As I enter my third (out of eight) week of triathlon training for my first Sprint Triathlon, I am ready to incorporate some mindfulness meditation into my training. The weeks that led up to my eight-week program were all about researching and purchasing affordable gear in case I decide to never do a triathlon again. Now that my mind is free of any other equipment I may need for the race, I want to start tackling the mental game of training.
The research on mindfulness meditation is growing ever so rapidly. With fMRI capabilities, scientists are able to see the effects that mindfulness has on our brain. A study out of Yale University, showed how practicing mindfulness decreases activity in the Default Mode Network of the brain which is the region responsible for mind-wandering (Brewer, et al). My main focus of this challenge is to be able to remain focused on being efficacious during my trainings without letting wandering and pessimistic thoughts derail me.
I plan to start small and work my way up, just like my eight week training program does. My first week will consist of seven-minute mindfulness meditation sessions before bed. Every week I will increase the time by three minutes, ultimately meditating for 28 minutes a night during week eight.
A crucial aspect of mindfulness meditation isn’t just to push your issues off to the side and focus on one thing, but to be able to recognize them at times and comfortably “sit” with them. I believe this will help with my ability to push them off when I want to (while training), but also acknowledge them and not allow them to provoke anxiety while I go about my day. Therefore, once a week (every fourth day), I will practice a meditative regimen I have been working on to deal with these personal life matters. I chose the fourth day of the week because it is a halfway point in my training regiment.
Many people already know or are told that mindfulness mediation is good for you. Most people I talk to regarding the practice ask me the same two questions — Am I doing it right? How long should I do it for? Well, I will tell you how I do, what I call, singular-focused-attention meditation and systemic-focused-attention meditation, and how to know if you’re doing it right, step by step.
General strategies for any type of mindfulness meditation:
- Have a quiet and comfortable place in mind that you can practice before you start this challenge. This place should be accessible throughout the challenge and serve as your go–to place. Make sure this place (bed, chair, floor space) is kept clean at all times as to reduce any possibility of you skipping a day because you didn’t feel like cleaning up your meditation space. Preventing procrastination makes me feel effective without even doing the intended act.
- Make sure that this room or space can be made dark quickly (switch of a light, blackout curtains work best). The lack of light will not only keep visual distractions away if you are to open your eyes but will also activate the production of melatonin so you will be able to sleep easier right after you meditate if you plan to do this before bed.
- Set a timer. If you have an iPhone, I used the “Ripples” sound at half volume to bring me out of meditation because of how calm it is. Any soft swelling sound will work well.
- Ask anyone you live with to respect your peace and privacy for roughly twice the amount of time you plan to actually meditate. If you are meditating for seven minutes, ask any one you live with to respect your peace and privacy for the next fifteen minutes or so. This will give you enough time to relax before and after you are actually meditating.
- Sit upright and comfortably. By comfortably, I mean make sure there isn’t one part of your body making contact with a surface that is experiencing significantly more pressure (or pain) than any other (this is why I prefer float tanks).
- Choose something to focus your attention on. When I first started meditating, the easiest thing I’d be able to focus my attention on was my breath. Any part of your autonomic nervous system (breath, heartbeat, digestive) that you can notice will do. For this example, we’ll stick with your breath.
- Breathe deep in through nose. By doing this you’re increase nitric oxide making you feel more calm.
- Focus on your breathe for the duration of the meditation. Your mind WILL wander when you first do this. You will sense how difficult it may be to focus your attention on your breath. Your attention will wander several times throughout the meditation. When I first started I would get frustrated at myself when I realized that I’d be thinking about something that happened last week when my goal was to focus my attention on the eccentric and concentric contractions of my abdominal muscles. Your frustration will eventually disappear and your cortisol levels will start to drop.
In this method, the task and challenge, is just to stay focused on your breath. A tip to be able to do this is to find an interest in focusing on your breath. If you tend to be more visually stimulated, you might find this easier by picturing a musculoskeletal version of yourself watching your lungs expand and contract with every breath.
“Am I doing it right?” Fewer moments of wandering thoughts which lead to more time spent being mindful of your breathe = better meditation. At the same time, I would also go as far to say that early interruption of wandering thoughts that are redirected to the original focus (breath) also = better meditation. Ultimately, this practice of controlling wandering thoughts will improve focus, attention, memory and ultimately performance as the brain research shows. (Insert citation)
Systemic-focused-attention (The House):
- Imagine walking inside an empty house on a beautiful day. I prefer for this house to not resemble any home that I’ve lived in before to remove any past psychological triggers or comfort zones. I picture a home I’d ideally enjoy to have in the future.
- Allow yourself to sift through your most pressing stressors in life and start to assign each issue to a room.This house could be a 25br mansion depending on how many stressors you can identify!Assign your most pressing stressor to the basement.
- As you begin to explore the house once your stressors are assigned to their own rooms, try to walk around the home and notice any respiratory or cardiovascular spikes as you approach the rooms. Remember, take this slow;there is no need to rush. When you approach a room that contains a stressor, give your 100% focus and attention to that stressor. Ask yourself questions about that stressor. Don’t make assumptions about that stressor. Rather, sit with any emotions that may arise from thinking about the stressor for an extended amount of time at maximum effort.
As you continue this mindfulness practice, you can find yourself slowly walking into these rooms and “sitting” with these emotions that arise. The point is to be comfortable with these topics to the point where anxiety will not have to take over if a certain stressor is brought up in conversation or worse, in the last hundred meters of your swim. Eventually you will have gone through all the rooms and find your way down to the basement, which can hold whatever your deepest fear or life stressors is.
Biological Sciences – Psychological and Cognitive Sciences: Judson A. Brewer, Patrick D. Worhunsky, Jeremy R. Gray, Yi-Yuan Tang, Jochen Weber, and Hedy Kober. Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivityPNAS 2011 108 (50) 20254–20259; published ahead of print November 23, 2011,doi:10.1073/pnas.1112029108