We all know the phrase ‘Gimme a break!’ – and certainly, after the past few scary and chaotic months, we could all use one. But with stress levels running high, and travel still restricted, getting away from it all in the middle of a pandemic is easier said than done. And yet the fact remains: unscrewing the valve and releasing at least some of the pressure has never been more essential for your emotional and physical health.

One of the best ways to take a short mental vacation is meditation. It’s free, easy to do and can be done anywhere you can find a quiet spot. Meditation’s benefits are legion – it helps cultivate adaptability, resilience, and reduces emotional reactivity, including the lashing out at others that so often is part of the package. It also offers brain and heart protection; better immunity, mood and sleep; enhanced feelings of calm; reduced anxiety and sensitivity to pain. It may even counteract the age-related deterioration of your blood vessels which can drive cognitive decline and even dementia. So, what’s keeping you off the cushion (or wherever you might choose to meditate)?

Lack of time, not being able to sit still, not being able to tune out, not wanting to be like your hippie mom and dad — the list of excuses is long and I’ve probably heard them all!  So, if you’re one of those folks who can’t seem to get into ‘the whole meditation thing,’ the good news is that there are quite a few other ways to gift yourself with a lot of the same benefits, minus the incense and tie-dye (not that they were ever required).

Now that our once-frantic lives have slowed considerably, it’s a great time to add more stress-taming, soothing activities to your daily routine to support body and soul. Here are a few ways to start enjoying the benefits, without meditating in the traditional sense:

Reconfigure your routine.

In times of trouble and uncertainty, one way to help anchor yourself is with routine. With so much of our old normal undone by the pandemic, try grounding yourself with some new calming daily routines. For example, not long ago, I had a patient who was struggling with stress and just could not get herself to meditate, so we took an alternate route, and developed a routine of soothing activities that were right for her. Her daily plan started with a quiet 10 minutes in the morning where she sat alone in a sunny cafe near work and slowly sipped a cup of green tea; a twice-weekly tai chi class; abdominal breathing if she felt stress levels rising; and 10 minutes of relaxing restorative yoga poses every night. By combining a variety of these brief, almost-meditative moments, she was able to develop the physical and emotional resources she needed to help navigate tough times and to work towards a calmer and more peaceful version of herself. In times like these, I recommend you develop a similar plan.

Kids get time-outs – so should you.

Quality time with family and loved ones is important, but equally important is quality time spent with yourself. So, schedule time to step away from everyday distractions. At least once a week, give yourself the gift of two hours that you fill up with exactly what you want to do by yourself: a walk, a bike ride, a good long read in a hammock, an online yoga class or a visit to the spa (where permitted). Turn the phone ringer off (but set a timer if you must) and find a place where you can be alone and undisturbed for your quiet time session. Silence is golden, but so is the sound of rustling trees, chirping birds, or even nature sounds on your headphones.

Connect with your spiritual side. 

Connect, or re-connect to your spirituality in any number of contemplative ways, whether it’s spending time by the ocean, or in some other picturesque surroundings; walking through the streets of a beloved city; pausing for a few minutes to sit in an open house of worship or keeping a journal devoted to the spirit’s journey.  If you are “spiritual but not religious,” you might consider becoming involved with the communities built around denominations like Unitarian Universalists, Friends, or Reconstructionist Jews, all of which focus less on doctrine and more on a personal connection to the divine and to others.

Make movement your meditation.

Sure, contemplative activities are usually quiet affairs, but they don’t necessarily require total stillness to deliver benefits. Long walks, runs, leisurely swims in a lake or the ocean – all will help clear out the mental cobwebs and put you in touch with the beauty and serenity of the natural world — the sights, smells, sensations, sounds and rhythms that we too often overlook in our everyday lives. To access it, all you need do is step outside.

Go with the flow.

If you’re stuck inside, then try some t’ai chi, a Chinese martial art that promotes a profound mind-body unity. It requires such focus that it’s considered a form of moving meditation — the slow flow from one movement to the next. Often, the quickest way to calm the mind is to move the body, and with just a few minutes of t’ai chi, you can readily release stress and tension, getting yourself out of your head as you enhance flexibility, balance and core strength. Think of t’ai chi as your mind/body win-win!

Use your hands more, and your brain, a little less.

We are sensory beings, designed to use our eyes and our hands to create. As we grow up, we tend to move further away from free-form activities like crayon drawing, finger painting, producing chalk “paintings” on the sidewalk. We head ever deeper into our heads, living almost entirely in a world of mental abstraction, and forgetting how good it feels to get messy and creative by drawing, sculpting, sewing, or working with our hands.

Adding a calming and meditative crafting activity to your day will help get your out of ‘grown up’ mode, enabling creativity to flow and perfection to take a backseat. You don’t have to have particular talent to tap into the meditative benefits of artistic expression, just do it. The next time you feel the need to decompress, commit to making something that’s entirely yours. For example:

  1. Make homemade play dough and start sculpting.
  2. Curl up with some colored pencils and get lost in an adult coloring book.
  3. Get messy with a finger-painting session.
  4. Grab paints and a few rocks and create some rock art.
  5. Turn on your inner architect by building a popsicle stick house.
  6. Design a mobile using sticks, twine, rocks, feathers, leaves, or anything else that strikes your fancy.

Space out whenever possible.

Other ways to mentally check out in a healthy way? Give yourself time to space out by engaging in a few wonderfully relaxing, seemingly pointless, no-goal activities. Make time to sit outside and watch the clouds float by; watch the sun set for the night. Grab a beach chair and gaze out at the ocean, watching and following the waves as they make their way to shore. Paddle out to the middle of a lake and just float for a while, letting the winds and currents carry you along. Spend an evening (or at least part of one) looking up at the stars. Let time in nature be your meditation, or your church, to soothe, refresh and restore you.

Tune in, while you tune out.

Just as certain sounds can disturb and distract – think sirens, crying babies, nails on a chalkboard and so on – there are many sounds that can heal, transform, soothe, and ease you into a meditative state whenever you need it. One of the easiest ways harness the meditative power of sound and shift your mindset is with sonic wave healing, as in music that’s designed to create intentional relaxation. Prior to the pandemic, you could attend sound mediations or ‘sound bath’ sessions at many wellness studios, spas, clinics, festivals and even hotels, and enter deep states of relaxation as practitioners created stress-relieving soundscapes using special gongs, crystal bowls, tuning forks, or synthesizers tuned to specific frequencies. Now however, though the sounds may be the same, many venues and practitioners have moved their soundscapes online, making it even easier for non-meditators to get into a meditative groove. To sample the soundscapes, try any one of the hundreds of the sound bath options offered on YouTube, or by practitioners and healers like MNDFL, Iris or Sara Auster who hosts sound bath sessions on Instagram Live several times weekly.

In the end, no matter which path you choose, just be sure to make space in your life for more meditative moments!

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