I sometimes find myself getting mentally scattered, especially as I’ve grown older. Over the past decade, I often questioned where the qualities of mental focus and drive that I had in spades during my 20s and 30s have gone – and whether I can ever get them back.
Crazy Stress Levels = Crazy Mind
Let me offer some context for that statement. During the past decade, I’ve been in a caregiving role for my elderly parents while working on a graduate degree and providing for myself financially. However, the pressure I was under reached a boiling point starting in late 2013 and lasting throughout 2014 when I dealt with intense stress levels caused by the ultimate trifecta of insanity: dealing with a multitude of emerging issues caused by my elderly father’s rapidly declining health; finishing my dissertation by a Fall 2014 deadline so I wouldn’t be tossed out of the program; and trying to keep my clients happy (and my bank account stable).
Those pressures left my brain increasingly frazzled. By the end of 2014, my thoughts resembled my excitable miniature Schnauzer when visitors come to my home and she starts jumping wildly from person to person. In a matter of minutes, my attention would shift between topics as diverse as lunch plans, Dad’s latest doctor’s appointment, an upcoming museum visit, a work project, my neighbor’s birthday, weeds in my flowerbed and the stacks of books I had stockpiled to read. Needless to say, it was difficult to really focus on any of these topics, much less have the mental resources to try anything new.
I seriously wondered whether I would ever regain my mental composure when 2015 started. However, a year later, I can report that my monkey mind has quieted and – for the most part – focused. I credit my mental renaissance to meditation, although the benefits took a while to emerge.
Learning to Meditate
I initially attempted a meditation practice because of its promise to reduce my stress levels in 2014. At first, I tried to meditate through focusing on my breathing while lying down, but that just led to napping (which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but wasn’t really my goal). I then experimented with guided meditations. However, I found that listening to someone talk while trying to meditate was like waving a checkered flag for my mind to start racing among various thoughts.
What caused the evolution to a meditative state? I credit a three-day stay at Travaasa, an experiential spa in Austin, TX that offers a wealth of classes such as yoga, flower arranging, hatchet throwing, hiking and mountain biking. My goal during my stay was to select classes that offered elements of holistic self-care that I could continue when I returned home. One of these classes — sensory meditation – ended up lifting the mental blinds that previously had blocked my understanding of meditation. My “a-ha” moment came while meditating in a peaceful setting accompanied only by the sounds of nature and the light scent of incense.
Building a Daily Practice
Since that trip, I’m trying to include meditation in my daily schedule. After some experimenting, I found an app called Calm that offers timed meditation sessions with a variety of options for nature sounds. I try to meditate for at least five minutes a day – and Calm has a built-in reminder that offers a gentle nudge if I’ve not used the app by noon. The app also has a built-in calendar so I can track my progress.
I also want to meditate regularly to access the many health benefits, such as lower blood pressure. Furthermore, researchers have found that the brain region associated with happiness and positivity is more active in people with long-time meditation practices as compared to people who do not meditate.
I’m only a beginner, but I look forward to exploring the new experiences and insights that a regular practice has to offer. I am especially thankful that meditation has helped me regain a level of mental focus, which is crucial for someone devoted to lifelong learning.
Sources for This Post:
Mayo Clinic. (2014). Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress.
Piver, S. (2016). The Healing Benefits of Meditation. DrWeil.com.