Around the globe, in every religion, spiritual tradition, and culture, we find some form of meditation. Breathing practices, purposeful reflection, chanting, mantras, singing, and prayer are some of the oldest forms of improving mindset, wellness, and performance through meditation.
Whether your goal is to achieve calm, a sense of gratitude, or feeling connected to people and nature, these disciplines can help us live a more centered life. In the world of human performance, when someone is really “in the zone,” we like to call it a “flow state.” When we are there, we perceive things differently actually process information in a different way.
In order to avail yourself of the many benefits of meditation, we believe it’s important not to remain intellectually and emotionally open to the wide variety of meditative practices found throughout our world’s cultures, religions, and philosophies. What is important is that the methods you choose work for you.
Whether or not you consider yourself spiritual or religious, improving your meditative skills teaches you how to control your brain and mindset to reach a state of higher performance.
How does one begin?
This is a beginner’s guide to practical steps for accessing a better state of mind and will highlight some of the benefits they offer..
Your analytical vs. intuitive mind
Once people become adults, they spend a lot of the time walking around with their brain in an analytical mode: making choices, solving problems, working, thinking about the future, and analyzing the past.
This is an incredible gift that has helped our species thrive and discover amazing things, but it is not the entire picture of ourselves. Our mind is also capable of incredible creativity, empathy, and connection to purpose and other people. This is also a skill we need to build and use daily.
Analytical thinking blocks emotion and empathy and vice versa, according to some recent studies [1,2]. You can think of your brain as having two modes: the rational, analytical mind, and the creative, intuitive one. When we function optimally, we are able to switch back and forth between them.
Rational thinking is necessary. We accomplish a lot of things in our lives through it. However, we can lose balance when it’s the only mode we are using.
In modern society, we subject ourselves to an increasing level of information input. News, social media, texts, streaming shows, and the web provide a constant stream of input for our analytical mind to process.
Because this endless stream of stimuli is always available for our mind to analyze, it’s essential to actively practice turning off our analytical processes. Quieting your analytical mind opens you up to a performance-enhancing mindset. Here are a few ways to do that.
Being able to alter your state of mind is an immensely powerful skill. As an athlete, performing artist, executive, or anyone who has to perform under pressure, you need to be able to reset occasionally. When the stress builds, when the conditions change, or when things go wrong, being able to step back and out of the chaos is critical for good decision making. Retaining a sense of calm allows you to tap into your strengths, instincts, and training.
It’s also a valuable switch when the game is over, when you’re done with work, or after practice. We all need to go into recovery mode. Just as you don’t want the engine on your high-performance sports car revving at 5,000 rpm when you put it in the garage at night, you don’t want your brain stuck in analytical mode or your emotions on high when it’s time to relax and rest.
Meditation may be the most well-known way to silence the mind. It doesn’t require a special place or any equipment other than your own time and mind. It doesn’t even have in any particular manner.
Meditation allows you to tap into a state of calm. Turning off (or just down) the thoughts running through your head increases creativity , reduces stress and anxiety, and increases one’s sense of happiness .
These effects are magnified with practice, and you can practice any time, anywhere, for free.
Here are two simple ways to meditate:
Sit, close your eyes, and inhale deeply into your belly for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, slowly exhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of four. Repeat. Focus on the sensation of your breath filling your body and then emptying out.
Observation. Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, take a step back from your mind, and watch your thoughts. Don’t judge them or pursue them; simply let them come and go as you watch. There are two distinct entities here: you, the calm watcher, and your mind, the source of your thoughts.
Try these, or do whatever gives you that inner sense of calm. When you notice your mind wandering, simply return to your mind to the meditation. You might do just 2-5 minutes to start. You might build to longer stretches. Most importantly, do it consistently and you’ll strengthen your meditation muscles.
You must resist the temptation to do it the “right way.” This idea deters many beginners because they aren’t sure of they a doing it “right.” Meditation is challenging in that sense because it’s not the type of activity that provides immediate, concrete feedback. Getting guidance from a coach or in performing a specific form of the practice can help. So can some modern technologies.
If you go a traditional route to master meditation, you might spend hour after hour, month after month, year after year, sitting at a monastery meditating. You can take a long, meandering path, meditating daily for 20 to 40 years, finally becoming a Zen master. It’s a long, slow process that demands extraordinary dedication.
Whether this would be beneficial is beyond the point; it is neither feasible or desirable for most of us. Still, many people are looking for a way to incorporate meditation into their lives and want to get feedback along the way.
This is where modern technology like Muse can come in. The system measures your brainwaves while you meditate and provides feedback in real time through the sounds you hear. This feedback teaches you to rewire your brain faster because you are learning when your brain is actually in the right state.
It also “gamifies” the process. At the end of each session, you get scores on how well you did and points for having a calm mind. You get credit for “recoveries” when your mind started to wander and think but you brought it back to calm.
It also can help you keep on track session to session. Goals, recommendations to increase time, rewards for consistency and daily streaks, and the tracking functions all can help you state motivated to practice.
Heart Rate Variability training
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a method of measuring and analyzing beat-to-beat changes in your heart rate that gives us insight into the state of your autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is important to understand because it is one of the bridges between body and mind. It has two parts: the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches, which are essentially opposites.
The sympathetic nervous system is often described as the “fight or flight” system. It activates our body, mind, and the resources to act quickly when needed. The parasympathetic nervous system handles the opposite functions of rest, digest, and recovery: the functions that help restore and sustain our bodies.
HRV feedback teaches you to consciously synchronize your brainwaves and heartbeat, which puts you into a parasympathetic (recovery) dominant state. This is a state of calm focus. It’s the same benefit you get from meditation, but HRV training gives you real-time feedback, so you know when you’re improving.
You can train your heart rate variability and track your results with an HRV sensor like the Inner Balance or Em Wave2 from HeartMath. This feedback helps you to recognize that feeling of inner calm and achieve that state of mind more quickly than you would with normal meditation.
Sensory deprivation tanks, also called float tanks, eliminate nearly all sensory input to your brain. Suspended in water with more than 1000 lbs. of dissolved magnesium salt, you float without any pressure on your body. You’re in a light- and sound-proof chamber. The water and air are both maintained at your body temperature.
When you lay still you don’t see, hear, or feel anything. You lose sense of time. Deprived of any sensory input, you are presented with an opportunity to be one with one’s mind that is difficult to find elsewhere.
A typical float session is 60 – 90 minutes long. For many people that sounds like an eternity to just lay there, floating in the dark. It typically takes three sessions to really get “good” at floating, but the results are usually enjoyed immediately the first time.
This doesn’t mean it is always easy. Often your mind wanders at first. You may have thoughts like: This is boring. This is stupid. Get out. You feel claustrophobic. But if you stick it out, eventually your mind lets go.
This lets us experience a state of calm, of relaxation. For some people, they experience a state of creativity or hover somewhere between wake and sleep. Not only will you reap the rewards after the float, most people find that they sleep better afterward and the state of calmness is easier to reach in the following days.
Next to time you want to accelerate your mindfulness practice, or need to reduce stress and anxiety, try a float. In most major cities you can find a float center near you.
Try something and practice it
Whether you’re meditating, praying, chanting, getting feedback or floating in salt water, it’s worth it to learn how to quiet your mind. It only takes a few minutes a day and the benefits to your health, wellness, and performance are huge.