To most of you, the typical meditator looks like some crunchy, man-bun-sporting dude with Bohemian pants sitting cross-legged while transcending his earthly self through a cloud of incense. Good for him, but most of us don’t want that. We just want a mental chill sesh.
Nobody can deny how stressful college campuses have become. A study in the medical journal Anxiety and Depression reported that one in five college students have had thoughts of suicide and one in ten have attempted it. The study found that mounting expectations, struggles with self-identity and the shock that comes with being on your own can jeopardize mental health.
These alarming statistics raise the question of how we should deal with the stressful college environment we’ve created.
We spread ourselves so thin with school, relationships, internships, social lives, trying to stay healthy and planning for the future. Our minds get so caught up in this frenzy of obligations that it can be very difficult to detach from them mentally. When we never detach from our lives, we have this constant white noise playing in our heads. In its simplest yet most effective form, meditation is a technique to calm that white noise inside your head. For once, your mind will be still.
Why do I Meditate?
Like many college peeps, I commit myself to a lot of different things. I’m a full-time student, work an internship, write lots of articles, maintain a social life, play sports and talk on the phone with my grandmother once per day—the normal rigmarole. I love doing all these things but sometimes managing them makes me want to throw an adult temper tantrum. Somehow, I needed to feel like none of these responsibilities exist at the end of the day.
I always assumed meditation was for people who make their own soap from pig lard and use the word “namaste.” I also thought it would be impossible for somebody like me, who has the attention span of a goldfish, to sit down and be Zen.
But then I saw the scientific research behind meditation which suggests it does everything from lowering blood pressure to boosting your immune system. Consistent mindfulness can literally rewire your brain to make you happier, resulting in better focus and feeling less yanked around by your emotions. Maybe the man-bun dude is onto something. Because of these benefits, meditation has been adopted by CEOs, elite athletes and even this skeptical college student right here.
How to Meditate
Once per day (usually at night), I sit down next to my bed and set my phone timer for 10 minutes. I focus on nothing but my breathing and my heartbeat; hearing the breath, feeling the breath. Rather than wondering what I’m having for dinner or when to schedule my next haircut, I simply let the thoughts go. Imagine your brain is full of gunk, and meditation is dumping all of it out until it’s empty. No thought exists—you just feel your body sitting there.
“This practice of repetition, of returning to the breath, or any object of attention during mindfulness practice, helps develop a different relationship to the present moment that undercuts our go-to responses,” wrote psychiatrist Patricia Rockman.
With practice, you’ll get two or three minutes of totally uninterrupted mental silence. In other words, your mind will be completely blank. For a moment, you have no desire to be at some greener pasture. Time comes to a halt—your mind refuses to be anywhere but the present moment. The simplicity of not thinking about a single thing is unbelievably fulfilling.
10 minutes later you’ll walk away feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and accomplished. But that’s it. When I meditate, I’m not looking for God; I’m not trying to be a better person or become enlightened. Although that’d be cool—I just want to calm my thoughts.
Why Should You Meditate?
When used this way, meditation can become the antidote to the voice in your head. By this, I don’t mean schizophrenia or whispering inner demons—but your internal narrator. That voice that chases you out of bed in the morning and yammers at you all day long. “Should I even apply to this scholarship when there’s probably hundreds of others trying to get it?” “Am I wasting my time trying to become a musician?” The one that has you constantly wanting more money, chasing the instant gratification of nicotine by sucking on a Juul every 30 seconds, rejecting responsibility by procrastinating an essay, judging other people, comparing yourself to other people and engaging in ruthless self-criticism. Sound familiar?
This voice kind of sounds like buzzing in your head. When you meditate, you not only become aware of it, but train yourself to restrain it. “When I get quiet, I become aware of an ultra-low-grade whirring in my body, like the shuffling of hundreds of tiny index cards. I’m locked into scan mode, constantly vibrating with the effort of trying to predict and foreclose on every conceivable problem I could possibly have—and even the ones I don’t and will probably never have,” said journalist Tina Rowley.
Rather than letting your inner voice fixate on whatever events happened in the past or will happen in the future, you take charge and ground yourself in the present. Instead of clinging to the notion that 20 straight hours isn’t enough study time for your midterm, put down your textbook and do some breathing. Don’t fixate on your relationship that ended two years ago, but focus on your single life as an individual right now.
“When you’re unaware of this non-stop conversation you’re having with yourself, it can control you,” said Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier.
Our lives don’t gear us toward calmness—actually the opposite. Whatever free space we have in our schedules we usually fill up with music, social media or Netflix (I’m guilty of this as well). Being in this constantly stimulated state can eventually make your brain feel like a pile of discombobulated mush. Many people call this mental fatigue. Think about it, we never actually turn our brains off. You had a long day at school and you’re lying on the couch, scrolling through Twitter, reading, analyzing, retweeting. Your body is resting, but not your brain.
Give It a Try
You get out of meditation what you put into it. With consistent practice, your mind will become skilled at fending off that inner voice tugging at you day and night. Your anxiety will go down while your capacity for joy will go up. Think of it this way: every time you meditate, your brain just did 20 push-ups. But you can’t expect to get mentally shredded after the first crack at it.
I’ve been meditating for about two years now. I’ve learned three things:
- Being constantly stimulated by technology overheats your brain.
- De-cluttering your mind for 10 minutes per day can boost happiness.
- Meditation is not a magical formula for life, but it will teach you how to work hard, play hard and relax harder.
“I used to hit a wall about halfway through the day. Now, I meditate in the library for fifteen minutes and feel better than I would if I had just gotten a full night sleep,” said Rutgers senior Matthew Lanier.
For those of you on the fence, don’t let the hype turn you off to meditation. Look at it simply as a way to become a calmer version of yourself. Science has shown us that meditation will certainly raise your quality of life if you just breathe.