I sat on my couch with my legs folded, closed my eyes and breathed. In. Out. Soon I felt calmer in my body, but my mind was buzzing with not-very-chill thoughts about a friend who never stops talking about her boyfriend. Perfectly normal, says Salzberg: "It's a common belief that to meditate successfully, you have to wipe all thoughts from your mind. That's unlikely to happen, and it's not the goal anyway."
When you find your mind wandering, the experts say to notice the thoughts, then just let them go. Gently bring your attention back to the present and your breathing. I started with 10 minutes, setting an alarm on my phone (soft church bells, in keeping with the mood). I had to refocus on breathing six or seven times; I guess that's why they call it a practice. At the end of my session, though, I felt like I had awoken from a refreshing nap. The point is not to go into a trancelike state or to be visited by wondrous, life-changing thoughts, but rather to enter a state of relaxed alertness.
"It's ideal to make meditation a daily part of your routine, even if you begin with 5 or 10 minutes," says Hugh Byrne, PhD, a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. He recommends working up to at least 30 minutes. That proved impossible for me, though it was amazing how much time I freed up when I didn't go online shoe shopping. Yes, I'm perpetually busy, but it's not like I'm the secretary of state.
By week three, I was able to get in the zone faster. I went on for 20 minutes, as does hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, author of the new book Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. "Starting off my day without meditation would be like going to work without brushing my teeth," he says.
While I'm not that committed, I have grown to love the refreshed and clear feeling that carries over throughout the day. I don't feel as overwhelmed. As many studies show, meditation elicits a physiological reaction that actually dampens your stress response (see This Is Your Body on Meditation, center). Now when I'm in a nerve-racking situation, I can notice it with a bit of detachment, which helps me take action.
I like to do 10 minutes before or after an event that makes me twitchy, like a dentist appointment or a conversation with my accountant. Training myself to refocus my thoughts on the right now has improved my concentration, as well. It's not that my stress has magically vanished; I still have little control over, for example, work dead-lines, the IRS or teeth cleanings. But I do have more of a handle on how I feel. Plus, if I ever run into Hugh Jackman at a party, we'll have some-thing to talk about.
This article originally appeared on Health.com.