There’s no question that meditation is an amazingly effective way to calm our minds. Studies in recent years have shown the psychological and neurological changes it can bring about: Reductions in depression, anxiety, sleep problems, the stressful “mind chatter,” and pain, and improvements in attention, well-being, and creativity. It’s even been linked to changes in gray matter volume.
The problem is that meditation itself isn’t easy — it takes some commitment to sit for 10 or 20 minutes every day. If you can find the time, that’s best — but if you can’t, there are some other, stealthier ways to get yourself into a meditation-like zone.
Any activity that can take you out of your own head, stop the chatter, and reduce the stress response can be called a meditation. Here are a few ways to get into that zone without even trying.
1. Color between the lines.
Adult coloring books have been huge in recent years. Beyond the art itself, there’s something intrinsic about coloring tiny patterns — it’s the simplicity, the intense focus and the repetitive motion, says Ben Michaelis, a psychologist and big proponent of meditation. He says it’s the ultimate “autotelic” activity — doing something for the sake of the act, not the end — and can put you in a meditative state without even trying.
“The thing that coloring and other repetitive actions have in common is that they are enjoyable in and of themselves. The research shows that it is the repetition that is the key to the meditative effects of the activities.”
2. Go for a run (or do something you actually enjoy).
There’s a contingent of people for whom running is total meditation. To them, hearing their feet hit the ground repeatedly gets them right out of their heads and into the zone.
It’s awesome if you’re one of these people.
For others, running is so disagreeable that it’s the opposite of meditation. So it’s a good idea to find another activity to lose yourself in. Yoga is an obvious option, since it’s designed to calm the mind by moving the body. Bicycling, skating, dancing, or anything else that makes you lose yourself to the motion will work.
The point is to find an action that makes time fly while you’re doing it. (Whether sex counts as a meditation is up for debate.)
3. Make music.
There’s been a number of studies exploring how playing music and creating music affect the brain. When people are playing their instrument, they’ll often say they’re not thinking, they’re just doing. And a recent study on jazz musicians who improvised while in an MRI scanner had reductions in some of the brain areas responsible for self-awareness and self-monitoring.
Both meditation and being in the flow are linked to a reduction in self-centric thoughts. Even if you’re not a musician, listening to music — especially music that bowls you over — may also do the trick.
4. Repeat a phrase, or study an image.
Repeating a phrase either in your head or out loud can be extremely meditative — that’s why in religious practices repetition of memorized verses or mantras is pretty universal. “Ohm” is a classic, but any kind of repetition can work. Try saying something, even a single word, for a minute in your head and see how it feels.
Alternatively, you can study a visual image intently — a body of water or a cloudy sky — or even an object close at hand, like a plant on your desk. Focusing your attention on either visually or aurally, even briefly, can get you outside your head in a really refreshing way.
Breathing can be the absolute simplest way to meditate without even thinking about it — in fact, whole meditation and relaxation practices are built around it. Not only does it force you to focus on a thing (your breath), which itself takes you out of your head, but slow and deliberate breathing also tamps down the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the stress response.
Try counting as you breathe in and out, making sure that the exhaled breath is longer than the inhaled breath. There are many types of breathing practices, particularly derived from Zen meditation, to try out.
“Breathing is a literal and metaphorical exercise,” says Michaelis. “When you take the time to focus on your breath, you are slowing down enough to have clarity, and that’s what meditation is all about.”
Anything that shifts our focus away from our worry thoughts and into the present is a kind of meditation — and repetitive activities are very simplest ways to do this.
“These activities all involve some form of repetition: footfalls for running, pedal strokes for biking, repeated pencil patterns for coloring, or breathing for meditation,” says Michaelis. “The key is to try a lot of different ways to meditate, see what works for you, and go with that until it stops working. Then try a new one.”
So if you can’t sit to meditate, try an alternative. You might find yourself more in the zone than you imagined.
This article was originally published on Inc.