Here’s the thing they don’t tell you when you’re a kid: Adults never really have it all together. Remember the kid version of “being an adult”? You’ll have a totally cool job, make gobs of money and get to do fun things all the time. And, best of all, nobody tells you “no.” Ha! Now we all know the shocking reality: You were supposed to be in the car five minutes ago. Instead, you’ve just discovered a burst pipe is flooding the basement and where is the water shut off valve? If you’ve got children, one is whining and the other is in the backyard picking up dog poop with his bare hands. Your phone is incessantly binging, a constant low-level reminder that you’re missing emails and texts, and there’s a good chance you’ll never catch up and read them all. The voice of the little boy from that David after dentist video, repeatedly asking, “Is this real life?” Oh yeah, kid. It’s real life and current coping mechanisms include snapping at the people who love you most, second guessing yourself on a daily basis, minor-to-major meltdowns, and eating/drinking everything in sight.
While it might not be possible to float through life in a zen-like state, maybe — just maybe — there’s a way to bring everyday stress levels down to a tolerable level. One solution is quick, free, and doesn’t require a trip to the pharmacy: Meditation. Wait! Before you roll your eyes, think on it. Meditation is effective in reducing stress and negative emotions, plus some research now suggests it can help people with sleep problems, high blood pressure, anxiety, and even asthma. But why take all that scientific research at face value when we could test it ourselves? I enlisted a few willing folks for WellATL’s own (highly unscientific) meditation challenge. Volunteers committed to meditating for 10 minutes a day, 10 days in a row, using one of three common meditation techniques. Just so they wouldn’t feel left out, I joined in on the fun.
Guinea pigs Sarah and Patrick were assigned focused meditation, which utilizes an object, sound, or idea to free the mind of thoughts. By focusing one thing – your own breathing, a candle flame, or a mantra – the mind should be able to stay in the moment and turn off the constant rattle of thoughts. At least, that’s the goal. If the mind begins to wander, participants are supposed to use their chosen “thing” to refocus and get back into the meditation.
Before the challenge started, both focused meditation volunteers described themselves as highly stressed. Patrick, in the middle of a life/career transition, put his stress level at “Grande with an extra shot of espresso.” He’d tried meditation in the past enough to place himself “on the hippie continuum” and felt the challenge would be beneficial. Sarah was a meditation newbie, and put “work-related stress” at the top of her list followed by “never feeling like I have enough time for the important things. I worry about time passing by too quickly, which only seems to make it pass faster. Cue the vicious cycle.” Can you relate?
Another challenge participant, Jon, sure could. As a self-employed married father of one, his main tools for coping with stress were “beer, bourbon, and eating my feelings.” He approached meditation as an “optimistic skeptic,” but acknowledged his waistline was his “only resemblance to Buddha.”
He committed to trying mindfulness meditation, which focuses on being present in the moment without judgment of thoughts or actions. This form of meditation has gone mainstream in the past few years, resulting in a proliferation of apps and guided meditation videos on YouTube.
Super-stressed writer / editor / DJ / beekeeper / entrepreneur Kimberly also signed up to give mindfulness a try after her Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale numbers (the standardized scale of stressful life events) came in at a whopping 336, when anything over 300 is considered a health risk. She was once a regular meditation practitioner and even went on a weeklong retreat, but since that was over a decade ago, she no longer considered herself the “meditating type.”
In the stereotypical sense, I didn’t consider myself the “meditating type” either: I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t do yoga or wear patchouli. But, I’m prone to big, unpredictable waves of work-related stress. I’ve tried to adopt the mantra of “it’s not that serious,” but sometimes it is that serious! And that’s what French fries are for.
To find a better way to deal, I decided on activity-oriented meditation, which looks the least like traditional meditation. By engaging in a repetitive action, the mind is able drift away from everyday thoughts and just “be in the now.” This is often called “getting in the zone” or “experiencing flow.” Common activities include painting or making art, knitting, sewing, gardening, walking, and practicing yoga.
A sixth challenge participant, Andy, signed up for activity-oriented mediation. Unfortunately, a bunch of real life challenges (mostly caring for a weeks-old newborn son while juggling work commitments) kept delaying the start of his meditation until he scrapped participating altogether. Our unscientific data pool shrank further, but I’ve heard about those newborn things so who can really blame him?
During the Challenge
Halfway through our experiment, the realities of time management hit all of the challenge participants. Whether it was due to busy schedules or just plain forgetting, every single one of us skipped a day. As Sarah said, “finding the time to do it is 95 percent of the battle.” Jon was disappointed by not immediately falling into a groove or craving the dedicated meditation time. “I find myself having to consciously remember to do this and then convince myself it is worthwhile.” On the other hand, Kimberly ended up looking forward to the daily sessions, as it was an excuse to take a break during high-stress situations. She also made a few tweaks to her meditation set up, preferring to lay flat on the floor with knees bent instead of the recommended seated position. I also had to make some midway adjustments. Don’t laugh: I ended up petting my dog, Albert, as the “activity” in my activity-oriented meditation, but found it easier to focus on the repetitive motion if I was brushing his fur instead. Whenever my mind would get off track, I could re-center by thinking “you are brushing Albert” and could get back into the zone. Just five days into the challenge, Patrick was already noticing a difference, realizing he was “pausing throughout the day” when faced with annoyances or upsetting moments.
After the full 10 days of the challenge were complete, even our biggest meditation skeptic, Jon, found the practice beneficial, saying he was “surprised about how relaxed I felt immediately after the meditation was complete. The effect was not long lasting, but I did notice a difference.” I would have to agree. Thinking about nothing is truly a challenge, but I was personally shocked by how quickly the 10 minutes would go by. Kimberly found the short meditation sessions gave her “a great way to deal with stress by stepping away and settling my mind rather than my normal way, which is to just push through and work harder. It’s a healthier mindset.” Every one of the challenge participants indicated they would try to continue the practice, though Sarah was interested in switching from focused meditation to the activity-oriented approach of walking meditation.
No one reported that anyone else, like friends or partners, noticed our less-stressed selves. Yet, all five participants (including yours truly) would encourage others to try it. Patrick said it best: “I would completely recommend meditation to everyone. Does it have magical superpowers? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, taking the time out of your day to spend 10 minutes doing nothing and being quiet is a gift anyone and everyone could enjoy and benefit from.”
Try It Yourself!
So, what about you? Have you ever tried meditation before? Would you try the 10/10 challenge? Tell your fellow WellATLers about it in the comments section below. If you want to give meditating a shot, you’ll find a wealth of resources, both online and in real life. Popular apps include Simply Being and Headspace, both tested by a few of our challenge participants. YouTube also has a bunch of guided meditation videos. Don’t forget that there are lots meditating options in Atlanta. Check out this list of local places to find your zen. Did we leave some off? Tell us your favorite spot to get your ommmmm on.
- Atlanta Center for Mindfulness and Well-Being
- Atlanta Sahaja Yoga Meditation
- Atlanta Soto Zen Center
- Brookhaven Fitness Studio
- Georgia Meditation Circle
- Kashi Atlanta
- Muse for Life
- Sandy Springs Insight Meditation
- Shambhala Meditation Center
- Siddha Yoga Meditation Center
- Stillness Yoga and Meditation Center
- Zen Center of Georgia