If you’re reading this, I think I know two things about you. One: You’re interested in meditation because you know you should be doing it. And two: You don’t have time for all that! You’re looking for a shortcut to get the results everyone is raving about: stress reduction, improved cognitive function, and success (after all, it’s a practice some of the world’s top performers including CEOs and celebrities have in common).
Though I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, I was procrastinating actually doing it, because that’s just how I roll. But about three years ago, I was feeling stuck, so I made a move. I signed up for a meditation experience audio program: A series of guided meditations, 20 minutes a day for 21 days. Sounds easy, right? It was not.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Blaise Pascal was not exaggerating.
But I was determined to see it through, and I did it! I am happy to report that the results were nothing short of quietly miraculous. Not only did I feel more calm and even tempered as a parent (found it easier to respond instead of react to stressful situations), I was also more productive in just getting stuff done. The most surprising and unexpected benefit: my upper back pain, which until then I’d accepted as a hopelessly chronic condition, Dis. Ap. Peared! How do I know it was the meditation that ‘cured’ me? Because two weeks later, after I predictably fell off the wagon of daily practice, the back pain came back.
But just knowing that I could use my mind to stop that pain caused a big shift; suddenly I understood that I had a tool to fix the unfixable. What did I do with that tool? Instead of keeping it in my hands and continuing to work with it daily, I used it only for flare ups, but mostly kept it in my back pocket. Slacker, right? But the thing is, even when I’m not using it, KNOWING that it’s available to me whenever I need it has somehow alleviated the severity and frequency of the pain.
Since the whole 20-minutes-every-day thing was awesome but ultimately not sustainable for me, I made a decision. Rather than being super rigid and unforgiving with myself about not having a perfect meditation practice, I would figure out ways to make it work for the life I’m living now. These hacks may sound like multitasking, but we could reframe that and call them ‘enhancers.’ (Some of them really are.) Labels aside, here are some of the ways I squeeze more mindfulness into my days, in case you’re feeling time-strapped and stressed.
(There are many different kinds of meditation, and I won’t go into that here. But you can find resources and more information at the end of this article.)
— Kara Nelson
1. Blissed Out Bath
Every night I take a bath before bed, for as far back as I can remember. So this seemed like the most reasonable time of day to do my meditation practice. The calming properties of water are well known, and I now realize that my nightly bath time was also a quiet time that had long served as a form of meditation for me, even if I’d never thought of it that way. On nights when I have to skip the bath, my sleep is usually subpar. (Showers don’t cut it for me, I need to be submerged. Hopefully unneeded side note: it’s probably a bad idea to try to meditate while standing in a slippery place like the shower, with your eyes closed for more than a minute at a time. It’s too easy to lose your balance, and you can ask Google what percentage of fatal at-home accidents happen in the shower).
During my first 21-day meditation experience, each night I would draw my bath, turn off the lights, light a candle, pop in my earbuds and turn on the 20-minute meditation. This is when I became inexorably imprinted with the voice of Deepak Chopra. (The guided meditation package, Desire and Destiny was from the Chopra Center.) There’s just something about his voice, the deep soothing tones and the thick, warm accent that really resonates with me and helps me get into the zone. It’s almost like he puts me in a trance. So now, even though I have tried other teachers, they’re never as good. For me, all roads lead back to Deepak.
2. Exercise Ecstasy
Another way I make meditation work for my schedule is to listen to guided meditations while sitting and pedaling on the recumbent bike in my office. The first time I did this it was truly transformative — like a high on top of a high. Exercise endorphins running through my body while I kept my eyes closed, I began to see waves and firework-like explosions of color. My heart rate kept going up, and I dove so deep into the darkness that I started to see light. Of course one should never walk or exercise outdoors or in a dangerous environment with eyes closed. Duh. However, if you can hop onto a stationary bike or even a rower at the gym, spending just five minutes meditating while exerting yourself can feel like a near orgasmic experience. Feeling tempted to try it now, aren’t you?
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I think the background music in the Chopra meditations — and many free meditations you can find on YouTube — also plays a big part in their effectiveness in eliciting this altered state. Subtle, relaxing soundscapes (like what you might hear when getting a massage at a spa) make you feel calm yet expansive. Whereas trying to meditate with no sound at all can be difficult, especially for beginners.
3. Skin-Deep Dive
You know those serum-loaded sheet masks that are so awesome but fall off your face because you're trying to do too many other things while you're wearing them? Meditation is the perfect activity to pair with that kind of beauty routine. If forcing yourself to stay still is something you’re doing anyway, why not expand into mindfulness at the same time? Recently, I started meditating while wearing my new Dr. Dennis Gross SpectraLite LED glasses. The infrared light is supposed to boost collagen and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. Jury is still out on if they actually work. For now, I use the red light as a kind of trigger, so it feels weird if I’m NOT meditating when I wear them.
4. Mind Like Water
Maybe you have literally zero time to yourself, whether you have a high-pressure job or you’re at home caring for small children, there are seasons of life that can feel relentless. But I bet you have time to drink water. (If not, come on, you know you need to do that!) Slowly drinking a glass of water while focusing on your breath is something that you can do anywhere. Here's how I do it. 1. Pour a large glass of cool (not cold) water. 2. Bring the glass up to your lips and close your eyes. 3. As you inhale through your nose, take a medium sized sip of the water and hold your breath as you swallow it. 4. Keep your face in the glass as you exhale slowly through your nose. 5. Repeat until the glass is empty, trying to keep your breathing at an even pace.
I don't count this as a full-on meditation, but it helps me check in with myself and come back to the present moment. But honestly, what I like best about it is the cool, head-rushy, full-hydration sensation that hits as soon as I put down the glass. Ahhhhhh! (The answer to so many of life’s problems really is: Just add water.)
5. Core Consciousness
This is another exercise-related meditation hack, a shorter version, that works well if you only have two to five minutes. Since remembering to breathe is an important part of any good core workout, adding a layer of mindfulness onto your abdominal exercises feels logical, and really not much of a stretch. I do three one-minute planks, with 15-second breaks in between. (You could also do crunches or reps of other exercises, but I find that a holding position is the best. Sometimes I skip the abs and do a wall sit instead.)
For these short and intense meditations, I like to use mantras. Having a phrase or an affirmation that I silently repeat to myself helps keep my focus from drifting to the muscle pain and exertion my body is experiencing. “My mind and body grow stronger every day” is an easy go-to for a hit of motivation. You can get a mantra from a yogi or a spiritual master teacher, or custom-create your own online. The Chopra Center meditations use Sanskrit mantras, which I was surprised to find were very effective. Something about knowing what a word or phrase means (they tell you the translation), but saying and repeating it to yourself in a language you don’t know how to speak, helps you feel the feeling beneath the meaning of the words, without “thinking” of them as words. Because words that you know have the potential to make your mind go off on a tangent. It’s not as esoteric as it sounds. but you might just have to have to try it to get what I mean.
6. Bathroom Breakthrough: Loving Kindness
This one is going to sound crazy, but next time you take a bathroom break, leave your phone on your desk. I know: bananas! From what I remember of life before cell phones (I grew up mostly in the 80s), pee breaks used to be down time, a respite from all the noise. Now that scrolling Instagram is a common potty-time activity, we’re bringing all that noise with us into the loo. Add to that incoming texts and email notifications, and you’ll realize that the only forced alone time you truly have is in the shower.
A baby step on this one could be to take your phone with you into the bathroom, but turn it on silent and don't look at it. Hold it in your hands, and think of a friend, or a person on your contact list. Close your eyes and picture them in your mind. Then do a simple loving-kindness meditation. Also called the Metta Prayer, a loving kindness meditation is designed to intentionalize good wishes and a sense of kindness for yourself and others. The idea is to wish the good things we all naturally desire, first for yourself, then for someone you love or maybe even someone you just met.
Start by noticing your breath, then think of yourself breathing in goodness and exhaling blessings — or sending positive energy — to someone else. You can choose your own words, or use traditional phrases like these: May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected. May I be free of mental suffering or distress. May I be happy. May I be free of physical pain and suffering. May I be healthy and strong. May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
Then replace “I” with the name of the person to whom you will be dedicating this toilet time. Try it just once or twice and you might be astonished, as you emerge from that bathroom stall, at how uplifting it can feel to lift someone else up — secretly, silently and without expecting anything in return. Is there a person in your family who has been particularly hard to deal with lately? Use this as a way to make an effort to improve that relationship without actually having to interact with them. You might even notice positive real-life effects the next time you see them. Maybe it’s only because you’ve changed the energy you’re bringing to the interaction, but sometimes that really is all it takes.
7. Red Light Calm
The next time you’re at a stoplight while driving your car, REALLY stop. Stop thinking, stop worrying, stop everything. Except breathing! (More on that in a sec.) Focus all your energy on the red light. Be in the present moment with your entire being. Try to imagine the color radiating out into a warm glow that washes over your body, the gift of being in the present moment. If you have kids in the car with you, let them know that red light time is quiet time in your car, and that you’ll also be doing some weird breathing stuff that they’re welcome to try.
It’s called 4-7-8 breathing and it has changed my life, mostly because it practically cured my insomnia, but that’s a story for another day. For now what you need to know about 4-7-8 breathing is that it’s a specific method of breathing you can use to help calm your racing mind in a matter of seconds. Based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama, 4-7-8 is a touchstone in the work of alternative medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil, who describes it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” Here’s how you do it: Inhale through your nose to the count of four. Hold the breath in for seven, and then exhale slowly and evenly through your mouth to the count of eight. Repeat four or five times.
It sounds too simple, but I am here to tell you that it really works! Sometimes it almost feels like a drug. The reason it works is up for debate. Some experts say it’s because holding the air in longer gives organs and tissues a much-needed oxygen boost, or because counting the breath gives you something else to focus on, to take your mind away from worries and overwhelming anxious thoughts. But my money is on the third possible explanation: when you control the exhaling of your breath, it signals to the body that it is safe, that you are not in danger. This deactivates the body’s fight-or-flight mode, which is especially helpful for chronically stressed out people who might spend the majority of their time living in that mode, without even realizing it. So relax. It’s not a saber tooth tiger; it’s just an email notification. You are safe. Just breathe. 4-7-8. 4-7-8. 4-7-8. 4-7-8.
May you be free of mental suffering and crazy-ass thoughts. May you be happy, calm and more patient with your offspring. May you give yourself the gift of a meditation practice, no matter how small or laughably imperfect. And may you stick with it, even if it’s only on the toilet.