Meditating for a Healthier, Happier You. By Justin Baker, Ph.D.
I didn’t grow up with today’s functional and integrative medicine Dr. Baker — my dad. Nope. Being the eldest of his children, I grew up with the completely conventional, hardly-at-home, medical student, sleep-deprived medical resident, and early-career-physician Dr. Baker. In fact, I remember in high school hearing one of my peers claim that her family avoided cow’s milk. We were solid Reed’s Dairy subscribers at the time and I remember arguing that my dad was a doctor and he didn’t think milk was bad, so why avoid cow’s milk? Things have changed since then — now, thanks to my dad’s influence, my family and I are big almond milk fans. Also, it wasn’t until the last few years that I’d heard much about meditation from my Dad or elsewhere for that matter. To be honest, I erroneously gave myself credit that I’d meditated if I’d said morning or evening prayers. And most times, I’d probably be giving myself way too much credit if I said I typically prayed for five minutes. So why and how did I decide to start a daily meditation practice of ten minutes or more?
The number one reason I started meditating was a desire to develop a mindfulness practice to help me be more mentally present with my family and to help me refrain from yelling at my kids. From podcasts that I would listen to as I drove to work, I kept hearing things about how meditation had helped world leaders deal with stress or anxiety. Having had a history of anxiety in my life, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. As Amit Ray shares, “If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
At first, I was a bit trepidatious; nervous is the wrong word. Being a risk-averse religious person, I wanted to find an LDS meditation style. But the more I learned about meditation and the more I just did it, the more I learned this from Charles Johnson, “This is universal. You sit and observe your breath. You can’t say this is a Hindu breath or a Christian breath or a Muslim breath.” I learned that meditation wasn’t about a particular religion. Meditation was about relaxing the tension in your body, paying attention to an anchor — whether your breathing in and out or perhaps the sounds around you. You’ll find that the mind will wander, you’ll start to think about something you need to do later on. When this happens, the idea is to recognize this thinking, label it “Thinking,” bring your attention back to your anchor and let the thoughts just drift out of your mind. There’s not a right or wrong way to meditate. There’s just meditating. It’s a practice. Over time you’ll find it’s easier to recognize when your mind has begun to wander. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl shared what he learned while enduring immense suffering in a Nazi concentration camp, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” By practicing mindfulness meditation, you’ll find you can expand that space for your response.
How I developed a daily meditation habit
Prior to September of 2016, I’d never meditated before–ever. So there’s nothing special about my meditation abilities or discipline. However, since January 22nd, 2017, I’ve meditated every day. That’s a 136-day streak. By nearly all forms of measurement for determining when a new habit has been developed (3 weeks or 67 days), I’ve developed a new habit. Here I’m indebted partly to technology and partly to the discipline of a daily morning ritual. I downloaded the Insight Timer app for my smartphone. It’s free and has more guided meditations than I’ll ever use. I found several guided meditations that both taught me basic meditation and gave morning affirmations that helped align the intention of my day. Most of these were about 10 to 15 minutes long. Those from Tara Brach were particularly helpful. I’ve found though, as I’ve become more comfortable with meditation that I’ve started just using the simple timer (non-guided meditation) and meditating outside in my yard listening to the birds and the breeze through the trees. One of my favorite meditations said, “If you do this or a similar practice for 10 consecutive days, I guarantee you’ll start seeing significant changes in your life.” I feel like my meditation habit has helped me to be more patient and has decreased my anxiety and perhaps even my resting heart rate!
The daily morning ritual aspect has come largely from self-discipline. I set a goal to get to bed by 11 o’clock and to get up at 6 a.m. After, I would help my kids get ready for school and make their lunches, I would do my meditation, practice French with DuoLingo on my phone, and then do my morning exercise (running, PiYo, or weight lifting — depending on the day). I would then listen to scriptures and a podcast episode on the drive to work. I’d get in to work with the satisfaction of knowing that I’d done the simple, easy-to-do — but also easy-not-to-do — things that over time would hopefully make a large impact on my life, happiness, and goals. I would have a sense of accomplishment and it would barely by 9 a.m. Making it a morning ritual took away the question of whether or not I would do it, and also the decision of what I would do and when in the morning. Was I perfect at it? No, especially on nights when I didn’t get to bed by 11 o’clock. I came to find that this was the linchpin of my success with my morning ritual. I tried to make my ritual non-optional. It was just what I did in the morning — and this made it easier. Mixing up my morning exercise regiment made it easier as well. Tuesdays and Fridays, I run. Mondays and Thursdays, I do PiYo. Wednesdays and Saturdays, I lift weights. Sundays I rest and usually do an extra long meditation.
I fully intend on maintaining my meditation practice. I feel that it is one more thing to help me on my quest to improve and maintain my health and help me to live an abundant, good life. That’s the great thing about meditation, anyone can do it. Just clear your mind and breathe! If you’ve ever been curious about meditation or mindfulness, just give it a try for 10 consecutive days. You may just find yourself starting a healthy new habit.