1. Why Meditate?

Meditation is an excellent way to cultivate control over your own mental processes, but in many cultures, meditation is often practiced for spiritual reasons, not for stress management at all. Stress management is merely a fringe benefit. Whatever your reason for meditation, the effects are consistent. Meditation cultivates mental discipline and, in addition, is exceptionally relaxing. Rather than letting our restless minds, worried thoughts, and anxious feelings carry us away into what might happen next or what we could have done before, meditation teaches us to be in the present moment.

“Meditation is exceptionally relaxing.”

2. How Meditation Relieves Stress

Studies show that people who are meditating have lower blood pressure, slower breath and heart rates, and brain waves that signal a state of alert but, at the same time, deep relaxation. Meditation also works to train the mind to avoid negative patterns and thought processes, vicious circles of failure and low self-esteem, even the perception of chronic pain as an intensely negative experience. The brain is a complex and amazing organ, and meditation can teach you to harness your mind’s power, integrate your mind and body, and feed your hungry spirit.

3. Learn to Focus

As broad a category as meditation may be, it all boils down to one thing: the honing of focus. Modern life promotes an unfocused mind. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli, from the media, from our environments, from people, from our computers. Work is full of so much to do that it isn’t easy or even possible to spend a great deal of time on any one task, even if more time would result in higher quality. It’s a get-it-done-fast-and-move-on-to-the-next-thing-quick kind of life for many of us, and so the mind gets used to multiple points of focus and constantly moving focus.

4. Start a Meditation Practice

If you are interested in starting a meditation practice, first learn about the many different meditation techniques and find one that appeals to you. Then, set aside a time each day—first thing in the morning, just before dinner, or just before bed are all popular choices—and practice. At first, meditation can be tough. You’ll probably find it hard to keep your mind focused. Soon, you’ll recognize your mind’s wanderings as natural, and, as you gently redirect your mind to its point of focus, you’ll stop judging yourself and learn simply to be.

5. Learn about Zazen

Zazen is the sitting meditation of Zen Buddhism, but many so-called “Zennists” who don’t practice Buddhism practice zazen. Zazen can be accurately defined as “just sitting.” It doesn’t require any religious or philosophical affiliation. All it requires is the ability to apply the seat of the pants to the floor and stay there for a while. Sounds easy, you say? Hardly.

6. Not as Easy as It Sounds, But Worth the Effort

For those of us accustomed to accomplishing something at every moment of the day, just sitting is quite a challenge. But just sitting accomplishes something amazing if it is practiced regularly. The mind becomes calmer. The muscles stay more relaxed. Stress fails to get the rise out of your body and your mind that it once did. Suddenly, priorities seem clearer; truths about life, people, and yourself seem more obvious; and things that used to stress you out seem hardly worth consideration anymore.

7. Get on the Path to Enlightenment

From the Buddhist perspective, zazen is thought to be the path to enlightenment because thousands of years ago the Buddha attained enlightenment while “just sitting” under a bodhi tree in India. He sat and sat and sat and continued to sit, and legend has it that he proclaimed (to paraphrase), “I’m going to sit here until I perceive ultimate truth, and that’s final.” Supposedly, it took about one night. Then, he understood the meaning of all existence. This was, of course, after six years of intensive searching for truth. Enlightenment may or may not be your goal. But learning to sit, cultivate stillness and inner silence, and become fully and totally aware of the present moment makes for powerful stress management.

8. How to Practice Zazen

To begin zazen, sit cross-legged or on folded legs (sitting on your feet), with a firm pillow under your hips so that you aren’t sitting directly on your legs. Make sure you are wearing enough clothes to stay warm. Sit up straight, feeling a lift from the crown of the head toward the ceiling and an open feeling in your spine. Keep your shoulders back, your chest open, and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Your focus points should be slightly downward and your eyes relaxed. Now, unfocus your eyes just a little so that you don’t really see what’s in front of you. This will help you to focus inwardly. Rest your hands in your lap. Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose. At first, practice concentrating by counting each breath. In your mind, count from one to ten, with each full breath (inhalation and exhalation) constituting one number. Or, simply follow your breath, keeping your awareness focused on the sound and feel of your breath moving in and out of your body.

9. Face the Challenges

Zazen is simple, but it isn’t easy, for several reasons. Let’s be frank: It’s boring, especially at first. It’s tough to sit still, and it’s hard to justify spending the time when you don’t see immediate results. The dropout rate is high. Most people don’t keep it up long enough to see the benefits.

But what happens if you don’t drop out? What happens if you sit through the boredom, sit despite the other things you think you should be doing, sit out the frustration and the fear, sit until you’ve learned how to really sit still, physically and mentally? The answer is simple: clarity, peace, acceptance, satisfaction, and, yes, a whole lot less stress.

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