When I decided to take up meditation, it seemed so easy—slip on a pair of yoga pants, force your legs into half lotus, and "om" your way to serenity and bliss. Forget that my hips are too tight for even a quarter of a lotus, or that the last time I felt truly serene, prescription drugs were involved. I had to try it—I needed to find a way to slow things down.
Lately it's felt like my life is on warp speed. Weekends blur into months; months blur into seasons. I eat fast, I talk fast, I walk fast—I swear I even sleep fast. And I find it almost impossible to sit still. All that research showing that fidgeting burns tons of calories is good news for me. I may get a lot done, but smell the roses? I'm not even getting a passing whiff.
We've all had the experience of sensing time decelerate naturally when we're not so thrilled about what we're doing (think torturous spinning class or hour-long "synergy workshop" at the office). As my dear grandmother would have said, it takes only one colonoscopy to prove that time is relative. But what about the more enjoyable times in life? I hoped that practicing the popular and proven type of meditation called mindfulness—which focuses on bringing awareness to the present moment—might help me slow those times down as well.
Ready to begin, I went straight to the source: Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn is the creator of an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which he began teaching in 1979 and which is now the largest and oldest meditation-based clinical program in the world. (Kabat-Zinn's program is taught at the University of Massachusetts, but you can find other MBSR courses around the country.)
There are many types of meditation, so why did I opt for MBSR? Two reasons. First, I liked that it's taught in a secular context; even though it's based on some core principles of Buddhism, I didn't need any background knowledge to begin. Second, as someone who wants to understand why I'm doing something—especially when that thing is challenging—I liked the idea that there was scientific proof of its effectiveness. (Because its curriculum is so consistent, it's one of the most studied forms of meditation in the world.)
Kabat-Zinn suggested I start at home by practicing one or two guided 20- to 45-minute exercises six days a week (yes, even meditators need a day off). After we talked about my reason for wanting to meditate—Kabat-Zinn says it's important to identify your motivation before you begin, or you'll be tempted to give up—he recommended that I kick off my practice with what he thought would be an easy starting point: a visualization called the mountain meditation. I loaded my iPod with the 20-minute exercise, which requires you to sit erect on the floor or a chair, close your eyes, and observe your breathing as you imagine a mountain. First, you notice small details—the trees that cover its slopes, perhaps a dollop of snow at the peak—and eventually you try to imagine becoming the mountain itself, feeling its strength and solidity and noticing that even when it's battered by the wind or drenched with rain, its rock-hard interior remains stable and calm. (Meditation teachers love metaphors.)
The goal of the mountain meditation is the same as with every other mindfulness technique—whether you're focusing on an image, your breath, or sensations in your body, you're trying to coax your mind into what Kabat-Zinn calls a state of nondoing. That's not the same as doing nothing. Rather, it means you're not thinking about your grocery list or the conversation you had with a friend last night or the unfinished report sitting on your desk at work. Nor are you trying to force your mind to go blank or conjure up any special feelings. You're concentrating on just one thing, experiencing each moment as it happens, and trying to be—if I might quote Van Halen—right here, right now.