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It can feel daunting when you first try meditation. After all, it’s challenging to quiet your inner voice and focus on the moment. In this episode, behavioral health therapist Kathy Barringer, LISW, explains how guided meditation can help restore balance and calmness in our daily lives. She discusses the science-based benefits of why it works and walks us through a simple, guided meditation practice.

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Guided Meditation: How and Why It Works with Kathy Barringer

Podcast Transcript

Nada Youssef:

Hi, and welcome to the Health Essentials podcast brought to you by Cleveland Clinic. I'm your host Nada Youssef. Within these past few years, many of us have experienced a heightened level of stress in our daily lives. Stress can be a culprit for many diseases and can cause increased anxiety. With our busy and ever-changing lives, meditation seems to be a very attractive solution to help us achieve peace, calmness, and increased focus.

              And today we get to explore more about this topic with Kathy Barringer. Kathy is a clinical counselor at Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine. And she's here to help us understand the benefits of meditation as well as walk us through a guided meditation right here at the end of the podcast. So make sure you stay tuned. Kathy, thank you so much for being here today.

Kathy Barringer:

Hi, it's nice to see you.

Nada Youssef:

Very excited for this podcast.

Kathy Barringer:

Thank you for having me.

Nada Youssef:

Sure thing. And for our viewers and listeners, please remember, this is for informational purposes only, and it's not intended to replace your own physician's advice.

              So the benefits of meditation sounds so appealing. A tool that can help us, it's free of access, it can bring us calm and balance. And it sounds kind of simple, but it's not always that easy. So with that side, can you start by telling us about the benefits of meditation?

Kathy Barringer:

Meditation, there's a lot of myths about meditation and some of the benefits kind of speak to that. Meditation provides a quietness for the mind, which allows me to focus. We spend a lot of our time doing this upper chest breathing, which meditation pulls the breath down into the lower body. And so it decreases anxiety. It's hard to meditate if I'm ... I want to fully breathe. So just that increase in oxygen provides more energy, it provides focus and relaxation. It allows my mind to be quieter so that I can, for lack of a better way to put it, sorry for the therapist-y language, but be more fully present in whatever I'm doing and grounded in the moment, instead of rushing to the next thing that I have to do.

Nada Youssef:

Sure. Now, can you tell us about the different types of meditation that we hear about?

Kathy Barringer:

So meditation, I think there's a generalization that's just applied that all meditation is the same. And it's really not. There's different disciplines. There's Kundalini meditation, which involves the chakra system, which is the one I'm most familiar with. There's also meditation that also may have an intended purpose, so a more of a guided imagery. So going on a journey, like what we're going to do today. Taking a trip, using the senses, and bringing all the sensory information in. The different types could be focused only on the breath, or maybe it's focused on a particular goal. So it depends on the person running the meditation. There's so many different ideas out there and different ways to do it that it's hard to break it down into just very specifics or into something very specific.

Nada Youssef:

Sure. Well, let's start with beginners. Beginners may not know how to start meditating. Can we talk about maybe the setup, the right atmosphere, what to look for when we are trying to meditate?

Kathy Barringer:

And you know what, this is oftentimes the hardest step because beginning, we have all these ideas about how it should go. The first thing a beginner has to know to do is to sit down. And sometimes that's the hardest thing to do. It's like, "I've got all of this stuff to do. How do I carve out time to do this" And so you have to sit first. Or lay, whichever. But there has to be a physical change in what you're doing in order to learn to meditate. So starting with that, just sit.

              And then you start and look at the atmosphere. I don't want a lot of bright lights. I want the light to be muted. It's really helpful in terms of energy to have a space that's dedicated. So you can't see all of what is in my background right now, but this entire room is dedicated to meditation. So I have a meditation pillow. I have artifacts around me that are calming, that bring me to a centered space, things that are important and valuable to me. And I don't mean a monetary, I mean like spiritually valuable to me.

              So I've created an entire space that is dedicated to this. The benefit of that is when I step across the threshold into that, I'm now stepping into an energy that's already been created. So we want the colors to be more muted. Bright colors are awakening. So we want the colors blues, greens, things like that to be more muted, colors that encourage quiet and calm. So if you don't have, like I have the benefit of having a room in my house, but if you don't have that, just a space. I'm going to use the word alter to describe setting up a space. Maybe it's a meditation kit that I have that when I'm ready to meditate, I pull it out. But that's very symbolic. And so when we bring those symbols out, it's an indication to our unconscious that we're going to do something different now.

Nada Youssef:

Excellent. So do you use ... Sorry about that. Do you use any apps or music when you meditate?

Kathy Barringer:

I don't use any apps, but I've been meditating for 20 years. I'll talk a little bit about the apps. I'm going to talk a little bit about the music. The music is important to me. The music should be instrumental and it should be calming, if you think of music that would be down and in. And not music that has words because what am I going to do? Then my consciousness is going to follow the words. And so I need to have something that doesn't distract, but adds. And we're very sensitive to music. So we want to have quiet, soft music. Nature sounds can be really good, unless you're afraid of nature, and then pick something else.

              In terms of the apps, I do recommend those a lot, particularly for people who are just starting out. So for me personally, because I've been doing it for so many years, there is a narrative that runs in my own head. The apps create a narrative. And so it's a great place to start. So like, Mindspace is a good place to start. And it's a library just filled with all different kinds of durations of meditation and direction and goals and things like that.

Nada Youssef:

So it sounds like stillness is important, whether you're sitting or you're laying down. And then some kind of calm atmosphere, calm colors. So a lot of people are uncomfortable sitting there closing their eyes for minutes and minutes. Do you have to close your eyes?

Kathy Barringer:

Not necessarily. We do walking meditations out in nature. And a walking meditation, obviously, your eyes are open or it would be dangerous. But I'm bringing my mind to focus by naming what I see. So as I'm walking along the path, I'm just naming maybe out loud or even in my own mind, the things I'm actually seeing, it creates a mindfulness. So you can do it with your eyes open.

              When we think of the deeper meditations, because this is a learned skill, it requires some discipline. So the ability to sit quietly with my eyes closed is part of developing that discipline, even though there's other variations. So to answer your question, no, you don't have to have your eyes closed. But as you're developing the skill, then you're going to want to develop that discipline.

Nada Youssef:

So you said walking meditation, which is very interesting. Never heard it labeled that way. But basically, you can keep your eyes open as long as you're being in the present, correct?

Kathy Barringer:

Right. What do I see? What do I smell? What can I touch? I'm involving my senses. So meditation involves my senses. And you'll see when we do the actual meditation today that you're bringing in the smells and the sounds. So if I'm going to do a walking meditation, with mindfulness, what can I see, hear, smell, touch, and I'm naming those things. I'm not just noticing them.

Nada Youssef:

Sure. Can we talk a little bit about the intention or the goal we should be focusing on when we're meditating?

Kathy Barringer:

There's different ways to do that. I can set an intention. And some people really need to do that. They need to have that goal directed, "This is why I'm doing this." Personally, I like to not have one because I want to be open to whatever the universe has for me. And so there may be some goal directed. I want to know more about my relationship with ... if I'm meditating on prosperity, then I want to set an intention maybe to I want to know more about my relationship with money. A lot of people will pick as a goal, "I just want to have more." And it's kind of like, "What's my relationship with money?" Because money is energy, right? And so I want to be somewhat broad if I'm going to set an intention. But in terms of my focus, my breath. I want to focus on breathing. So the benefits I need to be in my body. And so you can set an intention, but again, I personally like to have something a little broader because I want to have whatever the universe has for me.

Nada Youssef:

I like that.

Kathy Barringer:

So that's me.

Nada Youssef:

Excellent. Now with our very, very busy lives right now, what is the best time to meditate? In the morning when we wake up, at bedtime before we go to bed to help us sleep? What is your recommendation?

Kathy Barringer:

That depends. I hate to do that. But it does depend because it depends on whether I'm a morning person or a night owl. Personally, I start to wake up around two o'clock. I mean, I'm up before then. But I really start to get into being able to focus. I'm a night owl. And so my best time to focus is going to be later in the day. Whereas if you're a morning person, the sun's coming up, sit and meditate with the sun coming up. I've done that before. It's probably not ever going to really be me unless I'm out camping or something. But I think you have to know your body clock. I think when we sit down and try to force meditation, it loses something and we start to get discouraged and we're less likely to do it.

Nada Youssef:

So for a beginner that is starting, and this is not as easy as maybe we're making it sound. How long should they strive for? A few minutes, 30 seconds, 10 minutes? What should they go for?

Kathy Barringer:

So this is one of the myths actually is that we have to set aside all this time. And we really don't have to do that. If I'm sitting at a stoplight, I can check in with my breathing. Typically, I find myself when I'm driving, I'm trying to push traffic, I'm hanging over my steering wheel. And it's an opportunity to sit back and say, "Wait a minute. I'm not going to do that." And just take some deep breaths. So meditation can be 30 seconds. And actually, I encourage people to do that.

              I don't know what all channels this plays on right now, but I noticed that since the pandemic, there's a commercial on TV that says 30 seconds of breathing and it says breathe. And then a clock ticks 30 seconds. That's a great idea because it does, it just makes you still for 30 seconds.

              Now, with the discipline, developing it as a discipline to get the maximum benefit. So you're going to get some benefit from those little pieces, but as you develop the discipline and get the maximum benefit you want to, of course, increase that time because when you come out of meditation, hopefully it feels like you've had a nap. And so the idea is in small increments to get started, and then working your way into 30 minutes. Because when I can quiet my mind and breathe for 30 minutes, my body and unconscious just love that.

Nada Youssef:

So the duration of the meditation itself and the duration of how many times we meditate maybe a day, based on skill level, the more you do it, the more you practice, the easier it will get kind of thing.

Kathy Barringer:

Yes, definitely.

Nada Youssef:

So is there a wrong way to meditate?

Kathy Barringer:

You don't want to have children needing something from you, banging on doors. You want to have quiet. It's really hard to meditate if there's not quiet. And that may be somewhat limited. The best meditators, the most practiced meditators in the world can sit in a busy train station in Calcutta and have peace and quiet.

Nada Youssef:

In their mind.

Kathy Barringer:

But that's not where we start. So to get started, you really do want to have ... you want to set time outside of time. So it's quiet, muted lights, no distractions, turn the phone off. Anything that you can do to push out those external things that keep us agitated.

Nada Youssef:

And I want to go a little bit deeper about quieting your thoughts because meditation is largely about letting go, quieting your thoughts. Just like you said, listening to your body, to your own thoughts, letting it go. But how do we move past the distraction, the intrusive thoughts that keep popping up in our heads with our everyday lives and our kids everywhere? How do we really, really move past that distraction?

Kathy Barringer:

Well, first of all, we are hard wired for thinking and problem solving. We are. And so if we expect that we're just going to just, "Oh, it's like a switch, just shut it off," that's not going to happen. We want to welcome those thoughts to us, but then we want to see them on a balloon kind of drifting away.

              So we're not resisting. Resisting is about hanging on. And we want to allow, which is about letting go. So allowing the thoughts to come in, but not getting attached to them. "Oh, there's that again." So that's one thing. So when the thoughts, we call it the monkey mind. We're just kind of like, "Oh, the next thing ..." And the squirrels are the ADHD animals of the animal kingdom. They're just like everywhere. And our mind tends to be like a bag of squirrels and parrots. It's just kind of always something.

              And so I want to first acknowledge yes, that's there. But what really helps when that starts to happen is, is as things come into your mind, go back to a mantra. So a mantra could be, all as well. So every time those thoughts start to come in, I go back to focus, all as well. When we're training the mind, it's like training a two year old to refocus. And so we want to bring the focus back to our mantra. And it helps if it's a very short phrase or a word. So, all is well. "Oh, I got to do this. I got ... All as well." "Da da da da da da da ... All as well." So we're not resisting, we're teaching our mind to focus on this particular thing in this moment.

Nada Youssef:

And as you mentioned, the mantra, could we do the focus on the breath to be our focal point to remember that we're thinking about something else?

Kathy Barringer:

Yeah. You can always come back to the breathing. I personally need that short word or short phrase or that word. That tends to work better for me than just breathing. So you have to find what works best for you. And you try different things. See what works, what helps.

Nada Youssef:

Yeah. So does meditation actually change our brain scientifically?

Kathy Barringer:

It absolutely does. There's increased blood flow because you're oxygenating fully, which again, we're used to this ... And when I'm getting full oxygen, anxiety decreases. In the amygdala that fires off our fear responses or our anxiety responses, the amygdala doesn't think for itself, but you can adjust that, but with your breath. You're oxygenating it more. And so it can be like, "Oh, okay. Everything's okay." So it doesn't have its own way of thinking about things, but we can use meditation breathing to have an effect on the brain. Absolutely.

Nada Youssef:

That's amazing. So if you don't mind, I'd like to ask you to guide us through a meditation so we can all experience it together. And for our audience, if you're trying this with us, please make sure you are somewhere nice and quiet, comfortable position, and a safe location with no distractions or children's per Kathy. So Kathy, please lead the way if you would.

Kathy Barringer:

So first of all, find a quiet place to sit and begin to bring your focus to your breathing. Bringing your focus to your body, to your breath. Many of us are breathing high up in our chest, and we want to start breathing through the belly button. So breathing into the count of seven through the belly button and holding for a moment. And exhaling to the count of seven. Just bringing my attention to my breathing. And knowing that there's nothing that I need to do right now and no place that I need to be. This is my time. This is just for me. And now taking a deep breath in, through the belly button, holding for a moment, and exhaling, pushing the air out of my lungs fully. And breathing in, and exhaling. And in and out. Bringing myself to my body.

              And as you take the next breath and hold it for a moment and release, your body is already starting to experience the relaxation. So just allow your breath to fall into its own rhythm. As you relax more and more.

              And now, just bring your awareness to the top of your head. And imagine a feeling of relaxation beginning to spread down from the top of your scalp. Maybe there's a color even associated with this. Maybe it's your favorite color. Beginning at the top of your head and gently flowing from the top of your head, the color and the relaxation moving through the muscles in your forehead and your temples as you relax, allowing the small muscles around your eyes and your nose to just let go.

              There's nothing that has to be thought about right now. Allowing your eyes to relax. Allowing your cheeks and your jaw to soften. Just letting go of the tension. And allowing this color and this relaxation to flow down your neck, deep into the muscles in your shoulders, soothing them, soothing the big muscles and relaxing them.

              And breathe. And now allowing this peaceful feeling to flow through your arms, relaxing and soothing all the way to the tips of your fingers, as the day's tension and stress drains out through the tips of your fingers. And as your body relaxes, your mind relaxes. And any thoughts begin to come become weightless, like the wisps of clouds on the breeze, floating in and floating away.

              And now allowing this color and this relaxation to flow through your chest and your stomach. Feeling how this area gently rises and falls as you breathe slowly and deeply, soothing and relaxing. And breathe.

              And now turning your attention to your back, and feeling the color and the relaxation flowing all the way down your spine. Relaxing the large muscles in your back, allowing the color to penetrate every cell with relaxation and calm. And now allowing the color and the relaxation to flow through your lower body, relaxing your hips, the back of your thighs, the front of your thighs, feeling all these large strong muscles becoming loose and relaxed. Soothing feelings flow down from your knees and into your calves and your ankles and your feet. The feet that carry you on your walk, the feet that move us forward. Relaxing all the way to the tips of your toes. Your entire body, soft, calm, and relaxed.

              Now, it's time to leave the external world behind and go on an inner journey. A journey to a place of deep inner stillness. Now, begin to see, sense, or feel that you're standing on a white sandy beach. It's early in the morning and a light hazy mist surrounds you. The sun is rising slowly, and you can feel the warm orange light on your face and your body, feeling content, at ease, and relaxed. The sand beneath your bare feeds is soft and warm and a light breeze caresses your face. This beach is deserted. You have it all to yourself. And you have all the time in the world. So just allow yourself to listen to the relaxing sound of the ocean, its waves are breaking gently on the shore. And you begin to walk slowly through the mist toward the water.

              You find there's a small boat that's waiting for you. The boat is comfortable and steady, and it's tied to the shore with a strong rope. This boat is reserved once for you. And it's filled with your favorite pillows and comforters and down blankets. And you walk to the water's edge and you step into the boat, feeling completely at peace, safe, and relaxed. And when you're ready, with a thought, you untied the rope and let it go. And just relax and allow the natural currents of the ocean to guide you away from the beach. Your boat drifts smoothly, rocking ever so gently, back and forth, back and forth as it moves gently through the water. You find that this rocking sensation relaxes you even more.

              The sun is beginning to get higher in the sky. And its light is gathering strength. And notice that the mist that surrounds you is beginning to evaporate. And you can see the air becoming clearer and clearer. And you watch quietly as the sun's rays dissolve all of the mist. And you can see clearly in all directions, as though a veil has been lifted. sparkling ocean water surrounds you on all sides. And in front of you, a small island comes into view. Your boat moves closer and closer to the island, gliding slowly and effortlessly through the water. The island is drenched in sunlight and it's covered in tropical palm trees that sway gently on the breeze.

              Your boat glides slowly forward and comes to rest on the shore. You have arrived. And you step out of the boat and take a moment to appreciate this place of sublime beauty. Exotic birds dance from tree to tree and brilliantly colored flowers grow in abundance. The air itself seems to shimmer and vibrate with pure luminous energy. You can hear the soothing sound of the breeze as it passes through the trees.

              In this place, you're free from all memories of the past and all concerns for the future. And free from all responsibilities. This is a place of total peace and it's all yours. And you begin to notice an opening between the palm trees. And in the center of this opening, there's a narrow path that leads deep into a rich green forest. And you begin your journey into the heart of the forest, following the path as it meanders between columns of ancient trees. This forest seems familiar to you, like the memory of a pleasant dream, or perhaps a place you visited as a child. And you walk deeper into the forest, guided by a force that you trust that makes you feel safe, nurtured, and still.

              And before long, you've reached the very heart of the forest. And before you is a shimmering pond of crystal clear water, a pond of perfect stillness. The pond is round and it brims with pure spring water. And you notice that the water is perfectly still like a mirror, free from even the slightest ripple. And you see that there's a ladder with three steps going into the water. And you decide to step in. And as you take the first step down into the pond, you notice that the wind eases, the trees have become motionless. And as each moment passes, the world around you becomes more and more calm, and you yourself become more and more still. And as you lower yourself onto the second step, all the birds in the forest become quiet. Their silence is deep and reverent.

              And now you lower yourself onto the third and final step, and gently glide into the water. You can feel yourself sliding into a deep state of relaxation. In this pond, thoughts melt away. All is still and silent. The only sound that remains is the sound of waves far off in the distance. Your mind seems to expand, feeling timeless, vast, empty, and relaxed. Enjoy the solitude and the silence.

              Now, begin to slowly bring your awareness to the pond, feeling deeply relaxed and refreshed. And now it's time to make your way back home. So you begin to slowly climb the ladder. And as your foot touches the lowest rung, notice how wonderful your body feels. You feel light, clear, and happy. And as you step to the second rung, the sound of bird song returns. And as you step to the first rung of the ladder, as your foot touches the step, the breeze returns and the trees begin to sway again. And you begin to follow the path back to your boat.

              And you arrived back at the entrance to the forest, and you find that your boat is waiting for you, just where you left it. And you walk to the water's edge and you climb into the boat, feeling relaxed and secure, knowing that your boat will bring you home safely.

              The journey back is effortless and calm, like all of the moments in your life, effortless and calm. And the current guidance you. And you arrived back at the beach, your beach, and you step out of the boat and onto the sand, and feeling the stand on your feet, you know that you're home. And as you feel the sand on your feet, you start to become aware again of the room that you're in, the space that you're in, the sounds of the life around you, and you can wiggle your toes and your fingers. Keeping this calm stillness with you as the energy, the life force energy begins to fill your body, bringing you back to the present, calm and relaxed, and ready for the rest of your day. Just allow your eyelids to open gently, relaxed and calm.

Nada Youssef:

That was great. That was beautiful. Thank you, Kathy, for your time and sharing your knowledge with us today. Is there any last words of advice or tips you'd like to share with our listeners before we let you go?

Kathy Barringer:

Just sit.

Nada Youssef:

Stay still.

Kathy Barringer:

It's just a start. Just sit.

Nada Youssef:

Excellent. Thank you. Thank you so much, again, for your time. It was very informative.

Kathy Barringer:

Thank you so much.

Nada Youssef:

Thank you. And we hope our listeners and viewers got to experience the short, but much needed serenity. Thanks again. And if you'd like to make an appointment with Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine, please call 216-448-4325 or go to clevelandclinic.org/integrative. And if you'd like to listen to more of these podcasts with our Cleveland Clinic experts, visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast, or find us wherever you subscribe to your podcasts. And make sure you're following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn for the latest health tips, news, and health information. Thanks again for tuning in. Thank you, Kathy.

Kathy Barringer:

Thank you.

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