Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Experience Starting Meditation

I have recommended that my patients give meditation a try for a while now and decided that I should take some of my own medicine.  There is a lot of good empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of meditation and mindfulness practices in the treatment of depression and anxiety, among many conditions.  In addition there are really no side effects to balance against the benefits of meditation as there are with medications.

So with that in mind I decided to embark on my meditation journey.  First I did some reading.  I strongly recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn's work (especially Full Catastrophe Living), Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker, and Rick Hanson's Buddha's Brain.  Each of these authors make a strong case for meditation and for accepting suffering as a given rather than something to waste effort avoiding.  Epstein and Hanson also make connections between meditation and neuroscience highlighting the scientific evidence for meditation's efficacy.

Once I had convinced myself that meditation had empirical support and was not just a new-age trend, I needed some help getting started.  Because I like technology I turned to smartphone apps that could guide me through some basic exercises.  I ended up using the headspace app and have been using it now for several months.  I really like the integrated approach used in this app. Each meditation builds on the last.  The first two series are shorter, ten and fifteen minutes respectively, and lead you to twenty minute meditations which is where the benefits really start to accrue. There is a subscription fee for the app after the first ten meditations but I have found it worthwhile.  Note, I have no connection or business arrangement with Headspace folks.

So what was it like to get started?  I found it difficult at first to make myself sit quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes (ten minutes was quite easy though).  There always seemed to be something else I thought I needed to do.  Weekends were especially difficult because my schedule was less predictable and I had trouble isolating myself from my family to meditate.  I suppose I felt a little self conscious, what I later discovered was ego imposing itself.  The key, I found, was not to let a few missed meditations scuttle the whole enterprise.  I got back to it when I could and gradually came to value the experience enough to prioritize it in my day.

Somewhere in the Take-20 series I had a powerful experience of relishing the time I was taking for myself.  I felt relaxed and joyful just to sit back and focus on my breath, doing nothing but settling the mind and being present in the moment; what a wonderful feeling!

At this point I miss a day here and there but for the most part I have established a pattern.  I highly recommend the practice, especially if you suffer from depression, anxiety or a sense that you cannot tolerate a feeling you have.

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