How to Un-fry Your Modern Mind

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Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

It’s no secret that modern life is hectic. Our smartphones and apps are designed to capture as much of our attention (and convert it to revenue) as possible, or even to addict us, with industry insiders (like ex-Googler Tristan Harris) going rogue to help improve tech industry awareness and regulation. Brits checks their phones once every 12 waking minutes on average (or 80 times per day for Americans), and usage-trackers, like iPhone’s “Screen Time”, or “Digital Wellbeing” for Android, highlight how much we subconsciously scroll.

Smartphones, and the increased general busyness of our always-on modern lives, fill in the natural pauses humans would have historically experienced throughout our day — perhaps where we would have connected with others in-person; watched a sunset; smelled a flower; or simply had some mental down-time. The complex machinery of the human brain may even be designed for such pauses, with research suggesting that moments of boredom can actually be beneficial to our productivity and creativity levels.

Instead, 21st century life is full of distractions, and our connectivity and work pressures accrue a need to feel contactable 24/7 across time zones. We can stay busy browsing information ad infinitum, and being notified at all hours (unless, God forbid, we run out of battery!). Without awareness of where our attention is going, we can easily get sucked into being perpetually distracted; and 2009 Stanford University research found that, even though we might feel like we’re getting a lot done, tech multitasking actually impairs our focus and productivity.

Can meditating help?

So that’s the bad news, but I’d like to share with you how, alongside practicing better tech hygiene techniques (like those described in the seminal book “How to Break Up with Your Phone”), developing a regular meditation habit has increased my ability to stay more calm and present in a modern world full of distractions.

Like “exercise”, the word “meditation” is an umbrella term for many different practices, but it can generally be defined as intentionally changing our state of consciousness from our normal waking state by calmly focusing using our mind, body or breath for an intentional period of time.

A few years ago, I was transitioning from a career in finance to one in well-being, at the same time my long-term relationship was coming to an end. My friend came over one day during this uncertain period, and guided me through my first 20-minute meditation session. After feeling the calming effects, I was hooked! I started meditating by myself using focusing and breathing techniques my friend had taught me; I downloaded meditation apps; took several online courses (like Deepak Chopra’s “21 Day Meditation Experience”); and started going to in-person guided meditation classes to learn more styles (Ceremony Meditation in LA is my favourite studio).

These days I meditate at home several times a week using either the Insight Timer app, or by quietly sitting and focusing inwardly on my breath or sensations in my body. I also love attending in-person sound meditation classes (also known as “sound bath”), which I find particularly powerful for dropping into a deep meditative state (where research suggests we experience different brain wave activity).

After developing a regular meditation habit, the monkey-mind brain chatter I used to experience has hugely calmed down. This helps me feel more present, grateful and generally happier in the here and now.

Here are four major ways I’ve noticed meditating regularly improves my life:

  1. Feeling less stressed

A few months ago, I spoke on stage about mindset (as Co-Founder of Mind: Unlocked) at Eurekafest, a tech conference in California. In my previous life as a chartered accountant, public speaking terrified me — I almost fainted during the last team presentation I did. But this time, after a lot of regular meditation, I felt minimal anxiety come up. From the feedback I received, I even seemed to have convinced the crowd that I was a confident public speaker!

In other situations that would have shaken me up before — like encountering an angry person on the street, experiencing physical pain or even being burgled — I’ve noticed myself staying present, observing the situation and responding in a much more calm and balanced way than my previously more reactive, panicky non-meditating self. People often say I have a certain “stillness” about me now — a compliment I definitely didn’t receive before!

Studies by Harvard Medical School professor Dr Herbert Benson suggest that meditation can play a significant role in reducing our body’s stress (or “fight-or-flight”) response, by inducing the “relaxation response” — where our body “releases chemicals…that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.” In modern life, our stress response can be constantly triggered, leading to chronic stress and negative health effects in the long-term. Training our focus, for example on slowing our breath down, during meditation helps us to practice bringing our minds back to the present moment, which can adapt the neural pathways in our brains so that we respond more calmly and consciously to stressful life events.

Various personal development books (some of my favorites are by author Byron Katie) and courses (notably the “human potential-optimizing” and, for me personally, life-changing iDiscover360), also helped boost my mental resilience by being able to see my own biases and both the positive and negative sides of situations more clearly.

2. Practicing non-judgment

Many of us give up on meditation because we think that in order to do it “right” we need to clear our minds of all thoughts, which sounds (because it practically is) impossible. Sometimes, if thoughts keep coming up when we’re getting started, we assume our mind is particularly incapable of being quiet and calm enough to meditate successfully. However, a key thing to note is that, even for experienced meditators, getting distracted by our thoughts is totally normal — after all, humans have around 50,000–70,000 per day!

When I notice my mind is elsewhere when I’m meditating, I thank my brain for the reminder, and gently return my attention to my session. Another effective strategy can be to imagine our thoughts gently passing by like clouds in the sky as they arise — so we are aware of, but don’t need to react to them. The great news is that, once we realize we’re distracted, we’ve become aware enough to bring our focus back to our meditation session.

We can even start to welcome the process of calmly accepting that having thoughts come up is normal, instead of berating ourselves; getting out of a thought loop (for example, about what we’re having for dinner); and back into our meditation over and over again. If we truly want to develop ourselves, this is great for practicing self-love and non-judgement (instead of negative self-talk around not meditating “right”), as well as accepting that we’re not always in control (and that’s okay)

Growing up in a world that capitalizes on us feeling “not enough” as we naturally are, means that unpicking this belief can take some (worthwhile) effort. From my own experience, our tendency to judge, forgive and accept others is related to our capacity for those things within ourselves, so practicing judging ourselves less can help our relationships with other people, as we become kinder to them too. Often the ways we most harshly judge people (for example, on their appearance), are those which we judge ourselves most for; and research has even found a negative correlation between judgmental thinking (even if we don’t say our thoughts out loud) and happiness.

With practice, the quiet spaces between my thoughts during meditation sessions have gotten longer, and I find myself responding less-frustratedly when they do come up. I’ve also noticed that regular meditation quietens my brain’s non-present, judgmental chatter during the rest of my day, for example when I’m walking past strangers on the street. An added benefit is that my “gut-feel” answers to difficult decisions becomes more obvious, because calming down a racing mind makes more space for my intuition to be heard.

3. Being more present in the here and now

It was an absolute life-changer when I realized (initially during a 2012 Landmark course) that we are not our thoughts, but can choose to observe them — we can influence the way we think rather than letting our thoughts subconsciously control how we react. As Michael Singer, author of “The Untethered Soul”, puts it “There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind — you are the one who hears it.”

Meditating has helped the quality of my thinking two-fold by:

  • Practicing quieting my “monkey-mind” and being present to what I’m actually experiencing in the here and now; and
  • Giving me space with less distractions to become more aware of the thoughts I have, which I find is the first step to improving them.

Reducing our “brain chatter”, or the time that we spend thinking about things other than what’s actually happening in the present, has been shown to boost our emotional well-being. A 2010 Harvard University study, titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, found that research participants were thinking about things other than what they were actually doing 47% of the time, and they felt less happy during these periods of “mind-wandering” than when they focused on the present moment. Research has also found that our thoughts tend towards “negativity dominance” — a 2013 study found that 60–70% of particpants non-present, spontaneous thoughts were “self-critical, pessimistic or fearful”.

As with practicing non-judgment, I find that repeatedly bringing my focus back to being present to what I’m actually doing whilst I meditate, seems to train my mind for the rest of the time too, so that I get stuck in negative thought-loops far less often. Just a few minutes of regular meditation can help us become aware of the way we think, and increase the pauses between our thoughts both during and after our sessions.

Being more present in the moment (rather than in our own heads) can also help us to become better listeners, which can improve our relationships with, and the emotional well-being of those around us. Spending time in nature has also been shown to benefit our physical and mental well-being, and I find that I feel the calming benefits the most when I’m able to be present, notice the details of and therefore feel more connected to my surroundings. So being less stuck in our thoughts and more present in the here and now from meditating, can help us feel more connected to and grateful for our environment and the people around us.

4. Better sleep

Prior to meditating regularly, I often had trouble falling asleep after a busy day. Working on my computer, hectic commuting, and 24/7 emails were not conducive to settling down for a quiet night’s rest. I would find it hard to switch off, sometimes lying awake, thoughts racing, for an hour or so after I went to bed. Often, I would wake up feeling like I was still tired and not at my “best” the next day. In fact, being under-rested over time (having less than the recommended 7–9 hours per night as adults) can lead to serious medical conditions, such as obesity and heart disease, and even potentially decreases our life expectancy.

Meditating has lessened the volume of negative thoughts I have throughout the day, including when my head hits the pillow. Also, knowing a couple of meditation exercises like focusing on slowing down our breath, or progressive body relaxation (where we tense up, and then fully relax each part of our body in sequence), can help take us out of our racing minds and into our tired bodies instead.

Research even suggests that experienced meditators produce more melatonin (a hormone that helps us fall and stay asleep) than non-meditators. Stress and sleep disorders are known to be linked and to exacerbate each other in a vicious circle, so meditating to reduce the stress response as I discussed above, also helps.

Meditating has also helped me notice the effect technology has on my thoughts and my sleep. Because I notice how calm my mind feels after a meditation session, I’m more aware of feeling unsettled. Seeing a dramatic news story or video, or scrolling through emails on our “to do list” right before we hit the pillow definitely doesn’t help us to wind down. The “blue light” emitted by from our screens has also been shown to potentially affect our body’s internal clock, also known as our circadian rhythm. Exposure to this unnatural light can prevent us from falling asleep when it’s dark outside.

After becoming more aware of the effects of tech before bedtime on my sleep, I started to charge my phone out of arm’s reach from my bed, so that I’m not as tempted to scroll right before I sleep or after I wake up. Having phone-free times either side of sleeping can also help start and end our day in a less stressful manner and give our minds time to wind down before we close our eyes. It is also easy to find guided sessions made specifically to help us drift off at night in apps or videos; or we can arrange our regular practice before we go to sleep so that we calm our minds down before we go to bed.

Overall, meditating regularly over the past couple of years has helped me to feel less stressed; less judgmental of myself and others; to sleep better; and be more present and grateful. I believe that we all have the power to work on our mindset, and meditation is a powerful and sustainable way to gradually improve the way we experience life, other people and ourselves. This can also give us confidence in our ability to handle both the expected and unexpected challenges that modern life inevitably throws our way.

Jessica is Co-Founder of Mind: Unlocked. To keep up with mental well-being events in London and free resources for coping better with modern life, sign up to their three-bullet weekly emails here. Or, if you’re ready to dive deeper into discovering the benefits of meditation, check out Mind: Unlocked’s meditate in 21-days online course here.

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