The How’s and Why’s of Meditation
Silence befalls an ancient temple as rows of robed monks settle themselves, body, and mind. Eyes closed, legs pulled up into a lotus position, the eye of the mind turns inward. For hours they remain; their minds disciplined to ponder like this for long periods of time. This is not a feat for the average person.
Perhaps when people utter the word meditation, this image stirs in the imagination. Indeed, meditation has been a part of spiritual and religious practice for as long as mankind has been recording history. It does take years of steady practice to hold such a state of mind for hours at a time. However, meditation is something that is not only easily accessible to anyone, but you may already be doing it without realizing it.
Meditation simply means to think, contemplate or ponder. Throughout the world, it holds many different names, but the idea is the same: to enter a state of mind where it is easy to focus upon one thing. If you have ever found yourself daydreaming for any length of time, you are meditating. If you found yourself captivated by repetitive motion, the wheels and the sound of a passing train, for example, you were lulled into a meditative state. The same is true when you are reading a book and lose track of the time.
It is perfectly natural for your mind to slip into a trance and let the present moment go. When one intentionally practices meditation they engage in a discipline of training their mind and body. This practice can be applied to many different goals: relaxation, contacting spirits, building energy, enlightenment, self-contemplation, or empty mind, just to name a scant few.
A simple meditation that anyone can do is mindfulness meditation. In the place you are at this very moment, just look around. Notice everything that surrounds you. Pay attention to colors, textures, shapes, and lines. Then listen to all the sounds and pay close attention to every subtle nuance. Notice the smells, the air temperature, and any sensory information you are receiving. Do not judge what you are perceiving; do not attempt to make any sense of it. Just for the moment, be aware of your breathing, the feeling of your feet touching the floor, and bear witness to all that is surrounding you. Allow yourself simply to observe and become a part of the moment. This simple meditation can help you, in many ways.
There are many physical health benefits of meditation: reduction in stress and anxiety-lowering stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones can bog down the immune system making it harder to fend off illness. In addition, elevated stress levels have additional negative effects throughout the body. Practicing a relaxation meditation, regularly, may reduce or reverse these negative effects. As always, consult your doctor for any medical advice pertaining to you.
Make sure you consult the doctors of all time periods, too, from long-ago civilizations to the present day. Timeless techniques from the Buddhists are just as viable today as they were hundreds of years ago. Yoga experts teach you both relaxation and movement meditations. Experts from scientific and business fields weigh in on their experience as to the benefit of meditation. No matter what you are seeking, or if you are looking to augment your practice, there is something to be gained.
No matter how you choose to do it, meditation can benefit all areas of your life. You can create your own peaceful sanctuary within your own being. Perhaps you want to improve your performance at work or in sports. In the depths of your mind, you may find your own inner truth and life’s purpose. Maybe you are just seeking to improve the performance of your brain and mind. No matter how you approach it, or why you choose to meditate, there is no doubt that a regular practice can have overarching benefits throughout every aspect of your life.
Begin Hacking Your Way to a Solid Daily Meditation Practice
One day a sage and his students were meditating together. At one point the student noticed the teacher floating in the air.
Frustrated, he said to his teacher, “Master, I don’t understand why I’m not floating too. What is the difference between you and me that you can do this and I cannot?”
From his position aloft, the master looked down at the student and said, “Practice.”
How many articles, blogs, or social media posts have you read lately that start like the next sentences?
“A 2014 Harvard research study determined that meditation builds the brain’s gray matter in eight weeks. Grey matter, composed of neurons, makes up about 40 percent of the brain. More is good.”
Then they continue by citing more research.
“Meditation reduces anxiety, according to another study. Meditation reduces age and race bias — meaning that meditation could be an antidote to racism and prejudice — says a 2015 Central Michigan University study. According to the American Psychological Association, “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy [meditation] may prevent and treat depression.”
More research: Vast swaths of first-world societies struggle with self-acceptance, experiencing “body dissatisfaction.” Results of a 2014 study report that meditation increases “self-compassion,” meaning reduced “body shame,” and increased sense of self-worth.
And one more: The Mayo Clinic reported that a growing body of research suggests meditation may help manage symptoms of asthma, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome, and offers methods such as guided, mantra, and mindfulness meditation as well as qigong and tai chi.
At this point, not making the effort to establish a meditation practice might be likened to not flossing your teeth. And the benefits, including emotional hygiene, addiction resistance, enhanced immune system function, etc., are so far-reaching, one might think humans require meditation for optimal function. Just the fact that meditation is proven to increase happiness should be enough to send us running, en masse, to our cushions. So why aren’t we all meditating like a nation of monks?
Good question. Consider this.
We like to imagine we’re “free” to do what we like.
As adults, we’re free of parental regulation — yay — but if, when encountering friction, we give up on creating new habits, we’re slaves to our own resistance. This means we’re not free to easily embrace and integrate habits that dramatically increase our well-being and quality of life.
For many, failing to meet goals on the first few attempts means lost resolve. Initially, when we’re practicing our new thing, be it a musical instrument, a language, or maybe fencing, we feel solid and inspired. Sooner or later we miss a day because (pick your favorite): We didn’t practice but we’re tired and it’s time for bed. Or there’s a crisis. Or a distraction. Or we’re traveling. Or it gets harder and not as fun. Or boring. Or we weren’t in the mood, or we had a sick child, or we forgot (the most insidious). The rationales are infinite. A couple of “misses” can mean a loss of momentum.
Then we beat ourselves up a little (or a lot) and slide back into old routines, waiting for the next upswell of inspiration, the next urge for change, the next training or class, or in the case of meditation, the next weekend retreat. “Maybe a new method will do the trick,” we think.
If this doesn’t sound familiar, and you are someone who seamlessly integrates new disciplines into your life without missing a beat, skip the next section. Flawed mortals, read on.