An Introduction to Meditation
If, only a handful years ago, you’d have said you were taking an hour out to meditate, most people you know would have thought you were going crazy. How times have changed. Now, everybody knows about the benefits and meditation and want a piece of the action. Knowing about meditation and practicing meditation, however, are two very different things.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a pre-determined period where we sit and observe the contents of our mind. It can also be a way in which to induce certain modes of consciousness or trance states, through intense concentration and/or breathing techniques. The goal, if there can be said to be one, is to be able to focus the mind effortlessly on a single point of concentration, thereby eradicating all negative thought forms and cultivating and extraordinary sense of wellbeing. The ultimate result of meditation is one in which the mind-made concepts ‘here’ and ‘there’ disappear, leaving only state of total connectedness or ‘now’ (called Samadhi in the Hindu/Buddhist traditions).
There are as many forms of meditation as there are cultures who practice it but it is enough to know right now that it can be a very beneficial practice. With enough effort, the effects can be life-changing.
Benefits of meditation
With meditation, you have the great problem of trying to find something that isn’t a benefit. The fact is, regular meditation sessions are downright good for you, especially if you suffer from high stress levels, depression or anxiety. Here are the top benefits you can expect from consistent practice:
Less depression and anxiety
If you suffer from either depression or anxiety you should know that regular meditation has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in dealing with the effects. One study, at John Hopkins University, looked directly at the effects of mindfulness meditation on anxiety, depression and pain. The results came back that meditation was ‘moderately effective’, scoring 0.3. That doesn’t sound so good at first but consider that the strongest antidepressants also register 0.3. Suddenly, things look a lot brighter.
The researcher in charge of the study, Madhav Goyal, suggested that meditation has such a profound effect on negative mental states because it is a form of ‘brain training’. Instead of just sitting there doing nothing, which is what most people think of when they think of meditation, regular disciplined practice was more about the gradual uncovering of awareness, which leads to an automatic reduction of negative thought patterns.
For thousands of years, meditation has been used as a pathway to transcending the personal self and now science is proving it. One study, based at Yale University, found that consistent practice of mindfulness meditation lessens activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the part of the brain responsible for ‘me’ thoughts. As activity in the DMN reduces, on average, happiness levels increase and we are capable of being more selfless in our interactions with others. Whether the increase of happiness is down to less self-consciousness or not is unclear, but the rewards of consistent practice are obvious.
A reduction in fear and stress
A study undertaken at Harvard found that, after eight weeks of meditation, there was noticeable growth in the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that governs our ability to learn and remember things. Interestingly, there were corresponding decreases in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety and stress, meaning our ability to feel out of control was significantly lessened. In a follow-up study the head researcher, Sara Lazar, found that these changes in the brain directly linked to positive shifts in mood and arousal. The result is that science has proved that meditation makes us feel better over time. Cortisol is a chemical that represents our bodies chemical reaction to stress, high levels of this hormone massively impede your bodies ability to burn existing fat stores, therefor by proxy meditation can actually contribute to a leaner physique.
Improved concentration and attention
Ask anyone who sits in front of a computer all day long – from time to time, keeping concentration is extremely difficult. This isn’t just a problem for children, either. Millions of adults struggle daily with lapses in concentration and attention, which can negatively affect their work and daily lives. It is a happy thing to report, then, that even just a fortnight of mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase our ability to concentrate. When we consider that one of the chief aims of most forms of meditation is to cultivate ‘one-pointedness of attention’, it should come as no surprise that enhanced concentration is one of its benefits.
Reduced effects of ageing
Several studies, including one flagship study at UCLA, has found that the ageing brain is better preserved in meditators, over non-meditators. Participants in the study who had been meditating consistently for 20 years were shown to have more grey matter volume throughout their brain, when compared with people of the same age who didn’t meditate. Even though the older meditators were shown to have more pronounced loss than younger meditators, this is still something to consider as we continue to get older.
Insight and clarity
Another unsung benefit of regular meditation is that many find it unlocks a channel of inspiration and creativity. For example meditating on a business challenge or title or the nature of your next big project can often be just what you need to clear the space that allows the answer to ‘pop’ into your consciousness as if out of nowhere. I wouldn’t expect this to happen overnight but as you develop the ability to clear your mind you’ll notice more and more that you are touched by inspiration and benefit from serendipitous circumstances.
Types of meditation
There are three forms of meditation that seem to be the most common amongst practitioners. The first one is to use the breath as a guide. The second is to use a word or mantra, repeated throughout the meditation, to focus the mind. The third is to focus on something external, such as a candle or deity, which produces the same state of concentration over time. Which way is best? Not something i can answer here. Like exercise and eating right, the right type of meditation is the one that works for you and your situation. Take, for instance, the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he was building his business as a young man he began to feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of things he had to get done. Recommended by a friend (Frank Zane) to try Transcendental Meditation, he embarked on a year-long practice, consisting of 20 minute sessions of repeating a mantra. After a year had passed, he found his anxiety had gone.
How to meditate: A simple technique to get started
One of the simplest ways to begin with meditation is to ‘follow the breath’. It requires no external object or ambitious yoga positions. All you need to do is be aware of your breath flowing in and out of your body. In the Buddhist culture this is known as vipassana meditation.
Here are the steps:
Choose a calm environment
A big part of starting and maintaining a productive meditation practice is to choose the right environment from the beginning. Find a nice quiet place where you will not be disturbed and find somewhere comfortable to sit. You do not have to sit cross-legged on the floor if you don’t want to. Sitting straight in a chair will be fine, provided you can maintain consciousness and not fall asleep halfway through!
Begin by getting comfortable and breathing deeply
Close your eyes and direct your attention to the inflow and outflow of breath from your nose. Feel the air in your nostrils. Stay with this and don’t force anything. Let mental and emotional content come and go as it pleases. As you go on you will feel yourself becoming calmer and calmer. Naturally, the mind will wander at some point. Gently bring it back to the breath for the remainder of your allotted practice and remember that there is no right or wrong way to do this. It is all about the experience and what you get out of it.
Be (and stay) aware
As your practice continues begin to feel your awareness. Observe your awareness and how aware you are, despite your relatively calm state. The experience of pure awareness is much-prized in the art of meditation and the more you can cultivate it the more peace you will feel inside.
End the session calmly
Don’t finish your session by jumping up and rushing off to something else. Allow the calm and tranquillity to flow naturally into the rest of your day and you will find yourself acting more decisively, without the emotional conflicts that usually crop up during the hustle and bustle of a busy day. In this way, you can your meditation with you wherever you go.