chin slightly tucked, gaze soft or eyes closed. Place your hands lightly on your knees and bring your attention to your breath.
- Take a few deep diaphragm breaths slowly, with a four-count inhale followed immediately by a four-count complete exhalation. Repeat this for four rounds as a warm-up.
- Now, begin your Box Breathing practice by taking a four-count breath slowly through your nose.
- Hold your breath for a count of four. Concentrate on the quality of the breath and noticing what enters your mind. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.
- Exhale slowly through the nose to a count of four.
- Hold your breath again for a count of four. Pay attention to the quality of the hold and watch your mind.
Repeat this process for a minimum of five minutes and practice it until you can do it for up to twenty minutes at a time. Over time, you can also increase the duration of the inhale, exhale, and hold period. Seek to settle your thoughts and any fidgeting. If a thought arises, just let it go and bring your attention back to breathing” (Mark Divine, The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed).
The body scan asks you to focus your attention on different parts of your body systematically. By allowing us to experience and recognize our bodies without judgment or trying to change it we may become attune to sources of tension we weren’t aware of before (i.e. clenched jaw/fist, hunched back, etc.), once recognized these sources become less bothersome. When we fail to recognize the source of pain, we often become irritated with that pain, which increases the associated discomfort. By recognizing the pain we can dissociate and reasonably fix it (after the session) without increasing the negative feelings associated with it.
The goal of the body scan is to help you become aware of your body and its sensations as well as relieving tension. Awareness of your body helps you understand your physical needs and where you may be lacking (i.e. stretching, eating, sleeping, exercising, etc.).
I recommend a guided body scan until you become familiar with the practice. You can find one here: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/body_scan_meditation#data-tab-how
- Follow the guidelines for setting up and practicing meditation seen above
- Experiment with different times of day until you find the best suited for you
- Develop a routine, remember frequency trumps duration
- Try to meditate in the same place every day as well – if possible dedicate a space solely to meditation. Enter with positivity, and leave with positivity and gratitude. Good vibes only.
- Keep a journal to note any feeling/thoughts/etc. post-meditation session. Also to track times and progress.
- Mindfulness meditation doesn’t solve everything overnight. It takes some time to start feeling benefits, but it’s well worth it. So commit for at least the next six months and see how it goes.
I’ve been meditating consistently for the last six months and have noticed a huge impact recently. I’ve tried a lot of different things and I will list the tools/tricks/tips that have worked for me. Hopefully, you can find some that work for you as well.
- Headspace – Guided meditations and getting started. Start with the basics pack and commit to following it for the first 10 days. Once you do that move on to the second and the third. That’s one full month of guided meditations and it will help substantially. It’s cumulative though, so make sure you start at the beginning and stay consistent.
- Brain.fm – Brain entrainment. An alternative to binaural beats and isochronic tones, known as They have a meditation setting both guided and unguided. Give their other settings a try for sleep and focus too, they work really well.
- Enso (Enso Pro) – Timer and log. I love Enso because of its non-jarring timer noises, it’s substantially better to come out of meditation to a nice bell rather than the default iPhone timer alert. You can also set a countdown timer which is helpful and interval alerts (which I’m not a fan of, it always shifts my focus). Enso is also amazing because it tracks your meditation times and frequency. I like Enso Pro, and it’s definitely worth the one-time payment of $2.99 because it syncs with your HealthKit to track mindfulness minutes. So, if you use other apps, like Headspace, you can see all of your mindfulness minutes in one place.
- CNS Tap Test – CNS Tracking. I like to do this with both hands before and after a meditation session. I’ve been tracking it for about a month now and am curious to see the results. Also, it lets me see the state of my CNS pre-session and post-session. Which is good to know to see if there was any effect on my meditation session, and to see the effects my session had on my CNS.
- HowToLucid.com (isochronic tones & binaural beats)
- Greater Good in Action (Berkeley) (guided body scan meditation)
- Wireless Headphones – Powerbeats3 Wireless so you don’t have to have your phone by you and aren’t interrupted by notifications. Comfortable. Good quality. Affordable. I use them for training too.
- Bullet Journal – Leuchtturm1917 I like the Bullet Journal because you can lay it out however you want, and it promotes simplicity ensuring you’ll actually use it. Great for tracking thoughts and ideas post-session.
- Meditation Cushion – Zafu + Zabuton | Zafu. Getting a meditation cushion is essential as you will spend more time in this position, you don’t want it to negatively affect your posture. I like the Zafu + Zabuton because I’m taller and have longer legs. However, the Zafu (the second item listed) is one of the most comfortable on the market. It’s also one of the hardest to match your house decor. You can always get both, and use the latter Zafu on the first Zabuton.
- Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success
- The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed
Also published on Medium.