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The meQ Guide to Meditation

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by Katherine McHugh

The happiest season of the year is often also the busiest--between the shopping, holiday parties, and family visits, it can be hard to find a moment of peace. There's one proven way to stay calm and clear-headed through this often chaotic time of year: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of intentionally focusing our attention on the present moment without judgement--and it can be as simple as concentrating on the inhale and exhale of our breath for a few moments. It's the best gift you can give yourself this year, and when you practice, everyone you come into contact with feels the benefit, too.

Is it for me?
You may be wondering if meditation is really for you. If so, you're not alone. The most common responses I get when someone explains to me why they've never meditated or what happened when they tried it once and it didn't "work" are: "I'm just not the kind of person who can meditate." "My mind is just too busy," or "I think too much!"

The fact is that it's the mind's job to think! So when you begin to meditate, it's normal, natural, and even encouraged to notice what's going on with your thoughts and feelings--without judging any of it as right or wrong. The goal of mediation isn't to control your thoughts or your emotions, but to stop them from controlling you.

And if you continue to meditate, you will begin to notice changes: more clarity, less chatter.

Why meditate?
Neuroscience has shown that regular meditation changes the brain in a variety of positive ways in a relatively short period of time. In fact, researchers have found evidence that mindfulness helps to control negative feelings, not just in people who are naturally disposed to be mindful or well-practiced in meditation, but in anyone. Noticeable changes include an increased ability to focus, a better memory, reduced feelings of stress, and improved relationships at work and at home.

How it's done:
Find a spot where you can be relatively undisturbed, such as your bedroom or a quiet corner. Sit comfortably. You can either lie down or sit upright in a chair. Just find a way to get comfortable. Then, simply follow your breath coming in and out of your body. Feel the physical sensations of the breath, wherever it's easiest to find: It could be in the nose or the lungs as the chest expands on the inbreath and contracts on the outbreath. A popular place to start noticing your breath is in the belly: Feel the rise of the belly as each breath is received and the fall of the belly as each breath is released.

Staying in the zone:
After a few breaths, the mind will most likely wander. This is to be expected. Gently come back to the rhythm of breathing, again and again, each time your thoughts take over. Remember to be kind to yourself. This is not a test! If you'd like, especially at the beginning, you can count your breaths up to ten and back down again. This is a way to focus your mind on something simple so it doesn't wander to your thoughts.

Set a timer for five minutes--or explore different lengths of time--and see what you discover. Heck, you can even meditate for as little as one minute to reset your day. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, "One conscious breath in and out is a meditation."

Katherine McHugh is a meQuilibrium meditation expert and the Executive Director of Awaken Mindfulness & Resiliency Training. She began studying and practicing mindfulness in 1987 after taking the original course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Katherine began teaching and leading retreats locally in 2000 and has over a decade of experience teaching mindfulness in corporate, academic, and diverse community settings. She has lectured at Harvard Law School and Boston College.