By David DeLuca, Spartan Editor
“I got in my 5 minutes of meditation this morning,” said no one, ever.
OK, maybe someone said it, but at the time, it was obnoxious and looked like attention-seeking behavior. And it made you feel bitter, because you wish you meditated more, but for some reason you always forget—like I do.
Meditating would be great, I think. I should meditate.
Or maybe I should keep working. Yes, I’ll just keep working.
Or, I’ll clean something. Cleaning is useful and productive.
Do I have any messages on Facebook? Let me check. No, nothing there.
Let’s try Twitter.
Do I even have a Twitter?
Did anyone like my #swolemates photo on Instagram?
And so on.
For an activity that involves little to no physical exertion—or movement at all—meditation is a surprisingly difficult feat.
Why is it so hard to spend five minutes inside your own head?
To literally do nothing except breathe?
Well, possibly because it’s not entirely clear what you’ll find in there—and the unknown is scary.
Possibly because it feels like you’re doing nothing—and, honestly, doing nothing feels wrong.
Possibly because it’s uncomfortable to endure all the noise and the negative voices. Nobody likes to hear that part of himself or herself. Or at least I don’t.
But, as hard as it is to sit down, take out the headphones, be still, and meditate—the latest research (as well as most of the research thus far) leans overwhelmingly in the direction of you should probably do it right now.
And when I say it leans overwhelmingly, I mean it’s falling over.
[Update, 4:27 PM: it’s down.]
What the research says
It’s easy to find this information through a search engine, but here are some of the most recent findings on the benefits of meditation.
- Meditation helps people to make decisions, especially when it involves delaying gratification—according to findings from a study at Ryerson University.
- Meditation can help people to manage some negative effects of psychological stress.
- Meditating for two hours per week helped stressed-out medical students to feel more at peace, less anxious, less tired, and more focused.
- Meditation helps to reduce the symptoms of panic disorder.
- Meditation increased gray matter concentration in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulating emotions, sense of self, and having perspective.
- Meditation helps people to be less stressed-out by deadlines.
- Meditation helped 13 Zen masters to reduce the psychological perception of pain.
Meditation can help with many other problems as well. (The benefits listed below are listed on a page about meditation on the Mayo Clinic website.)
According to Mayo Clinic, meditation can help a person to:
- Gain perspective on stressful events
- Learn to manage stress
- Increase self-awareness
- Focus on the present
- Reduce negative emotions
Managing (not treating) Health Problems
According to Mayo Clinic, meditation can also help to manage the symptoms of:
- Anxiety disorders
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Sleep problems
How do you meditate?
Asking this question is like asking, how do you do sports? There are at least 23 kinds of meditation, and some of those categories have hundreds of subcategories. However, at a very high level, meditative practices break down into three main categories.
- Focused attention
- Open monitoring
- Effortless presence
Focused attention meditation is what it sounds like; it involves pointing your attention toward one thing and one thing only during the entire session. This object could be your breath, the tip of your nose, or the finish line at a Spartan Race.
Open monitoring involves taking your experience as it comes, without any judgment. It’s a form of listening and watching without being swept up, like being a spectator at your own race.
Effortless presence is difficult to describe. It’s a kind of peaceful emptiness, where your thoughts and attention are not pointed toward anything at all except your own existence. Some say this is what all meditation is about—but how you use meditation is up to you.
The Many (MANY) Ways to Meditate
Below is a list of numerous ways to meditate, the purposes behind each main practice, and some background information.
(Spartan Race, Inc. does not specifically endorse any of these methods or styles of meditation. This blog post is for informational purposes.)
Zen or Zazen (坐禅)
- Where it comes from: Chinese Zen Buddhism (Ch’an) tradition
- The Ultimate Goal: To create inner peace and mindfulness
- How to do it: Sit with your legs crossed and back straight; then, either focus on your breath or just be still.
- Where it comes from: Theravada Buddhist tradition
- The Ultimate Goal: To calm and free the mind
- How to do it: Focus on the breath, make neutral notes of what distracts you, and observe your experience without attachment.
- Where it comes from: An adaptation from traditional Buddhist meditation practices
- The Ultimate Goal: To increase awareness
- How to do it: Focus on the breath, take note of what distracts you, and enjoy being.
- Where it comes from: Buddhist traditions, especially Theravada and Tibetan
- The Ultimate Goal: To increase empathy and positive emotions
- How to do it: Sit down, close your eyes, and practice feeling kindness and benevolence towards (1) yourself, (2) a good friend, (3) a person you like, (4) a person you don’t like, (5) the first four (1–4) equally, and (6) eventually, the entire universe. (Talk about audacious goals.)
- Where it comes from: Hindu traditions
- The Ultimate Goal: Achieve focus and inner peace
- How to do it: Repeat a mantra, either a word or a phrase, continuously for the meditation session. (This is one of Spartan Pro Cassidy Watton’s favorite ways to focus while racing and training.)
- Where it comes from: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1955 in India and the West
- The Ultimate Goal: Create a state of relaxed awareness
- How to do it: Unknown — information is not freely available.
- Where it comes from: India, 1700 BCE
- The Ultimate Goal: Varies
How to Do It:
There are several ways to do yogic meditation:
- Third-eye — focus on the spot between the eyebrows.
- Chakra — perform a mantra for each chakra.
- Gazing — gaze at a physical object, such as a candle.
- Kundalini — (complex) should not be attempted without expert guidance.
- Kriya — a deeply spiritual practice that can be learned through lessons.
- Sound — focus on an external sound.
- Tantra — too many different practices to describe here.
- Pranayama — inhale, hold, exhale, hold on a 4-4-4-4 count.
Self-Inquiry and “I am”
- Where it comes from: 20th-century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi
- The Ultimate Goal: To investigate one’s true nature, to find the answer to the “Who am I?” question
- How to do it: Ask yourself, “Who am I?” Reject all verbal or visual answers and dive deep into the subjective awareness of self. (Yes, it’s hard, but hard work pays off.)
- Where it comes from: Daoism
- The Ultimate Goal: To quiet the body and mind, unify body and spirit, find inner peace, and harmonize with the Dao (read: way of the universe)
How to Dao It:
Daoist meditation takes three forms:
- Emptiness meditation — to sit quietly and empty the mind.
- Breathing meditation — to observe the breath.
- Neiguan (inner vision) — to visualize internal body processes.
- Where it comes from: Chinese Buddhist, Daoist and Confucianist traditions
- The Ultimate Goal: Varies
- How to do it: Sit comfortably, relax the whole body, breathe deeply, calm the mind, and focus on the root chakra, which is two inches below the navel. Feel the energy circulating through your body.
- Where it comes from: Christian traditions
- The Ultimate Goal: To achieve moral purification, deeper understanding of God or the Bible, unity with God
How to Do Christian Meditation:
Christian meditation takes several forms:
- Contemplative prayer — silent repetition of sacred words or sentences
- Contemplative reading — thinking deeply about Biblical teachings or events
- “Sitting with God” — silent meditation focused on God
- The Ultimate Goal: Varies
How to Do Guided Meditation:
Typically, guided meditation simply involves following instructions given through an audio recording. Here is a list of several ways people do guided meditation:
- Traditional — allow your attention to follow a leader’s instruction.
- Imagery — achieve healing and relaxation through visualization.
- Relaxation — achieve relaxation in the whole body with music and soothing nature sounds.
- Affirmation — imprint a positive message on your mind.
- Binaural Beats — generate alpha waves in your brain using audio frequencies. (Editor’s Choice)
How do Spartans meditate?
I asked Spartans how they meditated. Here’s what they said.
Amber — Use Headspace.
“Headspace is a lovely free meditation app. Great for beginners.” (Amber, Spartans of the Northeast)
Dawn — Daily Prayer.
“Prayer in the morning, prayer in the evening. I do it to give thanks and release my thoughts.” (Dawn, West Coast Spartans)
Julie — Breathe, be grateful.
“I focus on quiet breathing, in and out, every evening. Being grateful. I also do it when I can’t sleep. Focusing on my breath quiets my mind. I can then focus on my thoughts during the daylight hours, not the middle of the night when I can’t do anything about it.” (Julie, West Coast Spartans)
Lee — Box Breathing.
“I enjoy box breathing. You can do it just about anywhere and it increases lung capacity and strength at the same time. For extra challenge, to see if I can reach of meditation while active, I’ll try box breathing while exerting energy, like climbing flights of stairs.” (Lee, Midwest Spartans)
Elizabeth — Use Insight Timer.
“Insight timer is also a great app. It has options for timed or guided meditation.” (Elizabeth, Spartans of the Northeast)
But wait. This involves a lot of sitting down. Isn’t that bad for your health?
Prolonged sitting is bad for your health, but a meditation session typically doesn’t last as long as most people sit at their desks. Besides, time spent in meditation is never wasted. Five minutes spent sitting in meditation can mean an hour of powerful focus and clarity during any kind of activity.
(Great, now we really don’t have an excuse.)
Spartan offers many tools to build mental strength.
Meditation is just one way that Spartans can sharpen their minds. For those who want to take one more step, Spartan is here to help.
SPARTAN X The Course
SPARTAN X is an educational program driven by Spartan principles. It is the result of over 1,000 interviews with psychologists, sociologists, monks, priests, educators, athletes, community leaders and business innovators gathering data as to what it takes to achieve success. Start your mental training today.
Spartan Fit! The Book
A complete Spartan training guide, Spartan Fit! arms readers with the strength, knowledge, and grit to never question their potential again, both on and off the race course.
The Spartan Up! Podcast
Joe De Sena is on a mission to find the secrets to success in all aspects of life. His interviews with authors, academics, athletes, adventurers, CEOs and thought leaders will shift your thinking, make you laugh and and give you the tools you need. Listen to the Spartan Up! Podcast now.
The Spartan Way of Life eBook
If you’re not sure what all this “Spartan talk” is about, read this free eBook. You’ll learn why Spartan exists, how to eat, train, and think like a Spartan, the history of the Ancient Spartans, and more. Check it out.
Mindset is everything.
Running a Spartan Race takes mental strength. Life takes mental strength. Whether or not you’re headed to the race this weekend, life is better when you come at it with the right mindset.
You can’t buy that.
You can only build it.
So build it. And bring it to your next race.