By Ariel Szuch, Contributor

Until recently, my experience with meditation was that time at the end of a fitness class in college when “meditate” was code for “doze for a few minutes before you get up and run to your next class.” I had heard about some of meditation’s benefits but never really tried it, so when asked to write about it, I said, “Thanks, but no thanks” on account of zero practical experience.

“Why don’t you try it for a week and then write about it?” came the reply.

Seemed reasonable.

In its basic definition, meditation is the practice of training the mind to be focused and calm. However, as even a simple Google search on the topic will tell you, there are a dizzying number of ways to do that. I felt overwhelmed by all the information about posture, breathing, different kinds of practices, and so on. Finally I decided that the best approach was the same one used for getting used to cold water—just jump in.

So I did. Each day for seven days I looked up a video or audio recording that guided me through some form of meditation that would help me in an area where I was struggling that day. I did several meditations from, yoga for meditation, mindfulness and anxiety meditations, and tai chi, and I found that my mental focus was the best when I did some form of movement (yoga or tai chi) followed by some kind of audio.

As I went through the week, I gained a few insights on the practice of meditation:

1. Meditation is about practicing present awareness and exercising self-compassion along the way. I tend to be hard on myself in general, which extends to getting off track and distracted during meditation. Sometimes I feel like keeping hold of my focus and staying in the present is like trying to hold a wriggling fish in your bare hands—the tighter you hold on, the more it slips through your fingers. On Day 1 (and a couple days afterward) I lost the battle and dozed off. However, meditation is called a practice for a reason; being present and focused is a learning process. In several of the guided meditations I did, the audio talked about how if your mind wanders, you just bring it gently back to the point of focus. No shaming self-judgment—just acknowledging that you’re learning and moving forward. It was healthy for me to practice some intentional self-compassion.

2. Meditation is about taking time for self-care. I struggle with this. Even though I just have me to take care of at this point in my life, I tend to disregard my own needs as less important than others. At one point a friend told me, “No one cares about your feelings except you!” What she meant was that I have to care for myself—my physical, spiritual, and emotional needs—because I am the one who is responsible for them. It’s not about putting my needs above everyone else’s, but honoring my needs as valid and my part in getting them met. Meditation helped me tune into myself physically and emotionally, and I could better see how to take care of myself and what help I needed from others.

3. Meditation is about setting the stage for truth to come—truth about ourselves, our lives, and our faith. By cultivating that present awareness in body and mind, tuning into myself physically and emotionally, I put myself in a state to receive truth. In several days over the course of the week I would start the meditation feeling agitated and by the end was able to get at the root of what was bothering me. Sometimes that truth was hard to face, but coming to terms with it was the way to move forward.

My meditation practice is still fledgling, but I’m grateful for what I learned over the course of the week and have incorporated aspects of meditation into my life since then. It has helped me focus at work and navigate stress in my personal life. Pausing for even a few moments to breathe and care for myself in high-emotion situations has made a world of difference for my overall wellbeing and peace of mind.

Ariel Szuch is a word nerd, writer, and compulsive reader who finds purpose in a life of faith.