Everybody seems to be talking about the benefits of meditation these days and while there is wide agreement about this, it seems to be pretty difficult for people to actually sit down and get started with a daily practice of meditation. It is one of those things people think they should do but often can’t quite manage to get into their routine.
What is meditation?
There are countless ways to practice meditation and many traditions of practice. Rob Nairn author of “What is Meditation” describes it as a state of “bare attention”, a “highly alert and skillful state of mind that requires one to remain psychologically present and ‘with’ whatever happens in and around one without adding to or subtracting from it in any way.” A meditator focuses attention on the chosen object (the breath, a mantra, or phrase) and practices sustaining that attention while gently noticing the mind’s tendency to wander away and having noticed the wandering of attention, gently brings it back to the object (again and again…). You can think of this process as building a mental muscle and each time you return your attention to the breath or mantra, you are doing a “rep”. The physical act of meditation generally consists of simply sitting quietly, holding your own spine up straight, focusing on the breath, a word, or a phrase. It is helpful to sit as perfectly still as possible and, without controlling the breath, have it move in and out of the body smoothly as a water snake moves on the water. When sitting, you should have your muscles relaxed and make yourself comfortable while holding the spine straight. You don’t want to lie down or get too comfy because you are trying to fall awake rather than fall asleep!
Why practice meditation?
The research shows that meditation, even for a short period of time, increases alpha waves (the relaxed brain waves) and decreases anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that meditation leads to decreases in ruminating or pondering deeply on negative thoughts. Decreased rumination lessens anxious and depressive symptoms. Meditators find themselves being more mindful in general even when they are not meditating which allows them to notice and avoid getting caught up in upsetting thoughts. Because our brains are threat-sensitive (in order to protect us from threats and ensure our survival), many of our automatic thoughts tend toward the negative aspects of the present, past, and future as the brain is trying to predict and avoid “danger”. Being more mindful can help you notice that these negative thoughts are present and give you the opportunity to choose not to participate in the negativity and help put worries into their proper perspective. Meditation is a very effective stress reducer and tends to improve overall well-being because it brings about a higher level of self-acceptance and insight about oneself especially when practiced daily over time. Because it helps you observe yourself and notice your surroundings more objectively, meditation helps people relate better to one another, be more self-reflective, and more loving.
According to “The Science of Meditation” by Cary Barbor, Harvard Medical School researchers used MRI technology to monitor brain activity of meditators to determine what part of the brain meditation acts upon and found that it activates the sections of the brain in charge of the autonomic nervous system. This is the system which governs the functions in our bodies that we can’t control such as digestion and blood pressure. These are functions that are often compromised by stress and, as a result, a regular meditation helps reduce the occurrence of heart disease, digestive disease and other stress related illness. In cancer patients, meditation has been shown to reduce stress, fatigue, nausea, and pain while improving mood and sleep quality. Other studies have shown that meditation helps reduce chronic pain and enhance the body’s immune system to better fight disease. A study of lifelong meditators has shown that the brains of these super meditators do not show the normal shrinkage that comes with age and that is associated with the natural cognitive decline of aging.
Last, but certainly not least, a daily meditation practice helps you to create a more conscious relationship with yourself. If you wanted to create a deepening friendship with someone, you would spend time with that person and pay attention to them in a loving and nonjudgmental way. What if you could create a friendship like that with yourself? Mostly we don’t pay much attention to the relationship we have with ourselves but it is there and having an impact on us nonetheless. Meditation practice allows you to become more conscious of that important relationship helping you to be centered in your true self and comfortable in your own skin. Happiness and mental health are greatly improved by having a conscious, loving friendship with yourself.
By Leslie Auld LMSW, ACSW