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How to build a beautiful (less stressed) brain: Everything a beginner meditator needs to know

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beautiful calm brain

We live in a world where we are bombarded with perfect photoshopped images via social media and advertising.

These images can mess with our minds, resulting in stress, unrealistic expectations and a fear of trying new things (“What if I stuff up?”).

But there’s a simple technique you can practise to help you rise above all the stress and chaos of life. It’s called …

Mindfulness meditation

Dan Harris in his book 10% Happier describes meditation as being “rigorous exercise for the brain”. He says:

“You can sculpt your brain through meditation just as you can build and tone your body through exercise – to grow grey matter the way doing curls grows your biceps.”

Consistency is key

I meditate every morning. And you should know this …

I’m not a natural meditator.

Like many people in this fast paced world, I have struggled to sit and focus on my breath going in and out… in and out …

When I first started meditating, here’s what would race through my mind:

“How am I going to do this until the timer goes off?”
“I’m not in the mood for this …”
“I’m terrible at this.”

But I forced myself to keep at it. And now it’s an essential part of my daily routine.

Why bother to practise mindfulness meditation?

Because it’s one of the best ways to give your brain a rest from technology and information overload. It’s also a fantastic way to improve your ability to focus and lower your stress levels.

When you practise meditation on a regular basis, you’re less likely to freak out when life throws challenges your way. You start to notice that things don’t bother you as much as they usually do.

Instead of automatically freaking out about something, you pause and think:

“How do I best handle this situation?”

You also become more aware of patterns of thinking and behaviour (i.e. worries, memories, and strong urges that your mind keeps returning to). You can notice where your mind is going and decide that you’re not going to go there (e.g. “I feel the urge to check social media but I don’t need to do that right now.”).

In short, meditation helps you to strengthen and take control of your brain.

But not only that, research has found meditation can extend your lifespan.

telomerase study

A study by Jacobs et al (2011) looked at the connection between practising meditation, psychological factors and telomerase activity. This study involved a group of 30 participants going on a meditation retreat. They had to meditate for 6-hours a day for 3-months.

What did they find?

By the end of the 3-months, the meditators had significantly greater telomerase activity than the control group (the non meditators). The researchers concluded that this had implications for telomere length.

So you may be thinking …

“What’s a telomere? And why should I care about its length?”

Telomeres are protective DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes. They ensure genomic stability during cellular replication. But the thing about your telomeres is they shorten under conditions of psychological stress. And as your telomeres start to get shorter, your cells start to age and you get sicker.

But the study by Jacobs et al (2011) found practising meditation could help restore DNA and build longer telomeres as a result of increased telomerase activity (i.e. an enzyme which creates new telomeres).

As Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel state in their book The Telomere Effect:

“You have the power to influence whether your telomeres are going to shorten early, or whether they are going to stay supported and healthy.”

Meditation seems to be one promising pathway to healthier and longer telomeres!

So forget purchasing expensive anti-ageing skin creams and supplements. It’s time to start meditating!

How to meditate in 3 simple steps

Step 1. Sit comfortably. You can sit in a chair or you can sit cross-legged on the floor – take your pick. Wriggle around before you get started to find a position that feels good for you.

Step 2. Focus on your breath. Feel your breath going in and out…in and out…

Step 3. When a random thought enters your mind, just notice it, let it go and return your attention to your breath.

Expect that all kinds of random thoughts will enter your mind while you meditate (e.g. “What’s for dinner?” or “I need a haircut.”). Don’t panic. This is normal.

The key thing is to keep at it. You’ve got to meditate daily to experience the benefits. The hardest part about the whole process is remembering to sit down and do it. This is where habits can help.

How to create a solid meditation habit

There are a few strategies that have helped me to establish a regular meditation habit. Here’s what has worked for me:

1. Establish a meditation cue

You need to see or hear something that will remind you to stop whatever you’re doing and meditate. It could be an alarm going off, a screensaver message or a note on your fridge door.

2. Habit stack

What do you do everyday without fail? What habits have you already established? Pick a habit and attach your meditation practice to the end of it. For example, “When I finish brushing my teeth, I will meditate for 5 minutes”.

3. Temptation bundling

Before most meditation sessions, I make my favourite chocolate blueberry smoothie. I sit down on my couch and place the smoothie next to my feet. I set my meditation timer for 10 minutes, scheduling gongs to go off every 3 minutes.

Every time a gong goes off, I treat myself to a couple of sips of smoothie. This is my reward (“I just meditated for 3 minutes. Woohoo!”).

4. Hand holding

When you first start meditating it helps to have someone guide you through the process. This is where meditation apps, CDs and online courses can be really handy. Check out the following:

Meditation app: 10% happier
Meditation app: Smiling mind
Free online course: Mindfulness for wellbeing and peak performance (Monash University)

5. Be kind to yourself

If you find yourself thinking random thoughts instead of focusing on your breath, relax! The key is to not get bogged down when you get distracted.

Just notice the thought, let it go and return your focus back to your breath.

6. Start small

Don’t even attempt to do a 30-minute meditation on day 1 of your meditation journey. Keep your meditations short. Here’s what your meditation schedule might look like:

Day 1: 20 second meditation
Day 2: 2 minute meditation
Day 3: 3 minute meditation
Day 4: 3 minute meditation
Day 5: 3 minute meditation

When you feel ready, push yourself to do 5 minutes.

7. Use a timer

This means you don’t need to keep looking at your watch and you won’t be constantly thinking, “Is the meditation over?”. Outsource these thoughts to your timer.

8. Use a weighted blanket (optional)

Weighted blankets are extra heavy blankets made from micro glass bead fill. When I place the weighted blanket on my lap, it grounds me (I’m less likely to get up and stop the meditation). The blanket also helps me to relax, so I find I can go deeper into my meditation practice. I highly recommend the Australian made weighted blankets produced by Calming Moments.

To sum up

If you’ve never meditated before, start small and do a little practice everyday. You may not feel the benefits immediately, but persevere. As Dr Dzung says in his book The Mindful Teen, “Keep at it … you may think it’s not working but your brain is growing and developing in ways that you can’t recognise right away”.

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