By Jenn Sturiale
It may seem counterintuitive, but sitting still can be an utterly transformative experience.
Our society encourages us to always do more, and faster -- and then tomorrow, to do even more, and be faster still. The problem is that most of us lack the skill to be alone and quiet for even short periods of time, always distracting ourselves by sending another text or checking email or flipping the channel. When our brains are always on overdrive, how do we ever get a sense of what's really going on underneath the madness?
To paraphrase French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher Blaise Pascal, "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." I absolutely believe this to be true. I knew that slowing my mind down would be helpful, but it seemed stuck on fast-forward. My brain was totally in charge of where it took me, until I learned a few basic techniques to gain control. And it doesn't take hours to stop the spinning: Even just five minutes of sitting quietly can have a transformative effect on your entire day.
"I think our culture is really built around how we can go faster and faster," says Lisa Stanley, center director for the Portland Shambala Center. "[It's important] to just be with yourself, slow down enough to know what you're experiencing, to notice the stress in your body or how you're feeling in a given moment."
To check in with yourself and experience the calm of the present moment, you don't need to sit in Lotus Position. You don't need a special cushion or chair. You don't need to chant anything or think anything or buy anything. Heck, you don't even have to close your eyes. All you have to do is just sit still for five minutes.
Perhaps you're still feeling some reluctance. If so, I'm sure some of these excuses sound familiar:
But... I don't have five minutes to sit still. I'm willing to bet there are five minutes hiding somewhere in your day, just waiting to be found. Try these ideas: Stay five extra minutes in the bathroom -- at home or at work. Sit in your car (parked out of view of your home or office) for five minutes. Close your eyes on the subway. Lock the conference-room door for five minutes. Go into the attic to "look for the extra pillowcases," or to the basement to "find the cans of soup" -- both of which will take you (surprise!) five minutes. Sit in bed for five minutes before getting up in the morning, or before falling asleep at night. Turn off the TV or computer, and sit for five minutes before getting up.
But... something always interrupts me when I try to sit still. Our lives are indeed very distracting. So, do what you can to minimize interruptions. Put your mobile phone on silent. If there's a room with a door, go into that room and shut the door. Ask your partner, your kids, your dog to please respect this five-minute sabbatical you're taking. If you take it seriously, they'll learn to, too. "Just paying attention to having a space and a time for you to practice [stillness]" is what's most important, says Stanley.
But... meditation seems so complicated and woo-woo. I don't even know where to start. Ready for the most un-woo-woo experience ever? Set a timer for five minutes. Sit comfortably (upright -- no slouching). Close your eyes. Take a nice, slow breath in, and count to five (or four, or six, or whatever). Pause for one second, then exhale to the same count. Pause for one second, then repeat.
But... every time I try to follow my breath, I lose track. It takes time to train our minds and bodies to sit still. If the breathing technique isn't working for you, here's another simple meditation to try: Set a timer for five minutes. Sit comfortably on the floor, or in a straight-backed chair. (No slouching!) Let your eyelids drop until they're almost closed and allow your focus to soften. Keep your gaze on a single point on the floor in front of you. As you breathe in, notice the sensation of the air entering your nostrils; as you breathe out, notice the sensation again. There's no need to think about it or label it. Just notice it.
But... when I try to sit still, I get antsy and itchy and my mind races and I just want to get up and run away. Most of us don't have a lot of experience with quiet or stillness, since our culture values distraction and noise more highly. So, sitting still for five minutes is a major accomplishment! Don't worry if you need to work up to it. The important part is the practice.
But... I don't have anywhere to go where I can sit still or close my eyes for even five minutes. By telling ourselves we have to go somewhere special or set aside a specific time, we might be missing the small pockets of space already available. "I've been learning," writes ZenHabits blogger Leo Babauta. "In the morning, as my coffee is brewing, I sit. Even for a few minutes, at first, it is instructive. You learn to listen to your thoughts, to be aware of your urges to do something else, to plan and set goals. You learn to watch yourself, but to just sit still and not act on those urges. You learn to be content with stillness."
Now stop using the Internet as a distraction! Just sit and breathe. We'll wait for you here.