For most of my life, I had no interest in meditation or anything like it. Perhaps because I grew up in Berkeley, California, a mecca of hippie culture, or maybe it was because I grew up with intense adversity in my home. For whatever reason, I always steered away from things that felt “new age-y.”
Meanwhile I thought mindfulness meditation—which I will refer to as just meditation from here on out—was all about being able to clear thoughts from one’s mind. I figured why even try because that seemed impossible. I am not alone, many others are under the same misconception that the goal is all about ridding the brain of thoughts.
It was my son that got me thinking that I should look into meditation. In 10th grade Chase started to use an app called Calm that helped him with relaxation techniques. He told me several times how much it really helped.
With his input, and with mindfulness becoming all the rage, I looked into meditation. I was relieved to learn that mindfulness meditation does not tout a goal of clearing one’s mind. Our brains are mega processors that are constantly scanning the environment and continually generating thoughts. There is no off button for that, no matter how long you sit and breathe and try.
Now with COVID-19, I thought it would be a great time to talk about what the heck mindfulness meditation is and why many people, including youth, find it useful for having more control of their focus, dealing with stress, helping with screen time issues and more. I am now one of those people, having started about two years ago using apps such as Headspace and 10 Percent Happier, to meditate for about 10 minutes, 5 times a week.
1. Building up the attention muscle
One main thing in a meditation practice is learning how to get better at paying attention to what one wants to be paying attention to, rather than being pulled by random thoughts that pop into one’s head. This practice helps build the "attention" muscle. It's all about getting more insight into one's patterns of thinking and learning to direct attention to more helpful thoughts.
In https://www.screenagersmovie.com/nc-trailer, we visit my daughter Tessa's high school where for a few minutes on Tuesdays, many classrooms would take a few minutes for quiet time—some teachers would lead a guided mindfulness meditation and students could participate or not—no one was ever forced to close their eyes or partake.
I filmed one teacher as she led the class and said these words:
"So the invitation this week is to notice when you're starting to be critical of yourself and just notice can I shift what I'm focusing on away from that."
2. Notice the stories our brains create to change the narrative
When Chase was in 10th grade, he sustained a major concussion, which led to more than four years of chronic pain. He would have medical workups for many symptoms that he had on and off over the years. There were months when he would feel discouraged, angry, and sad that he had so many unexplained physical problems that kept him from being able to be physically active. It was so hard as his mom to see him so sad.
Eventually, Chase started using apps to teach himself mindfulness meditation. He particularly loved learning from George Mumford, who has been teaching meditation to professional athletes, such as Michael Jordan.
In Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, we see Chase listening to Mumford on an app. Then Chase talks about how learning mindfulness meditation helped him deal with his chronic pain. He says:
“There’s the sensation of pain, but then I add the stress of being in pain and the emotional baggage of the history of the pain and the uncertainty of the future of the pain. And I recognize that I actually have a lot more control over this than I thought. So in my day-to-day when I’m in physical or emotional pain, I can be mindful of the negative layers that are building up on top of it and intervene before they themselves cause unnecessary suffering.”
Chase actually ended up doing a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Washington state during a gap year before starting college. For ten days they did not talk and meditated for about 10 hours a day. He said, not surprisingly, that it was the hardest thing he ever did, but that he was so glad he did it. Man, was I impressed—sounds SO CHALLENGING TO ME.
3. Better ability to push the pause button
Meditation can help people get better at being able to consciously stop for a split second to notice what is happening and make a decision how to act rather than just react. For example, when a person is sitting at a table with friends and having an urge to check their phone, they may get better at being able to notice the urge and not respond to it but let it pass. In that moment of consciousness (mindfulness, attention, awareness), the person can respond with a choice: Do I want to give the signal to my friends that I am not genuinely engaging with them? Do I want to leave where I am virtually? Or, do I want to stay focused on my friends and take a big breath letting the urge to check my phone pass?
Kids and teens can surely relate to the issue of having said something during a video game they regretted or having posted a comment they wish they hadn’t. Talking to them about getting better at pressing a mental pause button is definitely a good discussion topic.
4. Getting to a relaxed state
Another benefit of meditation is the ability each of us has to activate our parasympathetic nervous system by relaxing and breathing calmly. When I have spoken with students at schools where mindfulness is getting incorporated into classrooms, the number one thing students say they like about it is learning how to use breathing exercises to handle stress better.
While working as a physician in an ER, I helped ease the misery of many people experiencing panic attacks. I use the word "misery" because people having a panic attack can feel horrible and they can genuinely believe they are having a heart attack or some other lethal event. Part of the treatment is to gently guide the person to start to breathe more calmly—since often they are breathing at a faster rate than they would normally. This activity helps activate their natural stress reduction system called the parasympathetic system.
Since learning more about mindfulness meditation, I have been much more likely to bring it up with certain adolescents and adults in my clinic for whom I think it might benefit them. It is wonderful that I can give them information about apps and YouTube videos.
5. Permission to "begin again"
Something I love about mindfulness is the frequently used term "begin again." Many meditation teachers use this phrase. It is the idea that when you have the goal of picking a focus point, whatever you decide — it could be your breath, or the feeling of one's feet on the floor or the sounds of birds — your mind will soon start to wander. When that happens, you just "begin again." The cool thing is that the need to begin again should not be viewed as a moment of failure but rather a win because you realized your mind was wandering, and you used your brain to redirect to your focus point.
Recognizing when we are off course and then gently bringing the focus back can help in real life. When we set up goals and then digress, it's easy to completely give up rather than calmly remind ourselves to "begin again."
We can use the same skill to prevent getting overly frustrated when we express behavior that we don't want to do. When I unintentionally bark at my son for being on his phone, I apologize for my tone, and I tell myself, "begin again." Or when I stop writing (my attended attention spot) and start checking email, then I catch myself and rather than beat myself up — "You're a loser, you will never finish your book" — instead non-judgmentally I go back to my writing, I begin again.
Final word of advice
Pushing our kids or teens to do something like meditation, even gently, can very often turn them off to it. One example of my failings in this regard is featured in Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER. Tessa was talking to me about a weekly teen group that she started going to, and she says on camera that she was going "... because you [meaning me her mom] didn't get involved... unlike when you emailed the debate club, and I won't go back."
Tessa only rarely practices mindfulness meditation. But I am glad that she overhears the little lessons and short guided meditations that I do. It is also cool that she was doing it in her high school. Someday in her life she might decide to do it more, but until then I bite my tongue and try not to suggest she do a lesson with me. Truth be told about every two months, I do ask, and well about 50% of the time she says yes.
For those kids and teens that are interested, there are many many apps and YouTube videos that provide little lessons. I think the Headspace App short lessons that precede short sessions are fun and they are animated and explain the concepts I just wrote about.
Here are a list of other mindfulness apps: