What is Meditation?
Life is demanding, with numerous calls on our attention at any time. For all its benefits, technology has made life even more demanding; with cell phones and the like we truly seem to be open to the world 24/7.
In addition to the multitude of external demands the supercomputer that is our mind spends much of its time behaving like a nagging child, pulling our attention this way and that, never giving us the space to truly think.
Meditation is about disconnecting from all the noise, external and internal, and giving yourself the time and space to simple "be". Imagine your mind is a computer connected to the Internet, constantly sending and receiving data. Meditation is taking it offline for a while to allow time to tidy its filing system; deleting what's not needed, identifying what's important and moving it to the desktop, and filing everything else for later retrieval.
On hearing the word 'meditation' many people picture an enlightened guru sitting motionless in the lotus position for hours on end chanting some obscure mantra. Sure, this is one (extreme) version of meditation, but there are many other forms, and the key to success is finding one that works for you. This article introduces the basics of meditation.
There are many forms of meditation but all share the goal of promoting an altered state of consciousness in which our attention is temporarily removed from the external world. Meditation is associated with relaxation, and meditation usually begins with a period of relaxation. However, meditation goes further than mere relaxation; it requires some kind of conscious and active mind control.
Many of us try to take care of our physical bodies by eating healthily and taking regular exercise. But we often fail to pay the same attention to that (at least) equally important part of ourselves, ie our inner, or mental, world.
Perhaps we feel stressed, or mentally washed out, but feel the demands of daily life leave little or no time for introspection. Mental distress can easily cause physical illness. But the much-neglected inner world can become a powerful ally if shown just a little tender loving care. We've all heard the expressions healthy mind, healthy body and mind over matter. Meditation can help promote these.
Meditation creates a private space or time in which we can step back from the physical realm and re-connect with our true, inner self.
In addition to promoting inner peace meditation can also unlock the door to our subconscious, the seat of our intuition and source of much creativity and inspiration. By temporarily distancing ourselves from the constant distractions of daily life we allow ourselves to become more aware of our Spiritual essence.
The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has been practiced for centuries, a longevity suggesting practical benefits; (eg: some of the earliest written records of meditation come from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism around 1500 BCE. [A clinical guide to the treatment of human stress response by George S. Everly, Jeffrey M. Lating 2002]).
In recent years science has been able to verify some of these benefits, eg:
Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute (affiliated with Harvard University) was one of the first researchers to scientifically investigate meditation. In The Relaxation Response, published in 1975, Benson documents the positive effects of meditation, includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry.
A May 2014 Huffington Post article LOOK: What Meditation Can Do For Your Mind, Body And Spirit by Laura Shocker lists a whole range of meditation benefits backed by scientific studies easing stress and anxiety, building focus and concentration, lowering blood pressure, boosting immune system, and increasing compassion and empathy to name but a few.
How to Meditate Effectively
There are numerous meditation techniques and books on how to meditate. It is worth acquainting yourself with the techniques introduced here and those described in the literature. However, what works for one doesn't necessarily work for all. Try several techniques until you find one which feels comfortable and beneficial.
The first requirement for a successful meditation regime is self-discipline. It can often seem we are too busy to spare even a few moments a day in meditation, and even when the demands of the physical realm die down we would rather just flop in front of the TV screen than make the conscious effort required. Keep it regular. Just 5 - 10 minutes a day, every day, is better than forced meditations of 30 minutes once or twice a week.
The mind often feels like a contrary child, determined to wreck all efforts designed to help it.
Try to avoid any disturbances, which can cause quite a shock to our system once in the meditative state. Disconnect the phone and politely ask your family members to respect your "quiet time".
You may, if you wish, like to play some gentle background music - classical or new age music is excellent for this purpose. Instrumentals work better than songs with words as you may find it hard not to focus on the lyrics.
Books invariably recommend a particular posture for effective meditation. Aim to make yourself comfortable enough to relax, but not so comfortable you will drift into sleep - a common response to the removal of the external stimuli to which we are so accustomed.
If you find that you keep falling asleep while trying to meditate this might indicate you need more sleep at night, or would benefit from a nap during the day. Most of us probably would benefit from a mid-day nap but are prevented from taking one by convention. Sleep is a great healer and always beneficial, but sleep is not meditation. In meditation the mind is under the control of our conscious will.
The techniques described here are for very basic meditation.
Begin by breathing deeply. In through nose and out through the mouth. Do this for 10, 20, or 50 times. Try to concentrate on your breathing.
Try to relax the body. Focus on each part of the body in turn allowing it to relax. It might help if you move or tighten that part of the body before releasing it into relaxation. Focus on the toes, feet, lower legs, upper legs, hips, abdomen, chest, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, fingers, back up to the neck and head. If it helps, take it back down again, from the head to the toes.
silently say a prayer to yourself. Not only does this focus the mind inwards but it also reaffirms and gives expression to inner feelings, intentions and desires as well as bringing you closer to your own deity.
For the meditation itself try one or more of the techniques below.
You might repeat a mantra or affirmation (a word or phrase that is meaningful to you) over and over, or just count - eg to 100, 500, 1000 or whatever. Try to keep your attention on numbers and don't let mind wander off.
But if your mind does wander off, it's OK. When you notice it, just bring it back.
You might find part of your mind wandering off while another part continues repeating the mantra or counting.
Slightly more difficult is to fix your mind on one thing, perhaps a color or an image, (eg a candle burning). Try lighting a candle in your meditation space and focusing on the flame.
Try to visualize a place - somewhere you know, maybe the very room you're sitting in, or somewhere you know or used to know. Try to see it in as much detail as possible. Experience the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel of it.
Or try to visualize a desired outcome, eg see yourself opening and reading a letter saying you got a job you would like, then see yourself successfully doing that job.
Visualize a journey in nature. You can describe your journey on tape - at least to begin with - but these meditations work better if you can memorize, or internalize, them so they can become part of you. They can then be modified and improvised, and develop as you do.
Don't Seek Perfection
A few years back I joined an aerobics class at which I found myself to be worse than useless. Although I now take my exercise in different ways I remember the instructor pointing out that whether I kept up with the different moves didn't really matter, if I was moving my arms and legs it was doing me good. Similarly with meditation, if you can maintain laser focus on some abstract concept for hours at a time – great, but if meditation for you means a few minutes time to yourself where you just sit, breathe deeply, and at least try to slow down your mind's inane wanderings then it is doing you good. Persevere, and you will come to treasure your offline time.
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