Meditation for Meatheads
If you and I are anything alike, then the second you hear words like ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’, your BS alarms go off. I used to be the same way. Until recently, the subjects of meditation and mindfulness have been dominated by a lot of meaningless ‘self-help’ methodologies that do very little good for anyone. They have been presented as a magic fix for whatever internal struggles you might be facing. Proponents have often promised far more than they can give without backing it up with any amount of evidence, while also amassing fanatical, cult-like followings, which instantly make me wary.
Thankfully, in the past few years, a great deal of research on the subject has accumulated. Today, many pragmatic and practical minds both inside and outside the strength community endorse the benefits of a regular mental practice. For those of us that spend so much time and effort to optimize our physical function (be it for strength, endurance, general fitness, etc.), doesn’t it make sense that our mind would deserve equal attention?
Before I get any deeper into this subject, there are a few things I want to get out of the way. A mindfulness practice isn’t some magic voodoo blessing that’ll automatically fix all the problems inside your head and improve your quality of life a hundred-fold. What it will do is provide you an internal framework to better organize your thoughts and reduce any extraneous noise that might get in the way of you doing the things that you really care about.
Once you get the habit of meditation down long enough, there’s no limit to how far you can take it. [Photo credit: Pixabay]
Meditation and Mindfulness, Defined
Now let’s get into the specifics. We’ll start with defining what these terms actually mean:
- Meditation: Meditation is a practice where an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content.1
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.2
For all practical purposes, these terms can be considered as interchangeable, with the former referring to the actual practice, and the latter referring to the general concept. One thing you might have noticed is that there was nothing in the above definitions about ‘clearing’ or ‘emptying’ the mind. A mental practice allows you acknowledge your thoughts as they come, and practice the skill of letting them go if they’re not doing you any good. The last thing we need is more empty minds walking around, especially considering how plentiful they seem to be already.
Evidence for Meditation
It’s always best to take an evidence-based approach to the things you choose to invest your time into. That means taking a look at the research on the topic. Trust me, I don’t enjoy it either, but being able to make more informed decisions is well worth the trouble. So without further ado, let’s get deep into some nerd shit:
A randomized trial3 exposed 66 participants to a three-day (25 minute/day) mindfulness practice. The study concluded that, “brief mindfulness meditation training buffers self-reported psychological stress reactivity.”
A smaller-sample study4 concluded that “performance in a distributed-attention task reinforces the view that meditation practice can have a lasting and generalizable impact on human cognition.” In other words, a meditative practice has a chance of helping you get more stuff done in less time.
If that wasn’t enough for you, there has even been evidence that a consistent mindfulness practice induces structural changes in the brain, “[providing] a means for improving self-regulation and perhaps reducing or preventing various mental disorders.”4
Up Your Mental Game
Now I know there are some of you out there thinking, “I don’t care about all this hippy stuff, I just want to get jacked and strong as heck”. Well, having your mental game in check will only enhance your ability to push it harder in training, not let struggles in your personal life effect your workouts, and deal with the mental stresses of competition.
Nothing is without some costs, but in the case of meditation they are very low. The most common one is time. It will take at least a few weeks of daily practice (in most cases you won’t need more than 10min/day) to form the habit, and another few weeks to begin noticing any tangible benefits. So if you’re not comfortable ‘wasting’ a little time up front, it might not be for you. But the up front cost is well worth the benefits you’ll get down the line.
Incorporate Mindfulness Into Your Life
There are countless ways you can incorporate a mindfulness practice into your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve you sitting cross-legged in a corner for hours on end. For some people, it could be as simple as practicing non-judgement in their daily life. Or being ‘in the zone’ when practicing your sport. But for most people it’s going to involve at least a little bit of sitting down. Maybe staying still for a bit. Horrifying, I know, but it’ll be worth it.
There are countless ‘schools’ of meditation, ranging from a simple 10-minute-a-day practice, to 10-day-long retreats where you speak to no one, acknowledge no one, and spend the entire time trying to focus on your breath. We’ll be focusing a little bit more of the former in this piece.
The most widely-practiced form of mediation is something called Transcendental Meditation (TM). In a nutshell, it involves you being assigned a special mantra which you will repeat to yourself throughout the course of each session. What the mantra provides is an ‘object’ for you to use to focus your thoughts on. While you’re focusing on your mantra, if you’re randomly assaulted by the irrational worry that you left the stove on even though you know for a fact that it’s turned off, you would practice removing that unnecessary thought from your mind and re-focusing on the mantra.
Other forms of meditation have you take the mantra that TM is so fond of, and replace it with your breath. That simple action of bringing your focus back from distraction is all there is to it! No matter what the methodology, the bulk of the benefit comes from simply practicing the skill of bringing yourself back to focus. This lets you analyze and make intelligent decisions based on each thought that enters your mind, instead of letting it get you all flustered and mess with your groove.
Find the Time for Meditation
In the simplest sense, all meditation involves is being still for a period of time while trying to maintain your focus on a single object; be that your breath, a mantra, or just something in your field of view. While you’re there, if unwanted thoughts enter your mind, you simply acknowledge them for what they are, and kindly escort them out of your mind, bringing your focus back to the ‘object.’
When you start out, you’ll naturally be doing a lot of escorting. But as you get better, you’ll get past the initial stage, and will eventually be able to sit in silence and maintain a quiet, calm focus for an extended period of time. Once you can maintain such a state for an hour or so, you’re likely beyond the point that either myself or anyone else on the internet can be of service to you, and are better off finding a full-time mindfulness practitioner or center to take your practice to the next level.
On the subject of time, start as low as two minutes if you have to. The biggest mistake many people make when trying to get into meditation is trying to do too much too soon, burning out, and then not touching the subject again for months. For most, a simple progression is best. Start with two minutes and add one minute per week until you reach 10-minute sessions. And if you’re reading this and saying “I don’t even have two minutes to waste on this,” then you’re likely to benefit from a mindfulness practice more than anyone else.
Guided Mediation Tools
If you’re looking for help getting started with meditation and mindfulness but aren’t ready to seek out a teacher, I suggest trying some guided meditation tools. Headspace and Calm are two apps with both free and paid options that make it easy to introduce yourself to the habit of meditating with a little guidance. They ease you into the practice and give you subtle instructions to guide you through it.
I hope you’ve been armed with everything you need to take better control of your mind, and finally get that thing under control. Meditation is a scientifically proven way of enhancing your mental performance. Doing so will have benefits that trickle into every aspect of your life, the same way physical training does. Once you get the habit down long enough to perceive the benefits, there’s no limit to how far you can take it.
More on mindset:
1. Lutz, Antoine, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. "Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12, no. 4 (2008): 163-69. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.01.005.
2. Bloom, Paul. "Mindfulness Definition." Greater Good. Accessed October 04, 2016.
3. Creswell, J. David, Laura E. Pacilio, Emily K. Lindsay, and Kirk Warren Brown. "Brief Mindfulness Meditation Training Alters Psychological and Neuroendocrine Responses to Social Evaluative Stress." Psychoneuroendocrinology 44 (2014): 1-12. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.007.
4. Colzato, Lorenza S., Ayca Ozturk, and Bernhard Hommel. "Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking." Frontiers in Psychology 3 (2012). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116.
5. Ostafin, Brian D., and Kyle T. Kassman. "Stepping out of History: Mindfulness Improves Insight Problem Solving." Consciousness and Cognition 21, no. 2 (2012): 1031-036. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.02.014.
6. Levy, David M., Jacob O. Wobbrock, Alfred W. Kaszniak, and Marilyn Ostergren. "The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress information environment." In Proceedings of Graphics Interface 2012, pp. 45-52. Canadian Information Processing Society, 2012.
7. Roemer, Lizabeth, Sarah K. Williston, Elizabeth H. Eustis, and Susan M. Orsillo. "Mindfulness and Acceptance-Based Behavioral Therapies for Anxiety Disorders." Current Psychiatry Reports 15, no. 11 (2013). doi:10.1007/s11920-013-0410-3.
8. Barnes, Sean, Kirk Warren Brown, Elizabeth Krusemark, W. Keith Campbell, and Ronald D. Rogge. "The Role of Mindfulness in Romantic Relationship Satisfaction and Responses to Relationship Stress." Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 33, no. 4 (2007): 482-500. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00033.x.