[Editor's note: This story is part two of a two-part series on the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness for runners. Missed part one? Check it out here.]
If the benefits of meditation could be packed into pills, they’d be flying off store shelves. Recent science has confirmed that this centuries-old practice confers a host of health benefits: Studies show that meditation can help combat stress, ease physical pain, increase mental alertness and creativity, improve sleep and even slow the body’s aging process.
Meditation can even improve your running. “Establishing a daily meditation practice has helped me train smarter and stronger,” says ultrarunner Timothy Allen Olson. “It’s improved my ability to take stock of my mental and physical state, which has let me avoid running injuries because I’m tuning into my body’s needs.”
Regular sessions of seated meditation also help Olson get into the zone quickly and easily while running. “When stresses arise—in running or in life—I’m able to combat them so much better,” says Olson, who’s made seated meditation a part of his daily routine for years now.
Yet most Americans, including runners, still shy away from the be-still, eyes-closed kind of meditation that researchers say is so beneficial. That’s probably because most Westerners have a skewed idea of what meditation really is.
The image of the cross-legged swami is “more of a caricature of meditation, rather than the reality,” explains Light Watkins, a meditation practitioner and instructor in Santa Monica, California. His latest book, “Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying,” was published in January. “The idea that you have to sit like the Buddha or that you have to be a soft-spoken ascetic that eschews meat and alcohol just isn’t accurate,” Watkins says.
Most Americans make additional assumptions about meditation that just aren’t true. Here are three of the more common myths.
Myth #1: “My head isn’t calm and empty, so I must be doing it wrong.”
Not so, says Watkins. “Having a swirly mind is totally normal and part of the process,” he says. Your job isn’t to suppress your thoughts and emotions, only to observe them without judgment or self-criticism. “Try to view that swirl of thoughts as a layer that you can move beyond,” he suggests. Watkins compares the barrage of thoughts to the asteroid belt that Han Solo had to fly through. “It can be scary, with your thoughts blindsiding you, but you just have to hold on and let your mind move through it.”
Myth #2: “But running is my meditation.”
Sorry, says Watkins. “It might seem like meditation, if running is the only time you’re not thinking about the past or the future,” he says. “But it’s not technically meditation.”
Olson agrees. His initial attempts at meditation took place while he ran, because he found it difficult to sit still. “But that’s mindful running, not meditation,” he says. “It’s still really important to do the sitting thing, because that’s what has the greatest benefits. Seated meditation improves your mindful running, but they’re not the same thing.”
Myth #3: “Meditation will help me block out pain.”
Not exactly. Various studies have concluded that meditation can help reduce chronic pain. But chronic pain is different from acute pain (the hurt you feel while running). Plus, says Olson, meditation isn’t about suppressing pain—or anything else. Instead, it trains you to treat pain like any other intrusion: You observe the discomfort, without judgment or alarm. In a sense, you overcome it by staring it down. “When you observe it and accept it, many times pain simply dissolves,” says Olson.
So, how can you start meditating?
You don’t have to sit cross-legged. Says Watkins, “You can sit in any way that’s comfortable.” That could mean adopting the same pose you use for watching TV. Only comfort is key. “You’re not going to be able to experience a settled mind if all you can think about is how uncomfortable you are.”
If you feel too restless to sit? Try it anyway. “It’s not the sitting that’s hard,” says Watkins. “It’s developing new habits that feels like torture. The more you make seated meditation a habit, the easier it feels.”
“A lot of people think they need to breathe like Darth Vader in order to meditate,” says Watkins. But he finds that breathing naturally, without any attempt to manipulate your breath or make it impressively slow or deep, achieves the best pathway to calm. “If you truly want to lose yourself, don’t control anything.”
Close Your Eyes
It may feel uncomfortable at first, but you've got to close your eyes to make this work. “It’s hard to achieve a settled mind when you’re hyper-aware,” says Watkins.
Observe and Accept Your Thoughts
You may experience a flurry of brain activity instead of the calm you’re hoping to feel—and that’s okay, says Watkins. “See your mind as an ally, not the enemy,” he suggests. Give it enough time, and it’ll work through the clutter.