From an inevitable quarter-life crisis to pre-/post-election anxieties, it's no wonder 2016 is the year I finally gave into the idea of meditation. The inside of my brain was like the bottom of my carry-all—a crazy, scrambled mess. And instead of pausing and taking the all of five minutes it would take to cleanse it, I let it get more cluttered. I knew the weight of this could implode at any minute. So I dropped everything, packed a suitcase, and traveled to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year to find myself...
Just kidding. While I would love nothing more than to Elizabeth Gilbert my way to peace of mind, or even just to sign up for a bi-weekly meditation class, I knew that would be too ambitious and hippy-dippy for me. If I was going to meditate, I'd have to sneak it into my daily grind...
The "Breathe" App
Because my phone is half the problem when it comes to stress, I wanted to look to a different kind of tech to guide me through meditation–and that's where Apple Watch's recently launched app Breathe came into play. Designed to help users relax through a series of breaths, the interface strikes just the right balance between being streamlined, stylish (what can I say, beauty is important!), and easy to use.
Here's how it works: In the app's settings, you set a breath session for your choice amount of minutes. Then, it guides you through breathing using a mesmerizing flower-like animation. You inhale as the animation grows, then exhale as it shrinks. If you want to keep your eyes closed the entire time, there are also gentle taps or vibrations you can synchronize with. You can set Breath Reminders for as often as you'd like, as well as track your weekly summary of mindful minutes on your iPhone.
The Importance of Breath
"When you focus on breathing, it takes your mind off daily worries and alleviates stress," explains Dr. Herbert Benson, a world renowned pioneer of mind-body medicine. "It also affects a number of changes in your genes' activity–and these are the genes that effect energy, inflammation, and insulin production, among others."
Doing this daily is what helps set what Dr. Benson calls the "Relaxation Response," which is essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight feeling.
"It's essentially breaking the train of everyday thinking," he tells me. "This can be achieved by using scores of different techniques, such as meditation. The key is to choose a technique that feels most comfortable to you and to make it a daily practice."
The Meditation IRL Test Drive
Now, I'll admit, I was kind of a delinquent meditator my first week. I was basically doing the Breathe app equivalent of pressing the snooze button, unable to will myself away from what I was doing whether it was answering an email or, you know, autopilot scrolling through Instagram AKA the very things triggering my burn out. I needed some help in the focus department, so I looked to psychiatrist Dr. Judson Brewer, whose Ted Talk on "A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit" has garnered over 5 million views since last November. First off, I realized I still needed a fundamental question answered: Why breathing exercises? Can't I just skip to the thoughtfulness?
"Breath is generally a neutral object that we can bring our awareness to at any moment–something that isn't associated a lot with positively or negatively charged emotions," he explains. "The breath itself doesn't manage rumination, but bringing our awareness to it can help us step away from being caught up in them." Aha moment = achieved.
Dr. Brewer's other bit of advice for mindfulness on the go? "Put away your phone and simply let your senses take in whatever is happening in the moment–whatever you're seeing, hearing, or feeling in your body. Bring an attitude of curiosity–get curious about whatever comes up."
So with a new understanding and appreciation for breathing as an anchor, I spent the next few weeks meditating 1-2 times a day for few a minutes at a time. I found the subway (when I was underground and had no service) to be the easiest place to do. Additionally, at Zen Coffee author Gloria Chadwick's suggestion (via The New York Times), I made the most of my expensive coffee habit by taking a minute or two to engage in some aromatic breathing exercises while sipping my cold brew. Another easy way for me to personally incorporate meditating was while listening to relaxing music. Obviously what kind of genre relaxes a person is subjective, but for me it was mostly film scores I love.
In addition to injecting mindfulness into my daily habits, I also looked to it as a coping mechanism for a few stressful situations, from work to personal anxieties. Prior to trying to approaching things more mindfully, I'd oscillate between letting worse case scenarios replay over and over in my head, to Netflix-binge escapism. So whether I was in extreme stress response mode, or just blissfully ignoring my problems, nothing was ever really getting solved at an emotional level.
The Post/Present Zen Takeway
Now that I'm ripping off the emotional-trigger bandaids daily, I feel liberated. It's not that my problems are evaporating into thin air, it's that I'm dealing with them more directly, tracing their roots, and getting to a place where I feel like I move on (at least for a couple of minutes) and think about the bigger picture. Namely, my core values and goals. So while I'm definitely finding my personal zen, I'm also becoming more methodical than ever in how I think and make choices. It's empowering in an eye-on-the-prize kind of way and I'm hooked.