May is both National Mental Health Month and National Meditation Month, and it has me thinking a lot about how the two are related. As a meditation teacher based in New York City, I meet a lot of people who struggle with mental health in some capacity and who are looking for something to help them find peace and balance in their lives. In fact, many of my students first come to meditation because their stress and anxiety are getting in the way of their lives. And, while there are many tools available for achieving better mental health, my favorite is meditation.
Health and happiness are an inside-out job; you have to first create the foundations of wellness in your own head before they show up in your life. Because the bottom line is, it is impossible to live a rom-com of a life when you have a horror flick playing inside your mind. This is where the meditation comes in. Meditation is the fastest tool I know for creating a more peaceful mind. And peaceful does not necessarily mean quiet: The technique we use at Ziva, my studio in Manhattan, has nothing to do with “quieting the mind." (So if you have ever tried meditation and felt like a failure because you couldn't empty your head, then you may dig the style we teach.) If you can’t make it to a Ziva Intro Talk in New York or Los Angeles, you can learn to meditate online with zivaMIND. Here are a few tips for meditating if you’re struggling with anxiety, spinning thoughts, or a stressed-filled head space.
1. Thoughts are not the enemy of meditation. Effort is.
Telling your mind to stop thinking is like telling your heart to stop beating. You will have thoughts while you meditate, and that is OK. What you don’t want to do is try to effortfully push the thoughts away. Instead, let the thoughts float by like clouds, neither cursing them for existing nor trying to grab ahold of them. Simply acknowledge them and then go back to doing your own thing.
2. Gently guide yourself back to the present moment.
Some people end up trying to problem-solve while they’re meditating. Others get caught up thinking about their to-do list. Others still find their heads spinning and fall down a cognitive rabbit hole. If you have anxiety or stressful thoughts, this can be very frustrating. The key here is, when you find yourself off on a trail of thinking, gently guiding yourself back. Don’t flagellate yourself; just acknowledge, “Oh, that’s right, I’m meditating. I’m gonna get back to that.” Once you get in the habit of doing this, the thoughts don’t seem nearly as powerful or intrusive to your meditation.
3. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation.
Don’t judge yourself if you feel like you’re “doing it wrong.” We don’t meditate to get good at meditating; we meditate to get good at life. So, you’re having a thought-filled meditation? Yep, that’ll happen sometimes. You think you’re falling asleep while you’re meditating? Cool, let yourself be a sleepy, sloppy meditator. There’s no need for perfectionism in meditation (and in fact, there’s no such thing as perfect anyway).
4. Keep with it!
Your brain is a muscle, and when you meditate you’re taking the brain to the gym. But like any muscle, your brain needs consistent exercise to get stronger. So don’t give up if you don’t see results right away or if you get frustrated at the number of thoughts that you’re having while you’re meditating. It takes practice to build a new habit, and meditation is no exception. But if you stick with it, you’ll end up with a much happier brain.
When you give your body the rest it needs, it knows how to heal itself. Your body functions start to work better, and you find more space in your head. I had a student who likened it to never realizing you need reading glasses. Once you put them on, life comes into sharp focus. So keep taking your brain to the gym, and know that you’re making a valuable investment in your mental health.