What is Meditation?
Meditation is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body. But many meditation techniques exist — so how do you learn how to meditate?
In yoga, the physical asana practice prepares the body for Meditation. If the body is restless the mind will not be able to settle. Meditation is a goal to reach in yoga. Just as the physical movement can exercise the body, meditation can exercise the mind. Meditation is a state of focus or mental clarity that helps the user achieve peace, comfort, relaxation, or stillness. Meditation is an ancient practice dated back 5,000 years but still very relevant to modern society. As more and more people are searching for alternative healing, sitting still and looking inward as been scientifically proven to improve an individual’s all around well being.
“In Buddhist tradition, the word ‘meditation’ is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing,” University of Wisconsin neuroscience lab director Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., told The New York Times. And different meditation practices require different mental skills.
Concentration meditation involves focusing on a single point. This could entail following the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong, or counting beads on a mala. Since focusing the mind is challenging, a beginner might meditate for only a few minutes and then work up to longer durations.
In this form of meditation, you simply refocus your awareness on the chosen object of attention each time you notice your mind wandering. Rather than pursuing random thoughts, you simply let them go. Through this process, your ability to concentrate improves.
Mindfulness meditation encourages the practitioner to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention is not to get involved with the thoughts or to judge them, but simply to be aware of each mental note as it arises.
Through mindfulness meditation, you can see how your thoughts and feelings tend to move in particular patterns. Over time, you can become more aware of the human tendency to quickly judge an experience as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. With practice, an inner balance develops.
In some schools of meditation, students practice a combination of concentration and mindfulness. Many disciplines call for stillness — to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the teacher.
OTHER MEDITATION TECHNIQUES
There are various other meditation techniques. For example, a daily meditation practice among Buddhist monks focuses directly on the cultivation of compassion. This involves envisioning negative events and recasting them in a positive light by transforming them through compassion. There are also moving meditation techniques, such as tai chi, qigong, and walking meditation.
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
If relaxation is not the goal of meditation, it is often a result. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term “relaxation response” after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Since then, studies on the relaxation response have documented the following short-term benefits to the nervous system:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved blood circulation
- Lower heart rate
- Less perspiration
- Slower respiratory rate
- Less anxiety
- Lower blood cortisol levels
- More feelings of well-being
- Less stress
- Deeper relaxation
Contemporary researchers are now exploring whether a consistent meditation practice yields long-term benefits, and noting positive effects on brain and immune function among meditators. Yet it’s worth repeating that the purpose of meditation is not to achieve benefits. To put it as an Eastern philosopher may say, the goal of meditation is no goal. It’s simply to be present.
In Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate benefit of meditation is the liberation of the mind from attachment to things it cannot control, such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions. The liberated or “enlightened” practitioner no longer needlessly follows desires or clings to experiences, but instead maintains a calm mind and sense of inner harmony.
Layers of Meditation:
This is the most tangible layer of meditation. Through tactile sensation, practitioners can feel into their physical self using the mind. By knowing where the organs are and where the shoulders actually sit on the back, you can begin to build new connections in the brain. Often people cannot feel certain muscles in the body until they start to ache or hurt. By creating body awareness, not to be confused with thinking about the body with the mental mind, the brain and body begin to work as teammates to make better and healthy decisions.
Lex’s favorite meditation for the physical layer: Body Scan Meditation
The breath layer is subtle and cannot be touched by the practitioner. It is a felt sense of the breath and subtle energy pulsing throughout the body. A simple way to tap into the breath is to notice your body breathing. Notice the simple flow of natural breath and how it changes as you allow deeper of softer inhalations and exhalations.
Lex’s favorite Meditation for the Breath layer: Pranayama
The mental and emotional layer go deeper into subtle sensations when meditating. This is where the thought process and sensory motor activities take place. Often in Western society we are stuck thinking about the past and worried about the future. Mindfulness brings us into the present moment. When living in the present moment we are able to see true beauty and have gratitude for all things. After developing a sense of both body and breath, a practitioner may begin to dive into mindfulness and more concentration centered meditations. Many times this is where a variety of things are starting to shift and even heal in the meditator’s experience.
Lex’s favorite Mindfulness meditations: Guided Imagery Meditations, Loving Kindness Meditations, Gratitude meditations, Walking Meditation, Mindful Meditaitons
The intellectual layer of meditation is where our sense of detachment from the ego begins. The ego keeps us safe in the world but as we begin to peel back more layers of the mind we begin to realize truth and inner knowing that we have always been there. This is where wisdom and intuition live and as the practitioner begins to listen to this detachment a stillness arises and a sense of knowing that we are so much more than a material identity.
Lex’s favorite Intellectual meditations: Recognizing thoughts, beliefs, memories, and images as messengers meditation
5.) Beyond the Mind/Bliss
The bliss layer of meditation is often hard to describe as the practitioner is seemingly moving beyond meditation into another state of consciousness. Often in the layer the true feeling of bliss or unconditional love if felt as part of a mind/body/soul connection.
Lex’s favorite bliss meditation: this is more of Revelation than an actual practice
Many people in the world are already meditating and do not even realize it! Tantra meditation is described as finding everything in life as a mediation. This means the good, bad, and the ugly! Seeing the beauty, truth, and gratitude in day to day things can create open mindedness.
Lex’s favorite Tantric meditations; listening to music, laughing with friends, petting her dog, hugging her loved ones
HOW TO MEDITATE: SIMPLE MEDITATION FOR BEGINNERS
This meditation exercise is an excellent introduction to meditation techniques.
- Sit or lie comfortably. You may even want to invest in a meditation chair or cushion.
- Close your eyes. We recommend using one of our Cooling Eye Masks or Restorative Eye Pillows if lying down.
- Make no effort to control the breath; simply breathe naturally.
- Focus your attention on the breath and on how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and belly. Simply focus your attention on your breath without controlling its pace or intensity. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath.
Maintain this meditation practice for two to three minutes to start, and then try it for longer periods.
Shrimati Bhanu Narasimhan, a petite Indian woman wrapped in a bright fuchsia sari, has a soft voice but a big presence. She holds the rapt attention of some 100 people who have come to learn how to meditate at the Art of Living Center in the District of Columbia. The type of meditation she teaches is called Sahaj, Sanskrit for effortless. It’s a mantra-based meditation she advises doing twice a day for 20 minutes — before eating. “Mental hygiene,” Narasimhan calls it. Sahaj is just one type of meditation. Others are based on compassion, mindfulness, yoga, and transcendentalism, among others. While their aims are different, they share common benefits. Here are eight of those.
Meditation reduces stress.
“Meditation is a mind without agitation,” Narasimhan says. Stress creates agitation and is something most of us deal with on some level. And it’s increasing, given the rising use of anti-anxiety medications, notes Stanford University researcher Emma Seppälä. Meditation allows people to take charge of their own nervous system and emotions. “Studies have shown improved ability to [permanently] regulate emotions in the brain,” adds Seppälä, who is also the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. “It’s very empowering.”
It improves concentration.
“I’m more centered and focused in everything I do. I don’t find myself getting as distracted anymore,” says Sara Robinson of Indianapolis, who did the Sahaj course last February. The ER nurse and sky-diving instructor add that multitasking is easier. At least one study has shown an improved ability to multitask, Seppälä says. “Meditation has been linked to a number of things that lead to increased ability to focus, memory … We’ve seen this at the level of the brain.” Greater concentration is related to the increased energy meditation provides. “It connects you with your real source of energy,” Narasimhan says.
It encourages a healthy lifestyle.
“I tend to want more things that are better for me,” Robinson says, adding that she eats more fresh foods and has cut out nearly all alcohol. She also stopped smoking. Susan Braden, who lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, and also did the Sahaj course, says the practice has made her apply the Hippocratic oath — “First, do no harm” — to herself. “You just want to put good things in your body,” she says. That means “closest to what’s natural. So if it doesn’t look like a tomato, I wouldn’t eat it.” Braden also gave up coffee, replacing it with tea.
The practice increases self-awareness.
Before Zaccai Free, a District of Columbia resident, began meditating in college two decades ago, he had a very short fuse – to the point, he says, of wanting to commit acts of violence. Meditation taught him to recognize his own anger and become more detached from it. It cleared his mind and calmed him down, he says. Mostly, “it made me more comfortable in my own skin,” adds Free, who does many types of meditation, including Sahaj, Agnihotra, laughter and walking meditations. “When you take more time to dive inside yourself, you are more comfortable showing who you are.”
It increases happiness.
“Meditation puts you on the fast track to being happy,” says Ronnie Newman, director of research and health promotion for the Art of Living Foundation, the umbrella organization for the Sahaj meditation course. Studies have shown that brain signaling increases in the left side of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for positive emotions, while activity decreases on the right side, responsible for negative emotions, Newman says. The other benefits of meditation, including increased self-awareness and acceptance, also contribute to improved overall well-being.
Meditation increases acceptance.
Braden was a high-profile senior policy advisor in the State Department, constantly on the go to trips around the world, until seven years ago, when she was struck by multiple sclerosis. She turned to meditation, and her worldview flipped. “I have a disease which really brings you back to yourself,” Braden says. “Meditation helps me accept that. You explore your inner self and realize that’s just as big as traveling to Burma.” For Braden, learning to meditate has been harder than learning Arabic. “It’s a lifetime job. But it changes how you feel life, and it’s made it more enjoyable for me,” she says.
It slows aging.
Studies show that meditation changes to brain physiology to slow aging. “Cognition seems to be preserved in meditators,” says Sara Lazar, a researcher at Harvard University. Lazar adds that meditators also have more gray matter – literally, more brain cells. Lazar’s colleague, Elizabeth Hoge, did a study that showed that meditators also have longer telomeres, the caps on chromosomes indicative of biological age (rather than chronological). That meditation lengthens life “may be a bit of a stretch,” Hoge says. “But there is something about meditation that is associated with longer telomeres … [perhaps that] it reduces stress and its effects on the body.”
The practice benefits cardiovascular and immune health.
Meditation induces relaxation, which increases the compound nitric oxide that causes blood vessels to open up and subsequently, blood pressure to drop. One study, published in 2008 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, showed that 40 of 60 high blood pressure patients who started meditating could stop taking their blood pressure medication. Meditation also improves immunity. “I hardly ever get sick anymore,” Robinson says. “I don’t think I’ve had a cold since I started this.”