An exam room in a cancer ward was the last place in the world I wanted to be, yet on a bleak January afternoon in 2007, I had to spend three anxiety-filled hours in one. I was waiting to hear my doctor’s treatment plan for the melanoma that had been diagnosed a month earlier.
Every once in a while, I’d crack open the door and call out “Hey, I’m still here” to anyone in a white coat passing by. They’d nod politely, and I’d resume my waiting.
Bare under the flimsy hospital gown, I put on my coat after an hour of shivering. A deeper chill, however, came from the dread bubbling up inside me. Was my cancer treatable? Had it spread? Would I die?
My fearful thoughts were running wild and ratcheting up my anxiety, so I did the one thing I knew could help: I meditated.
I sat in the only chair in the room, feet flat on the cold floor and hands on my thighs, took a deep breath then slowly exhaled. I took another and another, paying attention each time I inhaled and exhaled. The practice rooted me in the present and diffused my dread of the future. I was able to quiet my mind and attain something resembling a sense of peace.
I hope you will never have the occasion to meditate in a cancer ward. But you don’t need to be in an extreme situation to reap the benefits. Having a practice that can center and calm you will help you cope with any stressful situation, from being stuck in traffic to a bona fide crisis.
Spiritual, Not Religious
In the past, people turned to religion for help dealing with life’s dramas. But today there’s a growing feeling that traditional forms of worship no longer provide us with the comfort, solace and support we’re looking for.
According to a 2012 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 33 million Americans identify with no specific religion, and an additional 13 million label themselves atheist or agnostic. Yet of this 46 million, two-thirds say they believe in God, 21 percent pray every day, and a third acknowledge belief in “spiritual energy in physical objects.”
This helps explain why so many people turn to spirituality and accessible practices. Not only do these help us achieve calm in the moment, they bestow an array of mental and physical benefits.
Numerous studies show that regularly engaging in a spiritual practice, like mindfulness meditation, gratitude and self-compassion, can lower your blood pressure, cortisol (stress hormone) levels and risk for chronic disease as well as increase your immune-system function, focus, memory and mood.
A Less-Stressed You in 5 Minutes a Day
One of the best things about practices like these is that they can be worked into even the most hectic lifestyle. Most of us don’t have hours a day to spend meditating, and even if we did, that simply isn’t going to happen. But committing to a daily five-minute “micro-practice” is doable — especially if we believe it can be beneficial in both the short- and long-term.
Here are three basic practices you can use every day to find calm in a storm. Depending on your lifestyle and personal preferences, you can do the traditional version or a quickie “on the go,” which is just as effective. Or invent your own variation.
1. Mindfulness Meditation This is simply focusing on the present moment without judging anything in your experience.
Benefit According to Buddhists and Western teachers, like Eckhart Tolle, a mindfulness practice fosters a sense of inner peace because it stops us from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. It helps us stay in the here and now without feeling the need to fix anything.
Traditional Practice Find a quiet spot and sit in a comfortable but firm chair with the soles of your feet flat on the floor, palms resting on your thighs. You can sit on the floor or in another position, but don’t contort yourself. Your back should be straight but relaxed; eyes can be closed or open (slightly unfocused on the space just in front of your nose). Breathe naturally while paying attention to the sensations in your body and your environment. Become aware of it all but don’t judge or “analyze” it.
As thoughts, ideas, memories and worries parade through your mind, take note, but imagine your breath sweeping them away. Or you can silently acknowledge them, then shift your focus back to your breath.
On-the-Go Variation Go through the routine of brushing your teeth slowly and with keen focus for two minutes. Notice the texture of the toothpaste tube, the sound the bristles make against your teeth, the feeling of the brush in your mouth. When your thoughts wander, simply acknowledge that and return your focus to the task. You can do this with pretty much anything: walking, eating, shampooing your hair, petting an animal. It’s all about creating awareness and paying attention to the moment.
2. Gratitude This practice helps you first identify what is good in your life then aids you in making a habit of giving thanks to these people, moments or things. contemplate each one long enough to sense the love or joy or whatever positive emotion comes up.
Benefit People who regularly practice gratitude feel more optimistic. They tend to have greater focus and concentration and a zest for life, says Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and editor in chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Traditional Practice You can acknowledge your appreciation any time by simply saying “thank you” silently or aloud, but Emmons’ research shows that people who make a daily list of the things they are grateful for report that they are actually happier and are more likely to achieve their goals.
So once a day, grab a pen and notebook, or sit down at the computer, and using the prompt “I am grateful for ______ ,” write down 10 things you appreciate, however minor. When your list is complete, state each item and say “thank you,” and connect to the feelings that emerge.
On-the-Go Variation Several times throughout the day — when you’re walking to your car, a restaurant or in nature — express your gratitude with each step: “I’m grateful for the breath in my body.” Step. “I’m grateful for my job.” Step. “I am grateful for my home.” Continue the exercise until you’ve taken at least 10 steps.
3. Self-Compassion This teaches you to treat yourself kindly and with patience even when you’ve experienced a setback or a “failure.” Rather than criticize yourself, when you practice self-compassion, you note the imperfection and offer yourself encouragement. You might say, “This is tough, but I’ll be kind to myself as I work through it” or “Everybody makes mistakes.”
Benefit This offers a way to move through the hurt rather than get stuck in it. People who learn to act with self-compassion are also happier, more optimistic and productive — probably because they worry less about making a mistake, says Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
Traditional Practice Start by noticing when you are not being self-compassionate. When you are judgmental — say, when you look in the mirror and think you look old or tired — stop, become aware, then act kindly. Speak to yourself as if a friend: “Oh, honey, you look like you’re living an active life and you fit in with everyone else.”
On-the-go Variation Just before bed, take out a journal and write a letter to yourself. Mention the things that went wrong during the day and any “mistakes” you made. Then write about all the good you did and what you accomplished. Recognizing that we are more than our failures helps self-compassion to flourish.
Finding Time for Spiritual Practices
- Schedule it. Initially, set aside 10 minutes a day — ideally first thing in the morning before the day’s distractions set in. Write it in your calendar and make it a priority.
- Sneak in mini-sessions. The day’s natural transitions are great for getting in a few more minutes of focused quiet time. Before breakfast, on your lunch break and just before bed are ideal times. But you can also sneak in any one of the practices during the morning commute (try driving mindfully) or while waiting in line at the supermarket.
- Make it part of the routine. Anything can become a practice, so wash dishes mindfully, give thanks while folding clothes, and make job issues a study in self-compassion.
Staying mindful in my daily life is my practice, and it sure helped during that long day in the oncologist’s office six years ago. A five-minute meditation helped me relax. Then I practiced gratitude for all the beautiful things that were still in my life. When the doctor finally came in, I was able to ask smart questions and make sound decisions. My spiritual practice couldn’t change the fact that I needed surgery, but it did change the way I handled the news.
Today I am grateful to be cancer-free, and I continue to benefit from my spiritual practices. They help me experience peace and sustain my appreciation for the good health and fulfilling life I have. I’ve learned to have compassion for myself and others and to know that within every one of life’s moments, there is the possibility of hope and tranquility.
Polly Campbell is the author of Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People and a blogger at imperfectspirituality.com. She writes and speaks about personal development and spirituality.