Tips from CAPS: Try concentration meditation
by Drew Stapleton, MSW Intern from WSU School of Social Work
This week’s mental health tip focuses on a practice that many have likely heard of: meditation. Meditation has been shown to have numerous health benefits, including regulating mood, boosting cognitive skills, improving sleep patterns and reducing anxiety (which has been our focus over the past several weeks).
There are many different types of meditation. Last week we looked at a practice called self-compassion, which originates from a meditation practice called loving-kindness or Metta, that is designed to cultivate more compassion for yourself and for others.
Mindfulness meditation involves observing our thoughts and emotions without judging or dwelling on them (an abbreviated version of this practice is discussed in Tips from CAPS: Easing the impact of negative thoughts). Concentration meditation involves placing our attention on a single object of focus and holding it without interruption.
There are different schools of thought on the best way to approach meditation for beginners. I tend to agree with the notion that practicing concentration meditation is a good place to start, partially because developing the skill of concentration makes other types of meditation easier and more effective.
Try this: Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position. The classic position is to sit cross-legged or on your knees on the ground or on a cushion. However, many of us are used to sitting in chairs for most of the day, and sitting cross-legged or on your knees can place a lot of strain on your lower back, knees or ankles. If this is the case for you, sit in a chair on the edge of the seat with your back straight and tall and feet flat on the ground.
Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes or so. Next, gently close your eyes and relax. Place your attention on the breath and follow it as you inhale and exhale. Breathe naturally. If your mind wanders, don’t judge yourself — just gently bring your attention back to the breath, and continue this practice until your timer goes off.
Although this practice seems simple, it can be quite difficult and even frustrating at first. Many of us have a hard time sitting quietly for more than a few minutes without craving distraction and stimulation (this idea is discussed in more detail in Tips from CAPS: Coping with overstimulation in a chaotic world). It is very important to be patient and not be too hard on yourself.
Strategies to use in order to maintain your focus
- Approach the breath with curiosity. Are you breathing slowly and deeply, or are your breaths short and shallow? Are your inhales longer than your exhales, exhales longer than your inhales, or are they about the same length? Does the nature of your breathing change the longer you sit, or does it stay the same?
- Try to catch the exact moment the breath changes from inhale to exhale and vice versa.
- If/when your mind wanders, simply label it in your head as “thinking,” then gently redirect your attention to the breath.
Sometimes you’ll need to apply more focus (think of it like a dog chasing a bone) and sometimes you will need to ease up and relax to improve your concentration. It will change depending on the person and depending on the day.
Try your best not to approach this practice with a mindset of achievement, success or competitiveness. The goal is not to obtain a specific result. The benefits of concentration meditation come from simply practicing and observing.
For beginners, it is really helpful to start with guided meditations. There are tons of free meditation videos on YouTube, as well as hundreds of meditation apps out there. Here are three popular ones that have trial periods or free versions available:
CAPS is here for you
WSU Applebaum offers dedicated Counseling and Psychological Services support to students on a group or individual basis. If you are interested in participating in CAPS services that can help, call 313-577-3243 or send an email. If you are struggling after 5 p.m. or during a weekend, holiday or university closure, call the CAPS Afterhours Program at 313-577-CAPS.
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