There is something about meditating that can feel oddly intimidating if you are trying it out for the first time. Sure, you've heard all about the many health benefits that come from practicing mindful meditation — it can reduce stress and anxiety, help you sleep better, improve your focus, and even boost your immune system. And that all sounds great... if you could just find some time to sit down and chill TF out for a few minutes. And let's say you do find the time to sit down and chill — how do you actually get your brain to turn off so you can clear your mind?
The short answer is that you don't. In fact, the most important thing to know about meditation if you've never tried it before is that distraction is inevitable — but there are ways to use it to your advantage. "The move isn’t to clear your mind, it’s to focus your mind for just a few nanoseconds at a time on the feeling of your breath coming in and coming out," says ABC News' Dan Harris. "And then you get lost a million times, and the whole game is to just know when you’ve gotten lost and to start again."
Harris would know. The ABC News correspondent has been practicing meditation for eight years, and has literally written the book on the topic, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story. And, on an early morning in June, he shared his knowledge with a packed gallery at the Museum of Modern Art as more than a hundred meditation newbies and enthusiasts alike showed up to MoMA's Quiet Mornings series. The event, hosted in collaboration with Flavorpill on the first Wednesday of every month, is an opportunity for people to experience the MoMA early in the morning and browse select exhibits at their leisure sans the usual crowds before participating in a 30-minute guided meditation session. The effect is at once vibrant and serene — and if you're completely new to the meditation experience, it's a great way to get your feet wet.
After spending an hour perusing some of the MoMA's most famous pieces (if you've ever wanted to see The Starry Night up close without having to elbow anyone out of your way first, this is the time to do it), participants were invited to take a seat on the floor and join a 30-minute meditation session guided by Harris. As someone who has often shied away from meditation simply because I thought I couldn't do it — clearing my mind has never seemed like a possibility — I was interested to see if sitting in a room full of people all focused on the same activity would help me finally concentrate. Full disclosure: I never was able to completely tune out the voice inside my head — my mental to-do list is long and aggressive — but as Harris would point out during the session, that's kind of the whole point. You will never not be distracted, and that's totally OK.
If you're curious about meditating but also a little skeptical that it will work for you, here are Harris' tips to get started.
Sit down, and get comfortable.
Before you even start meditating, it's important to get yourself in the right position. "The first step is to sit comfortably, with your spine reasonably straight," Harris says. "You can close your eyes if you want; some people don’t like closing their eyes, so you could just soften your gaze and look down at the floor." Easy so far, right?
Feel yourself breathing.
Focusing on your breath isn't something you need to think about — it's just something you need to feel. "[You're] just feeling the raw data of the physical sensations," Harris says. "What does it feel like when you breath in and out? Pick one spot, usually wherever it’s most prominent in your nose or your chest or your belly." Then, focus on the actual sensation of your breath coming in and out. So far, so good.
Don't freak out when you get distracted.
OK, so you're sitting and you're breathing — you can do both of those things no problem. But uh, what happens when your mind starts to wander? Embrace it, Harris says. Clearing your brain of all thoughts is actually impossible. Rather, the idea is to recognize when you're being distracted, and refocus your attention for as long as you can... even if that's only for a few seconds. "You’re going to get distracted, and the whole move is that when you get distracted see it, congratulate yourself for noticing it, and escort your attention gently back to your breath," Harris says.
In fact, Harris tells me realizing you're distracted is kind of the whole point of this exercise. "People think they’re failing when they get distracted, but actually that is succeeding," he says. "It is what I call a bicep curl for your brain, and every time you see that you’ve gotten distracted and start again, you are changing your brain."
This part is important. Like most things, meditation requires a little bit of practice. But, Harris says, the pay-off is worth it — and you don't have to dedicate a ton of time to doing it, either. "People are so busy and stressed, and this feels like another thing added to their to-do list, which is really only further stressing them out," Harris says. "So I have good news and better news. The good news is I think five to 10 minutes a day is an amazing goal to shoot for. The better news is that if you don’t have five to 10 minutes a day, one minute counts."
One minute a day? I'm here for it. And, while I definitely found it relaxing to be surrounded by famous works of art while I gave meditation a shot for half an hour at MoMA's Quiet Mornings, spending a few minutes meditating on my couch, or at my desk, or at the park, just feels, well, possible — even with distractions.