meditationIn my previous blog about meditation, I shared how meditation helped me rise out of depression. While I’m no longer depressed, I still meditate daily. It helps me center, refocus on what’s truly important in life, relieve stress, stay healthy, explore deeper dimensions of myself and a myriad of other benefits.

Meditation isn’t something you do once and you’re forevermore enlightened. It’s a regular practice, like becoming a master composer. You have to do it regularly. Did Beethoven stop creating music once he mastered it? If he did, we may have never experienced the beauty of his Moonlight Sonata.

But what if you’re not trying to become a master meditator? What if you don’t care to discover hidden dimensions of yourself? What if you don’t even know what that means? Hidden dimensions? What the hell are you smoking, Tree? Let’s face it, the introspective life isn’t for everyone. I once had a voice coach who, in explaining why she divorced her husband, said, “he used to stay awake at night wondering what life was all about, who he really was and why he was here, and it would drive me crazy! Just go to sleep already, you have to work the next day!” And I remember thinking I really wanted to meet him, especially now that he’s single. I would’ve loved to stay awake with him pondering those questions because that’s what I did at night and it would’ve been nice to have someone to share that with, someone just as passionate as I am about the mysteries of life.

It was enough for her to simply exist without questioning. She neither needed nor cared to explore any further. He, on the other hand, like me, felt a compelling drive to discover more, to dig deeper. And that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong, just different. That’s the beauty of life.

So if you’re here in the hopes of simply relieving stress and forgoing all that spiritual soul-searching woo woo mumbo jumbo, these tips are for you.

First, it’s important to know what causes stress. Experts say the 5 leading causes of stress are:

  1. Death of a loved one
  2. Job (loss of job, new job, demanding job)
  3. Lack of finances
  4. Divorce
  5. Ill health

What do I say about that? NONE OF THOSE ARE CAUSES OF STRESS.

There is only one cause of stress. ONE. When you can handle that one thing, you can handle anything thrown at you, including those 5 listed above.

The only cause of stress is your mind.

Just think about it. That’s right, use your mind to think about why your mind is the cause of stress. When you lose a job, for example, your mind goes crazy. You start thinking about how you’re going to support your family, pay the bills, find another job. Your mind fills with thoughts upon thoughts upon thoughts, and you worry, you panic, you stress.

If you were to quiet your mind, you would stop stressing. It’s your mind that’s causing the stress, all those scary thoughts whirling around in there, building upon each other, gaining strength and momentum. Valid, perhaps. But stressful, nevertheless.

We’ve all been there before. We’ve stressed over something and then we take a nap, or watch a movie, or go for a swim. And suddenly we’re not stressing anymore. Maybe it was only for 2 minutes, 20 minutes, or 2 hours. It was for however long we allowed ourselves to be absorbed in the other activity which took our minds off the fact that we were jobless. For that time though, short as it was, the time when you weren’t thinking about it, weren’t stressing, when you might have even been happy and laughing, you were still jobless, or moneyless, or husbandless. Fill-in-the-blank less.  The problem of being jobless didn’t suddenly go away in that time, but somehow you weren’t so stressed. And if the problem (which is what they say caused the stress) didn’t go away, how did the stress go away?

Stress starts in the mind, builds in the mind and affects your entire being, including your body. The external circumstance of “jobless”, outside of the mind, means nothing. It’s how your mind perceives the ramifications of “jobless” that instigates the stress from within you. Some people would actually LOVE to be jobless. Jobless to one person may mean freedom, while jobless to another means restriction. Therefore, it’s not about being jobless, it’s about how your mind perceives “jobless”. Stress is an inside job, like a parasite eating you up from the inside out, not an outside job like a tiger attacking you, eating you from the outside in.

While the condition of “jobless” remained, the stress went away because you took your mind off it. You let your mind take a break from stressing, from worrying.

If you can do that more often – let your mind take a break from stressing – you wouldn’t experience so much stress. Seems obvious and simple enough, but not so easy. Turning off that mind when it has so much to think about, so many complex problems to solve, seems an impossible feat. The mind loves problem solving. It thinks that’s its job, to solve your problems for you. And often to solve other people’s problems too, whether they asked for your mind’s help or not.

Your mind is a wonderful thing, an extremely helpful tool. But when it starts causing you stress, you need to show it who’s boss. You need to remind it that it’s here to serve you, you’re not here to serve it. If it’s causing you stress, it’s not serving you. And more importantly, you’re not serving yourself. You’re forgetting who you are. You are not the slave to your mind. You are the master.

Here are 5 simple steps on how to use meditation to master your mind (and relieve stress):

1) Sit in a quiet space where you can’t be interrupted.  If you’re at home with others and don’t have a private room, lock yourself in the bathroom. Tell everyone to leave you alone for 10 minutes. Make up an excuse if you have to so that you’re not interrupted, or don’t say anything. When I’m visiting family for the holidays, a house teeming with nieces and nephews, I’ve found that the bathroom is my haven for a short breather with myself. Even kids understand that business needs to get done alone in there. People usually leave you alone in the bathroom, no matter how long you’re in there, but try to meditate in your bedroom for just 5 minutes and suddenly everyone’s knocking on the door, wanting to come in for one thing or another. When you’re in a quiet space, sit however you want to sit, in lotus position on the floor with your legs crossed, or on the toilet like you’re taking a dump. Doesn’t matter. Not important for this purpose, as long as you’re comfortable.

2) Close your eyes and breathe. Just breathe. Consciously. Seems silly, of course you’re going to breathe. You couldn’t stop breathing if you tried. Don’t believe me? Go ahead try it, try not breathing. Eventually, your body is going to force you to inhale. Then exhale. Then inhale again. Now as you breathe, pay attention to your breath. Hear it going in, feel it going in. Then listen and feel as it goes out. Notice the sensations in your nose, your stomach, your lungs. Feel as parts of your body expand and contract, in and out.

3) Every time your mind wanders, go back to your breath. When thoughts come up (and they will), simply and gently put your attention back on your breath. Back to the basics. In, out, in, out. Feel the stomach rise, feel it fall. In, out, in out. You may do this 100 times in 10 minutes, or you may do it once. Doesn’t matter. It’s not about how many times you get carried away in thought, it’s about bringing it back to your breath. Each time. That’s all you have to do, just bring it back to your breath, one carried away thought at a time. Repeat this over and over and over and eventually your thoughts lessen. And over time you find no thought, just breath.

4) Be easy about it. Nothing serious is happening here. Be gentle with yourself. Even when you’re not being gentle with yourself, be gentle with the fact that you’re not being gentle. For example, thoughts might come in such as, “this is useless, my thoughts won’t stop, they’re so active, why can’t I shut them up? I can’t even quiet my mind for 1 minute. It’s so frustrating. What’s wrong with me?” Even in that short tirade against yourself, be gentle with yourself for having the tirade. Don’t continue to build upon it and beat yourself up for beating yourself up. When you catch yourself doing it, gently return to the breath. Doesn’t matter if it took you 2 minutes or 8 minutes to catch yourself. Just let the thoughts go, return to the breath. Remind yourself that nothing serious is happening here. You’re just sitting, and breathing. That’s it. No one’s dying. It’s just sitting. And breathing. That’s all. Be easy about it.

You don’t have to fight your thoughts. You don’t have to agree or disagree with them. You don’t have to push them away, deny them or argue with them. All you have to do is bring yourself back to your breath. When you do this, the thought will go away on its own. As long as you breathe and put your attention on your breath, the thought takes care of itself. Don’t actively try to take care of it, just put your attention on your breath. When a thought comes, it comes. When it goes, it goes. Doesn’t matter, just put your attention back on your breath.

5) Repeat. Rinse. Recycle. Do steps 1-4 again. And again. And again. Once a day, twice a day, once a month. 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there. Whatever you can do. At least once a day is preferable as it’s a process that continues to build upon itself, like learning to play the guitar. The more you practice, the better you get. How badly do you want to play the guitar? How badly do you want a stress free life?

You’ll find that the more you do this, the quieter your mind becomes. But if it doesn’t, that’s OK. If you caught one full cycle of breath, just one in and one out that was quiet, peaceful and stress free, you win. In fact, you win simply by taking the time to sit down, even if your mind never shut up. You win. You sat. You breathed. You conquered.