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How to practice mindful meditation in our everyday lives

Research shows that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to better focus and concentration. (Getty Images)
Research shows that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to better focus and concentration. (Getty Images)

Though the practice is thousands of years old, meditation found a footing in the U.S. in the 1960s. Today, it’s an essential part of wellness culture in the country.

Research shows that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to better focus and concentration. But how do you stay focused on breathing and mindfulness in this fast-paced, hectic world we live in?

There’s a common misconception that meditating is the practice of turning off your brain or stopping your thoughts altogether. But that’s not exactly true.

Mindfulness meditation is “really about learning to be in the present moment,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at University of California, Los Angeles Mindful. She has been practicing meditation since 1989, including a year she spent as a Buddhist nun in Myanmar.

“If you were to check into your mind at any point in the day, you’re probably thinking about the past, replaying it … or you’re planning for the future, obsessing, worrying,” Winston says. “So mindfulness is the invitation into the present moment, and so it’s cultivated through a meditation practice where you really work on bringing your mind to the present, not getting lost in those thoughts.”

3 questions with Diana Winston

What are the potential health benefits of meditation? 

“There’s a lot of scientific research and one of my favorite studies looking at advanced meditators. These are the people who have been in caves in the Himalayas for 30, 40 years or something. And they’ve looked at their brain and they saw that their brains were different than people of the same age range.

“As you age, your brain thins out, which if you want something else to worry about, there you go. But in the advanced meditators, they didn’t see that happening, particularly in the prefrontal cortex.

“[The] prefrontal cortex … [is] responsible for emotional regulation, delayed gratification, working memory, flexible thinking. All of that [was] positively impacted. There was more gray matter in advanced meditators.”

What’s your advice for someone who’s never meditated before but wants to start?

“It can be intimidating. The first thing to know is it’s a practice like anything. What I commonly get with people is they sit down to meditate and their mind is going all over the place and then they feel like they’re doing it wrong and they quit. So know that that’s normal. That’s what happens.

“Our minds are, you know, we’re wired for threats. We’re always searching and the mind is always kind of thinking, thinking, thinking. So what we can learn to do is know that it’s not a problem. And then we just gently bring it back into the present moment, and over time, we gain the skill and it starts to become easier and easier. And then ultimately, we can bring it into daily life when we need it.”

How can people practice mindfulness in everyday life? 

“I’ve been meditating a long time. I always tell my students, ‘I still get mad. I still get anxious.’ I have all these the same things that anyone else does, but what I notice is that I have tools to deal with them.

“I’m a lot less reactive than I used to be and I have a teenager, so that’s a perfect opportunity to be reactive. And the other night I came in, I was really tired, and I came into the bathroom and she was using some cream on her face that I was like, ‘What are you doing? That’s for adults! It’s not good for your skin!’ And I just yelled at her, and then I took a moment, and I walked out of the room and I just paused and checked in with myself.

“I like to teach a very simple practice called ‘stop,’ where we stop and take a breath and then observe what’s happening inside us. Like, ‘Oh, my stomach is clenched. My jaw is tight. I’m feeling this anger.’ And then breathe a few more times and come back to center, which is exactly what I was able to do.

“Then I went back into the room and I said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry I did that. I’m really tired. Let’s talk about in the morning,’ which we did. So that’s just ways that we can bring mindfulness into our lives to make it healthier, saner [and have] better relationships. There’s so many benefits down the road.”


Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Raphelson also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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