As a homework assignment for my masters degree in Health and Nutrition Education, I was instructed to follow through with a SMART holistic health goal for a 2 week period and report on it.
A goal is SMART when it is
My SMART goal was to begin a regular practice of meditation.
So, my husband and I took a free meditation class at the Dharma Center in Nashville, which we discovered through a Meetup group. I enjoyed learning about the benefits others have experienced after practicing daily meditation. The basic instructions to meditate were very simple, yet I found it challenging to clear my mind and enjoy “the gap between the thoughts”. I have been trying to practice meditation on-and-off, learning about many varieties of meditation, and listening to books and interviews by experts like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. With much trial and experimentation, this two week goal of dedicated daily meditation was very beneficial in understanding how meditation can be helpful for my mental health and holistic well-being.
I'm Catholic, and the new priest at our parish is from India and often speaks about the benefits of mediation. It certainly can be a religious experience and a form of prayer if you want it to be. I was very open to that. Catholics often pray/meditate on scripture passages and try quiet our thoughts. We want to be receptive to hearing God, not just talk to him or the saints. It's very peaceful and humbling.
My goal was to practice meditation at least 15 minutes per day. I meditated every morning and also tried some evenings. Ultimately, I hoped this practice will help my mental focus, as I tend to multi-task more than I should. Accordingly, I also want to bring more mindfulness into my daily activities and pay closer attention to the people in my life and enhance my personal connections. I wish to be fully present in life and not have my mind only partially engaged. The mental focus I strive for will help slow my rapid-fire thoughts to a good pace and keep my stress low and perhaps bring to surface more meaningful insights and wisdom. I intend to have this become a lifetime habit.
Making the time to meditate daily was easy, although I did not remember immediately every morning. What was important to measure, were the times I realized that the mediation practice was paying-off. Those were times that I was suddenly aware that I was living fully in the present, fully engaged in the activity I was doing, and focused. Although I still am a novice, I can say my goal was definitely successful. Some examples of when I felt spontaneously mindful:
• While playing tennis I have had frequent episodes where I realize I am totally engrossed in playing a point, not worrying about the score, and enjoying the act of the sport. I realize as the point ends how wonderful it felt to be “in the zone”. My coach recommended I read a book called The Inner Game of Tennis, which describes the part of the mind a player uses during a point and the part used between points to analyze the strategy.
• While meditating during my hour of Eucharistic Adoration at church, I came to feel a full sense of forgiveness for someone. I had said verbally that I had forgiven this person, but for the first time I actually felt it in my heart.
• I am able to concentrate better when listening to others speak. I am engaged in the conversation, not just thinking about what I will say next. I am slowing down my thoughts and able to listen for understanding and making better human connections. My heart feels softer and more filled with empathy and compassion for those struggling with illness.
• I am less distracted by the sounds of my iphone, ipad, or computer. I feel less hurried to see what each little sound means. I do not feel the need to check my e-mail as many times per day. I care less about missing something on facebook.
• My multitasking is lessening. It was common for me to have 5+ things going on in the kitchen at once, plus laundry, computer work partially tackled, etc. I am now better at finishing the tasks I start, like something as simple as emptying the dishwasher, before going on to my next chore.
• I seem to want to spend much more time outside in nature and observing things I had previously ignored, such as the height of trees, the shape of clouds, and sound of birds.
I tried various techniques of mediation in the course of the two weeks. I chose a comfortable spot where I could sit up straight, cross my legs, and rest my hands on my lap.
Inclusive meditation: I tried this first by trying to be the quiet “observer” of my thoughts. I attempted clear my mind of thoughts, but I felt like getting up, running around the room to calm down, and trying again. I realized I was fighting the thoughts. Instead, I decided to label them, such as “memory” or “planning ahead”. I would put the thought up on an imaginary shelf up to the side. I figured if the item was important, I would remember it later. Sometimes I would try imagining going down a never-ending escalator or counting down from ten to one over and over. Although seemingly simple, I found this very challenging and did not feel successful clearing my mind with these methods. I came to the conclusion that I was judging myself, and once I stopped grading my performance, meditation became much more natural. (I credit the meditation to helping me come to this realization.) Inclusive meditation while listening to nature sounds or soft music is easier for me than sitting in silence. YouTube has thousands of soundtracks. I also found a free app called Simply Being, which is fantastic.
Exclusive meditation: focusing on one thought while excluding all others, comes most easily to me. One of the reasons I chose this goal was that my priest at church gave a homily at Sunday mass about the benefits of meditation as it pertains to questions of faith and daily life. He described the act of quieting the mind, focusing on a specific intention, and spending time with God, letting Him help you through a rough time, guide you to answers, and grant you wisdom. I discovered that it opens my spirit and I have been more receptive to the lessons God is teaching me every day. Sometimes I tried reciting a mantra, such as “amen”. Quite often, I just paid attention to my breathing, although it was hard not to manipulate my breath while focusing on it. Meditation can also be used as a prayer of thanksgiving to God. On Mother’s Day, I concentrated on the joy I often feel as a mother while I meditated.
Professional athletes use meditation and visualization for peak performance. To prepare before tennis matches, I used the free guided In-Sync Tennis meditations on www.monroeinstitute.org. They involve both muscle relaxation and visualization of the sport. Using the word “flow” was helpful while visualizing playing in a relaxed mental state and hitting the perfect shot repeatedly.
Mindful meditation: being full and present while doing activities (versus multitasking), is something I am still trying to do better at remembering. A few years ago, I read the book Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, which taught me to eat my meals mindfully. I aim to apply similar principles to other parts of my life. I take a yoga class twice per week, and I used the class on those days as my meditation time. I attempted to focus on how strong my muscles feel, my breathing and balance, and solely on the poses, not anything I need to do outside of the yoga studio. Being outside in nature is also a great reminder to be mindful, especially when I feel the sun on my skin or the wind in my hair. Nowadays, adult coloring books are quite popular. Why? It's a form of meditation!
I did not expect huge changes in my mental attitude, nor did I need them. However, I believed that if just 5 minutes of meditation had benefit, then 15 minutes per day would certainly help me to achieve my goal of being more mindful in daily life. I did not set a timer because I did not want that constraint. Some days I did more than 15 minutes and just opened my eyes when I felt done. There were times when I was made to wait on appointments, and in order to use the time wisely, I used those times to fit in a few minutes of quiet meditation. I definitely found that getting better at meditation is like working to strengthen a muscle. Focusing my eyes inward (while closed) seemed to help me focus and prevent as many random thoughts from entering my mind. I did not expect a deep religious experience, levitation, or anything magical to happen. I did expect to feel a little less hurried and more centered, which did happen. While many experts, like Deepak Chopra, suggest an evening meditation around 5pm, I found it difficult to meditate later in the day. I found it easy in the morning before my mind felt too jumbled with the day’s activities. If I did meditate later in the day, it was during a transition period. For example, after I finished my schoolwork and before I started making dinner. I learned it was never good to stop and meditate when I was in the middle of something exciting where my brain was “on a roll”. Meditation was helpful to alleviate stress when I was feeling intense negative emotion, but also very difficult to calm down my mind quickly.
I have heard that doing anything for three weeks straight makes a practice become a habit, so I will continue on with my daily meditations in its many forms, including being more mindful in everyday activities. My husband was “a natural” when it came to initially learning meditation, so he is a great physical reminder and supportive friend to help me. I do have the luxury of time to meditate, while he wakes up one half hour early before work to fit it in. Going on vacations or other changes in my routine will be a challenge. I believe a lifetime practice of meditation will make me a little wiser, calmer, healthier, and closer to God than I may have been otherwise.
Jenny Yelle, MHNE Holistic Wellness Educator
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