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Can meditation stop the hamster wheel spinning in my head?

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The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

Authorities at a prison in Cherlapally, India, recently decided to erect a meditation pyramid. Following a violent outbreak, the idea is that giving inmates a place for quiet contemplation will foster a more peaceful behind-bars atmosphere.

Among the many benefits of daily meditation is the subduing of negative feelings such as anger, resentment, stress and anxiety. Of course, one needn't be serving 10 to life to enjoy the benefits of neurological downtime.

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The inner workings of my brain look like one of those hamster fun-lands. Some nights my mind will race for two, maybe three hours before I finally fall asleep. Calm, inner peace? Not exactly.

Devoting this week's self-improvement challenge to some daily Om time sprung from a new study out of the University of Pittsburgh that claims the ultimate goal of meditation – to exist solely in the here and now – is a bit of a wild goose chase.

"For a healthy person, it's impossible to live in the moment," says neuroscientist Marc Sommer, whose study indicates that our brains are unable to experience anything outside of the context of what we have done and what we will do.

I'm not sure what the Dalai Lama would say about that, but I am sure that wise men and women, for centuries, have preached the benefits of mental detachment and simply being, so I decided it was worth a shot.

Why is that meditator snoring?

My only experience with meditation was the Shavasana period at the end of yoga class, so I started at the spiritual shallow end – five minutes, first thing in the morning. I resisted the urge to check my e-mail and walked right past the coffee maker.

Too groggy to be skeptical, I sat cross-legged on the carpet in my living roome, set a timer and began to mimic the breathing pattern I had seen the night before after googling Deepak Chopra's appearance on the Dr. Oz Show. In, out, in, out. To keep my mind from wandering, I pictured black nothingness. In, out, in, outbeep, beep, beep. Wait, what!? Oh, crap.

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My first meditation session had been so peaceful I had fallen back asleep.

Clearly daybreak was not a good fit. Besides, first thing in the morning, I am generally calm and collected already. It's around 2 p.m. that I start to get the hamster head.

Take 2: Seated in my rented office space, I shut my laptop, turned off the fluorescent desk lamp and began my breathing. This time I incorporated chanting, since it's tough to fall asleep while making noise. Om, om.

I detached from feelings of self-consciousness (did I mention that my office has glass walls and you can pretty much hear everything everyone else is doing?). After five minutes, I opened my eyes and felt … nothing at first. But when I went back to work, my head was clearer. I felt more alert and mentally dexterous; the task at hand had gone from mountain to molehill.

Why finding inner peace is a lot like tennis

I continued these mini meditation breaks for the rest of the week, but on my final day I felt like I needed something more extreme. I arrived at the Shambhala Meditation Centre in Toronto for a two-hour group session.

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Hour one was essentially an orientation class. My instructor – a woman who had been riding the meditation train for 35 years – told a story about how her e-mail system had broken down, causing her to lose years' worth of correspondence and contacts. She was distraught and seriously stressed. And then she meditated.

She explained how meditation doesn't make our problems disappear, but ideally it allows us to feel some detachment. To let it (whatever "it" is) go. Sitting next to a shrine, perched on worn red and yellow cushions, we began our quest to simply exist, first for three minutes and then for five more. My mind was like a child on a leash at an amusement park: It darted, I yanked it back; it darted again, and so on. Apparently this sort of focus gets easier with practice ("like tennis or running," as my instructor put it).

After break time (orange ginger tea and cookies), we newbies were invited to join the rest of the group in a second hour of silent meditation. After a few minutes I decided to get going. I can't imagine ever being willing to devote two hours of a day to meditation. Inner calm is something I will continue to work toward, but that to-do list isn't going to tick itself off.

Reader responses

"As a reiki master and teacher, I find meditation a part of my daily life. Unlike my peers, I require no Western medicine taken daily to keep me going. It's very beneficial not only physically but mentally."

– Dawn Thornton-Luty

"I 'meditate' every time I do my income tax. … Oh wait, maybe that's 'pass out.'"

– Rick Kowalik

"Some people meditate without realizing it. For some it's in the form of 'just relaxing' with or without music, or doing simple puzzles, or even prayer. We don't need to call it 'meditation' to get the same benefits."

– Nicole Hoskins

"Regular thinking with pros and cons on paper is far more beneficial."

– Michael Bernt Rollo

Next Challenge

Take the first step toward being financially responsible by keeping a log of every single thing you spend money on. It adds up quicker than you think, right? Are you surprised by what you buy? Does keeping a record help you say no to that $5 Frappuccino?

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