The Parents' Guide to Meditating: How to Do It When You Have No Time

Meditation experts and parents who have figured out their own slow-down secrets share how even the busiest moms and dads can take a breather.

You've heard about the benefits of meditation; maybe you've even dabbled in a session or two yourself. But for whatever reason—too busy, too "out there," too "I don't know if I'm doing this right"—it hasn't quite stuck in your self-care routine. Yet those aforementioned benefits (increased focus, greater empathy, reduced stress) are persuasive, especially when you learn that meditation can grow new connections in parts of your brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, explains Christopher Willard, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance, in Massachusetts.

woman sitting on soft cushion smiling
David Prado/Stocksy

A study published in Psychiatry Research found that participants who went through an eight-week meditation program had increased thickness (that's a good thing) in the parts of the brain that regulate mind-wandering thoughts, manage feelings, and help you learn, think, and remember. The researchers also found that the amygdala (the fight-or-flight-response part of the brain associated with increased anxiety and stress) shrank after the program.

Just as physical exercises target specific muscle groups, each kind of meditation (and there are several) is believed to benefit a separate part of your mind. Mindfulness meditation, for example, hones your attention skills, while loving-kindness meditation builds your compassion. These practices pay dividends in your body too. When patients with chronic illness used mindfulness to handle stress, they showed significant growth in both their physical and mental health, found a review in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. That's not surprising, since long-term stress is often linked to inflammation, which can play a major role in cardiovascular and liver disease, Parkinson's disease, and other serious illnesses.

"Research shows that when people have a regular meditation practice, they show improvements in multiple areas of their life," says Michelle Maldonado, a meditation teacher in Bristow, Virginia. "You might begin to have a stronger awareness of conflict in your life and a better understanding of relationship dynamics, and you may develop healthier communication and problem-solving skills." But getting started—or even finding time to start—can be the hardest part. Here's everything you need to easily begin your own practice. Serenity … now.

What is Meditation?

It's actually quite simple: Meditation is a way to rewire and strengthen your brain's ability to focus on whatever you're doing with an open-minded and nonjudgmental attitude—whether it's tapping into your external environment, connecting with your internal feelings, or sending love and empathy to others, according to the journal Nature. Practitioners advise that newbies need four basic elements for a successful session: a quiet place with as few distractions as possible (yes, this might feel impossible to find); a comfortable posture; a prompt or a mantra to focus on; and a relaxed mind, open to whatever might come—from magical to mundane.

Here's a mantra for you: "They're only a toddler. They're only a toddler …"

How Do I Get Started?

The good news is that whether or not you realize it, you already know how to meditate, says Sherrell Moore-Tucker, a meditation coach based in Washington, D.C. Concentrating on a task is a form of meditation, and so is worrying (albeit a negative form). Meditation is really any focused state of awareness.

One of the easiest ways to begin is to incorporate meditation into your day, perhaps by pausing between lunch and the next thing on your to-do list or by being mindful while doing something boring, like folding laundry. This method is called an integrated practice, Maldonado says. To start, take three deep breaths and focus on the sensation of their coming in and going out, or take five minutes to notice the stimuli around you: What do you see? (A mound of fluffy towels.) What do you hear? (The dryer humming.) What do you feel? (The soft fibers of terry cloth.)

Once you're comfortable with the basic approach, try setting aside a block of time to devote to it. Choose a position that feels comfortable to you: sitting in a favorite chair, lying in the grass. And if staying still isn't working for you or you feel as if you'll fall asleep, try a walking meditation—what Buddhists call kinhin. Pick something to focus on during your walk, such as the sensation of your feet on the ground or the sights and sounds you notice along the path.

The most important part of meditation is to not try to "succeed." As you sit longer, you might find it harder to stay focused on your breath or sensations. That's okay. "Don't worry too much about doing it 'right' or for a specific amount of time," says Dr. Willard, coauthor of The In-Between Book, which helps kids develop mindfulness. "Just the fact that you're setting the intention of trying to practice some self-care is powerful." Rather than judging yourself or getting frustrated if your attention wanders, just acknowledge that it has and, when you feel ready, bring your awareness back to your breath or to noticing your surroundings. The point is less about staying focused and more on noticing when you wander and gently coming back. Over time, you'll discover that, as with physical exercise, you'll naturally find it easier to meditate longer.

If it's impossible for you not to think about tonight's dinner menu or that form you need to fill out, using a guided meditation can help. Google "guided meditation for anger" (or stress or sadness or whatever emotion you're struggling with), suggests Jewell Singletary, a yoga and meditation teacher in New York City.

Top off your practice by lighting a candle and focusing on the scent or repeating a mantra (either out loud or in your head). Pick a phrase that's easy to understand and that resonates with you, says Singletary: "I accept myself" or "I invite lightness and ease into my life."

How Do I Know I'm Actually Meditating?

It feels different to everyone, but Moore-Tucker says there are some telltale signs you've made it. "Time will fly by," she explains. "You might be in a meditative state for 15 to 20 minutes, but it'll feel as if no time has passed." Your body might also begin to feel extremely relaxed—your limbs may be heavy, and your breathing will begin to slow down.

But don't worry if you don't experience these sensations. "When I was younger, I had a perfectionist tilt to meditation," says Maya Szatai, a mom of two from North Haven, Connecticut, who has meditated off and on since her teens. "I was envious of the people who could sit cross-legged and meditate for hours—I thought this was the 'real' way to do it. Now I try to meditate once a day, usually in the morning when the coffee is brewing and before the rest of my family is up."

But What If I Can't Meditate?

Karate practice and grocery runs can make meditation fall to the absolute bottom of your priority list. We asked experts and fellow parents for solutions to common practice-preventing obstacles:

"I can't find a spare moment."

Start with the quickest meditation ever: Take three long breaths while closing your eyes. If you want a longer, uninterrupted practice, find a time when your kids are asleep or occupied (permission to hand them a tablet granted). Jeffrey Sinor, a dad of a 3-year-old in San Jose, started meditating regularly during the past year by waking up at 5 a.m. "It's just part of my day now, like eating breakfast," he says.

"I keep dozing off."

If you're running on empty, sitting still might cause you to snooze. Just go with it. The mindfulness practice yoga nidra actually encourages deep relaxation, so it's okay if you fall asleep. Moore-Tucker suggests looking up "yoga nidra and guided sleep meditations" to gently send you to dreamland.

"I'm not particularly spiritual."

Meditation is a powerful practice with science behind it. Maldonado, who does nonsecular meditation (meaning it isn't linked to a specific religion), was introduced to it as a kid by her aunt, who simply called it "sitting quietly."

"I don't know which type to try."

Test some out and see: Vipassana, sound bath, Zen, Qigong—to name a few. Explore meditating at various times throughout the day, and try different practices by downloading a meditation app (suggestions at right). Leigh Shulman, a mom of two in Atlanta who has practiced for 15 years, says this is how she figured out what worked for her. "I like guided meditations with silence in the middle so I can have time to clear my head," she says.

"I can't sit still."

Start with a walking meditation, or simply be mindful while doing daily activities. "When showering, think about what you're doing: squeezing shampoo into your hand, squishing suds into your hair," Szatai says.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's July 2021 issue as "Anyone Can Meditate (Yes, Even You)." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.

Need some more meditation help? In partnership with Parents, MyLife has a collection of short, powerful activities supports busy moms. From forgiveness to self-compassion exercises, choose from meditations, yoga, and reflections to give yourself the care you deserve.

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