Photo: Lois Greenfield

Tis the season to be jolly—but are you? With the holidays come dizzying demands, from shopping, cooking, cleaning and entertaining to finding time to actually celebrate with family and friends. It’s fiscally, physically and emotionally draining. You need a solid strategy to stave off stress and preserve your mental health.

That’s where meditation comes in. It has long been used to increase calmness and physical relaxation, improve psychological balance, cope with illness and enhance overall well-being and health, notes the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. And for good reason; studies show meditation can increase our resilience to stress, improve our self-control, reduce anxiety, maintain brain health and more, Medical News Today reports.

No wonder meditation—known for its spiritual and devotional roots—is being discovered as a straightforward practice for many to maintain their mental health and general well-being. Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation, Healthline says. That makes medication an especially good practice to embrace when the holidays get the better of us.

While there are many different forms of meditation, the basics of the practice are surprisingly simple. Here’s how you can get started:

3 Simple Steps to Effective Meditation

  1. Prepare Your Mind

Preparation is used to reduce the distractions in your body and mind. It’s a practice that trains you to move from being active on the outside to being active on the inside. By turning your mind inward, your senses progressively withdraw from external stimuli such as your phone, your email, the background noises in your environment and come alive in the inner environment of your mind.

The metaphor of the cup is frequently used to explain why it’s necessary to prepare for meditation:  if you want to fill a cup, it has to be empty first. If your mind is full, there’s no room for anything else. Preparation before you meditate lets you make space for something new to come in. It’s a practice that trains your mind to move inward and prepares you for deeper sensory experiences. This movement is what meditation possible.

To prepare your mind, it helps do the following:

  • Intentionally decide that it’s time to meditate; decide how long you have for the practice, and find a quiet spot.
  • Consciously focus on your breathing. Begin to lengthen your breathing; make it deep, even, and focused. As you shift your attention to the flow of your breath, observe how it comes and goes. Lengthen your breath naturally, following it with your awareness; studies show breathing can calm anxiety and fear and promote mental clarity and focus.
  • Prepare your body to meditate by deliberately moving or stretching your body, focusing on the rhythm and depth of your breath at the same time. Give your mind permission to let go, easing out of the day’s busyness. Keep following the flow of your breath.

Photo: Lois Greenfield

  1. Focus Your Attention

Now that you’ve “emptied the cup” you’re ready to fill yourself up with something new. This idea of emptying and filling the cup is the foundation for all meditation practices and is a metaphor for mental and physical renewal. To begin this renewal process:

  • Decide what you want to focus on in your meditation practice. It can be anything: the tip of your nose, your navel, your heart, your breath, a sound, an object or an idea. The object or idea simply becomes a support for your attention. Whatever happens between you and the object is the beginning of meditation.
  • Attempt to hold your mind and focus it on that object or idea. Use all of your attention to keep your mind focused in one place. This is how you bind your attention to a single point.
  • Encourage your mind to go toward one object onlyand place your attention there—without letting it wander or multi-task. The stronger that connection becomes, all objects or distractions fall away. This is simple to do, but not so easy to sustain.
  • Focusing encourages you to pay attention to what you are doing. This practice has powerful benefits, from developing discernment and self-direction to strengthening the ability to see clearly amid chaos or stress.
  1. Sustaining Your Attention

In true meditation, you focus on one place, object or thought and prolong that focus for a certain length of time. As you meditate, your mind becomes absorbed in the object and you become completely integrated with it. As you sustain your attention, you direct your mind away from what you feel is undesirable and link to what is desirable. This makes your experience the process as well as the goal—it’s when you and the cup become one.

Now Practice, Explore, Enjoy and Grow

Keeping your mind on your breath is one practice of meditation. Reflecting on an idea or form, or quietly observing an emotion, is another.  Meditation is simply a practice — and one that you can come back to again and again. It’s not a strict discipline of the mind. Nor is it done in the same way every day. It can be a walk in the woods, a mindful sense of your emotions, a ritual, a sacred time, or simply a process of observation.

By investing in and utilizing your mind’s power of attention, you will perfect yourself on a regular basis and develop the invaluable qualities from which wisdom, creativity and inspiration truly arise.

Read more about the various practices of meditation in my book, “Emotional Yoga: How the Body Can Heal the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2002)