Exercise for your mind

We are what we think. All that we are arises from our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world. Buddha

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We all know that regular exercise is good for us. It’s good for our hearts, reduces the risk of cancer and diabetes, improves our daily moods and might even turn us into swimsuit models. Well, probably not in my case. It’s obviously really good for us and many of us already do it regularly. But what about exercise for our minds? As the source of all of our thoughts and feelings our minds are possibly the most important part of who we are. But how many of us exercise our minds? Or even think about the value of doing so? Actually though exercise for the mind is at least as important as physical exercise and is perhaps even easier to do! But what exactly is it?

If running, walking, cycling and so on are exercise for the body, meditation is exercise for the mind. Why do we need it and what can it offer us?

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We all know the signs of an out-of-shape body – excess weight, less than ideal body shape, low energy level etc. But what does a poorly trained mind look like? For many of us, I think it’s so familiar we don’t recognize it. It’s what most of our minds look like much of the time. More often than we recognize, our minds are like a hyperactive child running around the house, making lots of noise and breaking things. In the Buddhist tradition, the untrained mind is compared to a monkey swinging wildly from tree to tree without clear intent or focus.

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Like the out-of-control child or monkey, much of the time our minds leap from thought to thought without discipline or focus. Most of us spend way too much time thinking and worrying about things that probably won’t happen and in any event are out of our control. We dwell excessively on past slights and small problems. We have persistent fears with little basis in reality. All of this causes stress and probably affects our physical health as well. And, of course, it’s highly unproductive.

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Imagine how much more happy and effective it would be if that hyperactive, out-of-control child would just sit down and do her homework or play with a friend. Now imagine if your mind was more calm, serene and focused more of the time. Another way to think about this is to think of your mind at its absolute best – calm, clear and happy. Now imagine how wonderful it would be if you were in that state more of the time. Through regular meditation this is absolutely possible.

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On a personal level, having practiced meditation regularly for about three years now I can say it’s one of the most powerful and effective things we can do for our mental and physical health. I’ve been physically active for most of my life but began meditation much more recently, partly because of the huge misconception that it’s mainly for new-age navel-gazers. (It’s not!) And, while I’ve just scratched the surface with my own practice, it’s already provided huge benefits – lower stress and anxiety, much better sleep, a lot less obsessive overthinking, more patience, less irritation at everyday annoyances etc.

Beyond these concrete benefits, I think there is tremendous value in just taking a deep breath or two before reacting to the world around us in an unproductive way. Is it possible to imagine how it would change our lives if, when faced with a challenging situation (a long line or a difficult person, say), we took a deep breath before becoming irritated or saying something unkind? Meditation teaches us how to do this, among its many other benefits. A single one of these dividends would be more than enough to justify the 15 minutes a day I now spend!

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Countless scientific studies have documented the benefits of meditation. Beyond the obvious benefits of a more calm and focused mind, regular meditation is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, improve long term cardiovascular health and longevity, improve relationships, increase creativity, enhance professional performance, just to name a few. In fact, the scientifically proven benefits of meditation may be even more numerous than those for physical exercise, which is itself of course really, really good for us. There is a good summary of these benefits here.

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Meditation is even easier to start than physical exercise (which itself can be as easy as taking a daily ten minute walk around the neighborhood). It can be done almost anywhere with no equipment whatsoever. To start meditating all you need to do is spend 5-10 minutes a day focused on your breathing. If done regularly, this beginning meditation alone provides big benefits because it shows us how to calm our minds and focus. Beyond this simple but valuable exercise, there are meditations for almost any goal we want to achieve or problem we want to solve. There are meditations to sleep better, to be more kind, to control anger, to reign in poor eating behaviors, to overcome fears and on and on and on. In fact, because every behavior is a series of actions and every action is preceded by thought, there is probably no behavior that can’t be improved by a more calm, disciplined and focused mind. Meditation is a proven way to achieve that.

Even if you restrict the choices to those that are really easy, fun and free, there are a lot of good options to get started. You don’t need a class or a teacher. The best of the smartphone apps and web sites are really terrific. I’m going to recommend just one because the point is less distraction and more focus in our lives. My personal favorite and the one you should try first is Headspace. The English founder Andy Puddicombe trained as a Buddhist monk and started the platform in order to bring the massive benefits of meditation to a wider audience in a completely secular way. The web site and app are extremely clear, informative and free for the introductory level. In the first video below you can see a short, highly-amusing video that explains the value of meditation. The second video is one of the introductory guided meditations.

You can meditate anywhere with your phone and it takes only 5-10 minutes a day to get started. So how about starting today? If you make it a habit it will change your life.

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