No longer the sole province of the hemp-swathed sprouting enthusiast, meditation’s popularity has exploded across our collective faces. Tech companies have embraced mindfulness meditation as the ultimate productivity. Google has “mindful lunches,” complete with prayer bells and hour-long vows of silence. And as legitimate meditation researchers uncover more benefits to our brains, our bodies, and our psyches, diehard rationalists have been forced to accept the scientific merits of mindfulness.
My explanation for why interest in meditation has grown is that it’s a replacement for the nature in which we no longer reside. For hundreds of thousands of years, we spent our days in natural settings where much of the mind chatter stops and we exist in the present moment. The falling leaves sparkling overhead with sunlight. The herky-jerk scamper of a startled lizard just off the trail. The erratic brilliant butterfly fluttering through the scene that you can’t help but stop to watch. That was life for most of human history. It wasn’t special. It was home. It’s what we knew.
Meditation represents a return to that ancestral state of presence in the moment. And yet I get the sense that more people are talking about meditation than actually meditating on a regular basis. I’m one of them, quick to recommend meditation on MDA because of the irrefutable benefits but unable to actually sit for a productive session, let alone a regular meditation routine. It’s hard. It’s unnatural. And it’s an artifice, albeit one made necessary by our environment.
Meditation has been shown to provide remarkable benefits to those who manage to stick with it, including but not limited to:
- Lengthening of telomeres.
- Upregulation of genes responsible for energy metabolism, longevity, mitochondrial function, inflammation, and insulin secretion.
- Blood pressure normalization.
- Stress reduction.
- Greater resistance to stress.
- Improved cognitive function by reshaping the actual brain.
- Promoting neuroplasticity.
- Anxiety reduction.
- Immune system improvements.
If we simply don’t enjoy meditation or can’t make it work, what options do we have? How can we get some of those attractive effects of meditation without actually sitting in a room for 30 minutes a day, every day? Here are 15 alternatives:
1. Non-judgmental awareness
From the moment most of us wake up, we’re making split second judgments about everything and everyone we encounter. That guy across the street who didn’t pick up after his dog? What a jerk. All those cars lined up along the onramp? Great. Now I’m going to be late. Even—or especially—our thoughts and feelings demand a response from our brain, so that we end up stressing out about stress and lamenting the sadness we feel and thinking about thinking about thinking. Instead of all that, try this: when a thought arrives, or a situation occurs, or anything at all happens, hold back judgment. Even if it’s positive. These judgments are often subconscious, so the first step is to realize we’re making them. Observe and acknowledge the item. If it’s sadness, accept it. If it’s a rude driver cutting you off, move on. If a bird poops on your shoulder, get a paper towel.
As I see it, this is the ultimate goal of any formal mindfulness meditation practice: to do it in daily life.
Have you ever seen a depressed, anxious surfer? Me neither. In 2011, researchers found that surfers are far less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety than the general population. Last year, scientists even rigged up top surfers with EEGs to quantify the physiological state of “stoke.” Although the results haven’t been released yet, I’d imagine stoke looks an awful lot like mindfulness.
3. Standup paddling
This is my favorite and most dependable way to meditate. It’s not a workout (unless I intend it to be a workout, or I’m racing someone). The benefits to fitness and body composition are afterthoughts, albeit welcome ones. When I paddle, I’m immersed in what psychologists call the “oceanic feeling”—that sense of one’s self dissolving into the greater external world. That’s why I paddle.
Many find meditative solace in swimming laps slowly, deliberately. Swimming is great exercise, sure, but those with crisp, clean technique and enough endurance can turn it into a legitimate meditation practice. As a child, Michael Phelps swam as an antidote to his ADHD because it quieted his mind. Though he didn’t call it meditation, it effectively was. Me? I hate long slow laps. They remind me of triathlons too much. If I’m swimming laps, it’s a sprint and I keep it very brief. But my favorite way to reach a meditative state in the pool is through underwater swimming. You dunk your head and enter another world where sound sounds different, gravity affects you differently, and you’re free to explore full-dimensionality. Nerves along every inch of your body come alive with water contact; the present moment becomes a sensory feast. You also can’t breathe, which means my underwater meditations are short bites. Another way is to simply float belly-up or belly-down.
5. Tai chi
Practitioners often call it “movement meditation,” and that’s exactly what it is; research has confirmed many similarities between meditation and Tai chi. In one study, elderly Chinese adults living in group homes were placed in tai chi, walking, social interaction, or no intervention groups. The tai chi group saw increases in brain volume, verbal learning, and verbal fluency, as well as improvements in dementia scores. It also lowers cardiovascular risk in women, just like meditation.
Many yoga practitioners will say that yoga isn’t really about the poses or the stretching. It’s about the meditation. And when you think about what happens in your typical yoga pose, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice acceptance of discomfort. Those who practice mindfulness are also practicing non-judgmental awareness of both positive and negative emotions, thoughts, and situations. You can observe that you’re feeling sad, or happy, but it’s only by identifying with those emotional states that we grant them power over us (“I am sad and that is a bad thing”). Yoga poses are often painful and uncomfortable. If we can observe the physical discomfort of a particular pose from a detached position, neither running from it or dissolving into it, we are practicing true mindfulness.
Like meditation, yoga may have beneficial effects on telomere length (and longevity).
7. Music practice
Researchers have begun to reconceptualize musical practice as a form of mindfulness meditation. I wouldn’t recommend a total beginner grabbing a violin and expecting to reach a state of mindful bliss; you’ll just fiddle around and produce a cacophony so jarring that not even the Buddha himself could avoid passing judgment. Instead, use an instrument you can actually use. Grab a hand drum and keep a simple beat. Use a Tibetan singing bowl, strike the side, and observe the resonance. Something simple (or not so simple if you’re experienced).
I’ve discussed Angelo dela Cruz’s VitaMoves before. It’s a movement practice predicated on moving one’s tissues and joints through their full ranges of motion in a deliberate manner. Rather than momentum, you move with presence and intent. Rather than speed through it while thinking about the bills you have to pay, you focus on your body as it moves through space. You feel and focus on the stretch in your lats, the pull of your left hamstring when you move one way, the contraction of the quads when you rise from a full squat.
Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher who publishes guided meditations and lectures on her fantastic podcast, is a proponent of walking meditation (PDF). Rather than sit in stillness, she suggests walking along a short predetermined path of 20-30 paces somewhere quiet and familiar. This creates boundaries and reduces distractions. More seasoned or confident people can go on unstructured, longer walks. The important thing is to pay attention to the shifting weight of your body as you walk, the feel of your footfalls, and the sensation of gliding through the air. As with sitting meditation, allow thoughts and other distractions to come and go; acknowledge but do not dwell on or judge them.
Compared to a regular walking routine, a walking Buddhist meditation practice reduced depression, improved fitness and vascular function, and lowered stress hormones in depressed elderly patients. This may be even better in some respects than sitting meditation, which can also lower stress hormones and combat depression but generally doesn’t improve physical fitness.
The whole point of sex is to get out of your head and be present. Because why wouldn’t you want to be experiencing the present moment? It’s incredible! So rather than worry if you’re pleasing the other person or if you’re gonna mess up somehow, just lose yourself in the act. Worrying makes things you’re worrying about more likely to occur. It’s worse than pointless. Then it’s over, and you spent the whole time in your head and not in your body. A body which, by the way, was doing some really awesome things that you totally missed out on.
Many meditative practices use the breath as the focal point, the rock to which you return when the mind slips away from immediate presence. “Return to the breath.” If the word “meditation” trips you up or intimidates you, just breathe. Inhale and exhale through your nose, ideally. Observe how your diaphragm contracts and expands with each breath. Feel the weight of your body settle into gravity’s pull as you exhale. Oftentimes, those intent on following a breathing pattern will find themselves in the meditative space without really trying.
Like meditation, deep breathing exercises can reduce sympathetic activity, induce relaxation, and counter anxiety.
Combine being in immersive natural settings with the walking meditation mentioned above and you get hiking, my favorite land-based form of meditation. Maybe it’s my Type A personality I just can’t turn off, but being motionless is oddly stifling. I have to move to get a handle on my mind, to quiet the chatter. If I move through natural settings, the chatter stops even quicker.
First popularized by Jung, who had his patients draw and color intricate mandala patterns, adult coloring books are enjoying an explosion in popularity. The top book on Amazon.com at the time of this writing is an adult coloring book. Curiously, this coincides. Coloring within the lines requires presence. Your mind wanders, you spill over the line. Most importantly, coloring is an immersive, intrinsically rewarding practice. To see the patterns pop alive in full color is its own reward.
Dance like no body’s watching, they say. That’s exactly what meditative dancing looks like. The body and the music merge. The self, the all-powerful “I,” disappears, if only for a few minutes. But that’s enough. Best part of all? You don’t really even have to be “good” at dancing to get the benefits. Second best part of all? Dancing like nobody’s watching always looks better than dancing like everybody’s watching.
15. Guided meditations
Some purists might scoff at a person’s reliance on guided meditations to achieve mindfulness, but forget them. Shortcuts that get you to the place you’re headed are awesome. Guided journeys are still journeys. And hey, once you’ve been taken safely along the route a few times you can probably find your own way to the destination.
From truly impressive physiological effects like the beneficial alterations to brain function and morphology, the extension of telomere length, the activation of genes critical to health and longevity, and more intuitive benefits to general well-being, stress and anxiety levels, the established benefits of meditation on dozens of physiological and psychological systems far outpace those of the alternatives presented in this post. But self-motivation to practice meditation is tough when you’re not enrolled in a clinical study with a team of meditation experts supporting and encouraging you. For some people, saying “just meditate every day” is advice akin to “just eat less”; it “works” but not really. These alternatives are may not fully replicate the effects of mindfulness meditation, but they’ll get you far—and they’re certainly better than doing nothing.
Either way, you’re losing one’s self. The self as a psychological construct, a surveyor sitting behind your eyes observing and guiding your actions, is gone. What remains is only the direct experience of the present moment: the hand against the drum, the swelling of a budding wave off toward the horizon, the paddle slipping smoothly into the water, the breath entering and leaving your body. And that’s what truly matters most.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I’m incredibly curious: what’s your meditation?
Until next time.