Reboot Your Brain:
BS-Free Meditation Techniques, Tips, and Troubleshooting
If you’re like many people, meditation is one of those things that sounds vaguely like something you should be doing, like yoga or eating more kale.
You’ve probably heard that it can be an effective treatment for stress management, sleeping problems, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and other health issues.
You may have also heard that it enhances focus, emotional resiliency, and a general sense of well-being. You may have even come across the type of person who tells you they know the secret of meditating your way to millions.
I don’t know about the millions (I wish!). What I get out of it, personally, are the periods of sweet, sweet silence that come from a quieted brain and a greater acceptance of the static that remains. And the relief that brings is priceless.
As a career coach, most of my clients show up in some state of stress, from mild discomfort to full-on identity meltdown. I’ve been there myself and I know how vital it is to find some calm in the eye of the storm.
Staying sane during a big life transition can be a challenge. One of the most valuable skills you can learn is to return to a state of acceptance and equilibrium when you get knocked off-course.
When you start meditating regularly, you’ll find it easier to detach from whatever craziness might be going on around you. It creates some distance between you and your thoughts.
About this guide
The following is a collection of some very simple techniques and tools for focusing and quieting the mind, as well as a few principles to keep in mind when applying them.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- how to prepare your mind and body before a session
- a basic practice and some variations to try
- some “training wheels” if you have trouble staying focused
- solutions to common issues like feeling antsy or falling asleep.
Finally, I’ll address some common assumptions about meditation (like how long you have to do it before seeing a benefit), offer a few last techniques to try, and share some further reading for the curious.
I can’t say that I know everything about the vast variety of meditation practices out there. What I do know is that in our currently overloaded/over-stimulated/overwhelmed state of existence, consciously choosing stillness and voluntarily dropping out of the chaos is one of the most subversively vital things we can do for ourselves.
What follows are some things that have worked for me at different times in my life. I hope you will give a few of them a try and discover that still, small place inside you that’s been there all along.
Before You Begin
Cultivating Your Mindset
One of the most important aspects of meditation is the mindset you bring to it. This isn’t a formal practice as much as a shift in perception.
The best way I can describe it is detached curiosity, wondering what will happen next without being too attached to any particular outcome.
See if you can imagine any of the following experiences:
- Imagine that each second is a stepping stone that appears just as you need it. You are continually moving into the present moment, always arriving, never static.
- Imagine that you're being carried into the present moment, drifting forward without effort. This might feel like sitting on the crest of a wave, riding in a canoe, or standing on an escalator.
- Imagine that the moment you are occupying right now is a holy moment. Let whatever is happening be sanctified by your attention.
- Imagine you can feel yourself becoming more rooted, relaxed, and centered with each breath. Imagine sinking into the center of yourself and finding a tiny kernel of quiet.
- Imagine that you’re trying to spot a wild animal out in nature. You become extremely quiet. Every sound and flicker of movement becomes significant.
If you’re the type of person who tends to white-knuckle your way through everything, this state of mind may feel a little alien at first.
It’s a hard thing to describe because it uses a nonverbal part of your brain. You’ll know you’re there when you feel calm, attentive, and relaxed. Your focus softens and expands.
Practice shifting into this mindset throughout the day, both inside and outside the context of your formal stillness practice.
The practice I’ll be presenting here focuses on variations of basic sitting meditation. Sitting still drives some people crazy - check out the “Troubleshooting Your Practice” section for some suggestions if this turns out to be you. But do give these a try first.
First, Check In with Yourself
In preparation for your practice, check in with your body. Are you hungry or thirsty? Do you need to use the bathroom or put on lip balm?
Whatever bodily sensations you have will be magnified in the absence of other distractions, so take care of what you can in advance.
Make sure that any non-vital beeping/ringing/chiming alerts are silenced. You may want to set a timer so you aren’t tempted to watch the clock.
Then, Find Your Seat
Start with sitting or lying down somewhere comfortable. You don’t need any special equipment or cushions. You can do this in a chair, on a couch or the floor, even in your car or in the bath if that’s where it’s easiest. I like to sit cross-legged or lie on my back on the floor.
I don’t recommend doing this in bed because it’s easy to fall asleep (unless that's your goal!). If you’re sitting on the floor, you can put a cushion or folded blanket or towel under your hips so that they’re higher than your knees (I like this inflatable cushion). Have the things you need to be comfortable handy so that it’s easy to make it a habit.
The Practice: Focusing on the Breath
Your breath is a constant throughout your life and an accurate mirror of what’s going on for you at any given moment.
When you consciously affect your breath, your heartbeat and brainwaves sync up in a process called entrainment.We’ll be using the breath as an anchor or focusing point for all of the following exercises.
Close your eyes and start by just becoming aware of the sensation of inhaling and exhaling. Well, finish reading this section, and then close your eyes. But you can start becoming aware of your breath as you continue reading.
Now, start counting your breaths. When you inhale, count “One.” On the exhale, count “Two.” When you get to ten, start over. Start over at one when you lose track.
This is the basic practice. Begin with just five minutes at first. You can build up your time once you've made it a habit.
If your brain laughs at you when you try to focus on just one thing, try adding some additional or alternate focus points.
Experiment with the ones below - they may vary in effectiveness for you based on how you primarily take in information.
If you are a visual person...
- Look at the inside of your own eyelids, or imagine you can look past them to focus on something on the other side of the room.
- Visualize each number, either as an Arabic numeral (“1”) or written out (“one”). Or alternate!
- Play with colors or shapes (enclose the number in a triangle or circle, for example).
- Imagine a landscape that the number is sitting in.
- Have a hard time keeping your eyes closed? Pick an object or picture to focus on. It should be something simple, like a candle flame, leaf, flower, or stone.
If you are an auditory person...
- Hear the number in your head as you count.
- Count in a different language if you know one.
- Listen to the sound your breath makes on the inhale and exhale.
- Use music as a way to keep yourself grounded (try counting to four, eight, or twelve in time with the music instead of to ten).*
- Use a guided meditation.*
- Use a mantra instead of numbers.*
*More on these in following sections.
If you are sensitive to body sensations...
- Focus on the sensation of your breath: at your nostrils, in your chest or abdomen. See if you can follow the breath all the way through its cycle, from your nostrils to your lungs and back out, noticing the transition between the inhale and exhale.
- Imagine that you can breathe into each of your chakras, or energy centers, in turn. They are at the base of the spine, just below the belly button, the solar plexus, the center of the chest, the throat, the center of the forehead, and the crown of the head. (Count to seven instead of ten.) You can also imagine each area glowing with color (traditionally red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, white in order). You don’t have to believe in chakras or “energy” for this to be a calming, grounding exercise.
- See if you can sense your heartbeat. Try inhaling for four beats, then exhaling for four. Where in your body can you feel your pulse? Can you expand that awareness until you feel it throughout your entire body?
- See if you can imagine the space between your temples. This automatically brings your brain into an “open-focus” state.
- Imagine that you are drawing the breath up from the ground, through your spine, and exhale out the top of your head (or the other way ‘round).
- Start with your attention on your feet. When you breathe in, become aware of any tension there. As you exhale, imagine you can breathe out that tension and leave your feet loose and relaxed. Gradually move up your body, focusing and releasing the tension in each area. When your whole body feels relaxed, you can either end your session or move on to one of the other focus points.
If you are sensitive to scents and/or taste...
- Try using candles or incense to help you focus.
- Let yourself become aware of the subtle taste or smell of the ambient air around you. Imagine the empty space inside your nostrils or mouth and become aware of any sense impressions there.
- Put a tiny piece of food, like a raisin, on your tongue and let it rest there. Notice how the taste and texture changes with every second that it’s in your mouth. Notice how the saliva slowly breaks it down and releases new nuances of flavor.
Commit to one or two focus points per session. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the “What mantra should I use? No, wait, I’m counting my breaths...I’m not feeling any different, should I change the music? Or stop using music?” until all of a sudden the timer goes off and you’re still spinning.
Remember, this is not about optimizing your experience. It's about being present in the moment.
At the same time, it’s fine if you find your focus point organically drifting, or you’re constantly getting distracted and want try a different and/or additional focus point. It’s a balance and you’ll probably have to experiment for a while to get the hang of it.
Need a Little Help?
Using Guided Meditations, Music, and Other Mental Training Wheels
As I often say to my clients: this stuff is simple, but not easy. Being alone with your thoughts and body sensations, even just for five or ten minutes, can feel boring or overwhelming.
Now that you know how the concept works, I want to share some of my favorite resources for helping you get to that quiet place in your brain when it feels like too much work to get there on your own.
I call these “training wheels” but there isn’t any inherent virtue in not using them - any way that gets you there is a way that works.
Guided Meditations: Apps and Audio Recordings
When first beginning a stillness practice, many people find it easier to start with a recorded meditation to guide them through the process and keep them from getting distracted. Here are some to try.
Meditation Apps for iOS and Android
This is a paid app, but one of my favorites right now. You follow a dot on the screen with your finger in a slow and deliberate way that feels very relaxing (the technique is inspired by t'ai chi). Even a couple of minutes is a nice brain reset.
Stop, Think, Breathe
This free app has a list of targeted meditations you can pick from, or you can plug in your mood and body state and get a suggestion. I especially like the short “Relax, Ground, Clear” meditation.
Meditation Recordings (Find @ the library or online)
Les Fehmi - Open Focus Exercises
These exercises accompany Fehmi’s excellent book The Open Focus Brain and are designed to relax the habitually tight, narrow focus of our minds and allow for a more spacious, free-flowing state of awareness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn - Guided Mindfulness Meditations
These meditations progressively move through the body and focuses on sensations in each part. Many of us live “from the neck up” and this is a relaxing and grounding way to practice awareness and stay present.
Jack Kornfield - Meditation for Beginners
This is a series of friendly and accessible meditations from a Buddhist perspective. Whether you want to practice focusing on your breath, thoughts, emotions, or body sensations, there's a recording for you.
Diane Zimberoff - Personal Transformation Meditations
For those who want a more spiritual/non-traditional approach, these meditations focus on bringing focus and healing to each chakra. (See the Alternate Techniques section for more information). Available here: http://bit.ly/1Oj2eXu.
Music during meditation is useful for a few reasons:
- It gives you something to focus on.
- It lasts for a specific length of time.
- It helps block outside distractions.
- It can help entrain your brainwaves into a more relaxed state.
It can be helpful to pick the same piece of music every time you sit, because your brain will learn to associate the piece with the specific brain state of stillness and you will find it easier to return over time.
When you sit with music, you may want to breathe in time with the music instead of counting to 10. (If you're a musical person, inhale for a measure or two and then exhale for the same amount of time.)
Since you’re tapping into a nonverbal part of your brain, instrumental pieces work better than those with vocals.
Check out some of my favorite meditation music below.
Troubleshooting Your Practice
It happens to all of us. For some reason or another, you just can’t settle down and you’re getting ready to give up altogether. Read through these common issues and see if there’s something here for you.
Problem: You keep having urgent thoughts.
You know, the ones that require you to jump up and take action now. Or ones that keep repeating in your mind.
Solution: Keep a notebook nearby and deliberately make a note of whatever is bothering you. This will soothe your mind and reassure it that you won’t forget anything important that comes up.
Meditation susceptible to "contaminated time," which time researcher Brigid Sulte defines as time when you can't focus on what you’re actually doing because you’re thinking about all the other things you should be doing instead.
To keep your time uncontaminated, it’s important to remind yourself that this time is a priority. Everything else can wait 10 minutes. Make the conscious decision that this time is for you.
Problem: You feel restless, twitchy, or panicky.
If you’re not used to being still and quiet (or you have some built-up trauma), your body can go into fight-or-flight mode.
Solution: To start with, try sitting through it and noticing that no matter how uncomfortable it might feel, you’re still okay. Keep breathing slowly and evenly.
A warm or cold compress applied to the back of the neck, forehead, upper chest, or lower belly can also settle these feelings.
If the feelings increase, let your body move. It might want to shake (a natural discharge of the fight-or-flight response) or you could try going for a walk.
If you do decide to move, try a walking meditation. Stay aware of your breath, letting yourself notice every muscle that’s involved in your movement.
Broaden your focus to include all your senses: everything you can see, hear, smell, and feel. You could also try a physical activity like jogging, swimming, or cross-country skiing – anything soothing and repetitive.
Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) are another good option (see the further reading section for more information).
Another alternative is to find flow through creativity. One of my favorite techniques is the Zentangle method, which is a form of meditative doodling. Do an internet search to find out more about this fun practice and how to get started.
Problem: Your back or legs fall asleep or start hurting if you stay in one position too long.
Solution: Let yourself move! There’s no need to suffer through this. While staying with your breath, let yourself find a more comfortable position. Maybe you shift from sitting to lying down, or maybe you change your seated position.
Problem: You fall asleep.
Solution: Let yourself surrender to it, and make an effort to get more sleep in general for a while. If you are perpetually exhausted or at the end of your rope, a nap might be exactly what you need.
On the other hand, if you feel relatively well-rested but still find yourself dozing off, this can be a way of escaping (also known as the “freeze” response).
If you suspect that's the case, experiment with a more upright posture or a harder surface. Also try a warm or cold compress applied to the back of the neck, forehead, upper chest, or lower belly.
Problem: you just haven’t been able to get yourself to sit down and do it already.
Somehow, life always seems to get in the way.
Solution: Keep reading.
Overcoming Common Objections: “I’m Too Busy” and Other Fibs We Tell Ourselves
Assumption 1: You have to meditate for big chunks of time to see a benefit.
Much like exercise, many people view meditation as something that takes at least 30-60 minutes at a time. So, where does this extra time come from?
When you’re scrambling to get ready in the morning? After work, when you’re wiped out and would rather spend time with friends or family or at least a good book? In between errands or taking care of your kids? Yeah, right.
Dropping into stillness is really about being present, which takes almost no time at all. How many seconds does it take to breathe three fully conscious breaths? Five? Ten?
Do that a few times a day and congratulations, you’ve got a stillness practice.
Ten minutes of being completely present can affect your whole day. It’s like rebooting your computer to close down all the extraneous programs you forgot were running in the background. It’s not about how long the computer is off - it’s the process of rebooting that’s valuable.
When you first start out, it will probably take at least 10-20 minutes for your thoughts to start settling down when you first start practicing.
But even if you spend nine and a half minutes thinking about work and thirty seconds being quiet, you’re still getting value out of the practice.
Something that’s stuck with me over the years is that meditating is like weight-lifting - the point is not to see how long you can hold the weight up in the air, but to exercise the muscle by lifting the weight over and over.
Returning to stillness is just as beneficial as staying in stillness the whole time.
You will see benefits no matter how much or how little you do, but the more you commit to it, the faster your brain gets used to these new patterns.
That being said, doing ten minutes every day for a month is better than sitting for an hour five days in a row, burning out, and dropping it for the rest of the month. It’s the same amount of time, but a drastically different feeling.
Suggestion: Start looking for mini-pockets of time when you can drop into stillness. You could use a trigger, like a red light or waiting in line, or you could look for a 10-minute block hiding somewhere in your day.
Assumption 2: You’re just too busy.
Many people (myself included) put off meditating because they don’t think they have time. Is that really true?
If you’re a recovering perfectionist like me, you might feel better when you’re busy. There are a few reasons for this:
- It’s possible to get so used to the adrenaline that the body releases under stress (making us feel more focused and alert in the short term), that we feel gross, unfocused and sluggish without it.
- It’s easier to ignore uncomfortable emotions when we’re constantly distracted.
- When we have lots of demands on our time and energy, we feel valued and needed by our community.
- The cultural paradigm celebrates busyness and condemns laziness, making it hard to justify time spent “doing nothing.”
When we spend our lives trying to outrun the hounds of our own inadequacy, it feels crazy to stop running and let them gain on us.
But when we stop and let them catch up, they often look more like half-starved and desperate puppies than the infernal direwolves of our imagination. They might be feral and untrained, but they’re hardly going to rip our throats out.
Claiming time for yourself can feel vulnerable. Above all, it’s a statement on your own worthiness - I deserve this. But until you give it to yourself, it’s nearly impossible to accept from someone else. If other people deserve it, why not you?
This is a time to notice the world functioning perfectly well without you. It’s a humbling and freeing experience to step outside the life's flow for a few minutes - to take yourself out of the equation and effectively “play dead.”
Notice that neglected e-mails, tweets, calendar alerts, and texts don’t spontaneously result in disaster. Notice how the world is still there for you, waiting, when you get back.
The following are some additional breathing practices I use in addition to the basic “1-10” practice I introduced earlier. I include them here for extra inspiration and to emphasize that there are many different ways to practice stillness.
Change the way you count
Instead of counting from one to ten, try breathing in for four counts and then out for four. Or start with an in-two, out-two count and see if you can gradually increase it up to eight.
Experiment with different counts and notice how they make you feel.
Try breathing in for four, holding for six, and exhaling for eight. When your exhale is longer than your inhale, it activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” part, as opposed to “fight or flight.”)
Can you feel yourself relaxing a bit more with each breath?
Use a mantra
A mantra is a word or phrase that you say to yourself to keep you grounded and present. Some examples:
- “In” (inhale), “out” (exhale)
- “Receive” (inhale), “release” (exhale)
- A quality that you want present in your practice, like “peace,” or “calm”
- A short prayer or affirmation, like, “I am safe. I am whole. I am loved. I am enough,” or just “Safe. Whole. Loved. Enough.”
- Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh recommends the poem-mantra, "In, out. Deep, slow. Calm, Ease. Smile, release."
The practice of stillness is an ever-evolving one, and it needs to stay flexible and adaptable to weather the storms of everyday life.
It’s easy to get frustrated when your favorite technique doesn’t work the way it used to, or if your usual block of time suddenly gets co-opted. At times like these, the last thing you need is to use your practice as another stick to beat yourself with.
Hopefully, you’ve seen by now that there are many ways and kinds of finding stillness, no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Whether it’s three deep breaths at a traffic light or letting yourself slide into a deep awareness of the present moment at your child’s first piano recital, it’s always there waiting for you. And the more time you spend there, the more resilient and compassionate you’ll become as a result.
I hope you’ve found something useful here, whether you’re new to these concepts or not. If you find just one thing to try that lets your brain cycle down for a while and gives those internal voices a rest, my time writing this has been well-worth it.
Martha Beck - The Joy Diet and Finding Your Way in a Wild New World
Both of these books have lots of additional techniques to finding your way to what Martha calls “Wordlessness.”
David Berceli - The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process
Most animals - including humans - have an instinctive urge to shiver in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Humans, of course, are the only species dumb enough to suppress this instinct, which can lead to stored stress in the body.
I found this book and the included exercises a fascinating and well-researched look at how to reconnect with our bodies and release old trauma.
Tara Brach - Radical Acceptance
One of the hardest parts of meditation (and life) is just being okay with who you are and what’s going on in your life right now.
This book takes a beautifully gentle and wise approach to accepting the present without needing to change anything - a counterculture approach if I’ve ever heard one, and extremely refreshing.
Les Fehmi - The Open Focus Brain
Dr. Fehmi has spent decades researching how our quality of attention affects our quality of life, and the findings are nothing short of crazy (that’s the actual scientific term). A well-written and fascinating read. Includes exercises.
Thich Nhat Hanh - You Are Here
A more Buddhist-centered book about finding peace and happiness in the present moment.
Rick Hanson - Buddha’s Brain
Dr. Hanson explores the neurological side of how practicing stillness, compassion, and other traits associated with the Buddha actually changes the physical landscape of our brains. Amazing, enlightening, and thought-
Russ Harris - The Happiness Trap
When I’m all tangled up in my brain, this book is one of the few that can pull me up out of the mess.
Presented in a matter-of-fact yet compassionate way, Harris explains how our thoughts (and more importantly, our thoughts about our thoughts) affect our experience. Just reading it makes me feel more sane and grounded.
Jon Kabat-Zinn - Wherever You Go, There You Are
A beautifully simple introduction to mindfulness and meditation, presented in short, bite-size segments.
Jack Kornfield - Meditation for Beginners
Another simple and friendly book with lots of good insights for the newbie.
Eckhart Tolle - The Power of Now
This book falls more into New Age territory, but it really helped me change my perspective on the present moment. Reading it is truly an interesting experience.
Diane Zimberoff - Overcoming Shock
If you have a very hard time sitting still for long without spacing out or getting antsy, you may be in shock (it’s more common than you think).
Even though this book is primarily directed at therapists, there’s a lot here for the layperson as well in terms of understanding your own body’s physiological reactions.
Copyright Notice and Disclaimer
© Julia Bushue. The information contained in this material is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or treat any disease. If you suspect you may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other illness, please seek help from a trained mental health professional. If you are contemplating suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.