What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase the awareness of the present moment, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth. (Gale Encyclopedia)
Meditating has been practiced for about thousands of years. It originates in the pursuit for deeper understanding of the mystical forces of life, although today’s is mainly used as a technique for reducing the stress and anxiety levels.
Benefits of meditation
In the last few years a lot of research has been done on discovering the benefits of meditation, especially with the invention of the fMRI, and every now and then a new study comes out illustrating a new benefit.
Reduces stress and anxiety – When someone feels stressed and anxious, the “flight or fight” part of the nervous system is being activated. During practicing mindfulness meditation activation of the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system is promoted, which causes the heart and respiration rate to slow down and lowers the blood pressure, making us feel more relaxed. A studies performed at Stanford and Harvard Universities found that after 8-week of mindfulness meditation, the reactivity of the amygdala (part of the brain responsible for triggering fear) was reduced and the activity in the areas of the prefrontal cortex responsible for emotions was increased. This showed that meditation is practically realistic stress and anxiety management technique and can be used as substitute for the anti-anxiety medications.
Helps treat depression – Along with stress, depression is one of the most devastating experiences that people face today. Many studies conducted for discovering the effects that meditating has on depression, concluded that practicing mindfulness meditation over some period has the same effects as the anti-depressant drugs, along with another benefit – it doesn’t produce any side effects.
Helps reduce alcohol and substance abuse – Alcohol and drug abuse treatments require comprehensive treatment plan, which includes many activities among which is meditation. Even Alcoholics Anonymous suggests meditating as a support tool for the recovering alcoholics to help them stay sober. Many studies show that mindfulness meditation can help recovering alcoholics to overcome the urge of having a drink. Meditating helps them to acknowledge the urge to drink, without being tempted by it. Also, the positive effect that meditation has on stress and anxiety is of great importance for people who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, since they are the most common triggers for relapse.
Increases happiness – A study led by Yale University found that mindfulness meditation decreases the activity of the Default Mode Network (“monkey mind”), which when is “on”, is responsible for mind-wandering and associated with the feeling of being less happy, worrying about the past and the future. This and many other studies have shown that meditation helps quieting the DMN, increasing the ability to quickly get out of the mind-wandering state.
Increases self-awareness, learning, memory and compassion – A group of Harvard neuroscientists ran an experiment where they submitted 16 people to an 8-week mindfulness course, integrating guided meditation and mindfulness into their everyday activities. The results from the experiment showed increased concentration of the brain’s gray matter (CNS tissue involved in processing information in the brain) in the areas of the brain that are responsible for learning, memory, regulating emotions, self-awareness.
Improves concentration – Many research studies have shown that practicing meditation every day, even just a couple of minutes, can help increase the attention, focus and memory. A study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston showed that regular meditation causes the brain’s cerebral cortex (part of the brain responsible for higher functions as concentration, learning and memory) to thicken, by increasing the size of the blood vessels and blood flow in that region.
Increases creativity – Research conducted by the Leiden University in Netherlands showed that practicing open monitored meditation has positive effects on creativity. Participants who were part of the open monitored meditation practice performed much better in a task where they were asked to come up with new creative ideas.
Improves positive relationships and empathy – According to a study from Emory University, practicing loving-kindness (metta) meditation boosts the ability to empathize with others and promotes the development of positive emotions, such as loving attitude towards oneself and others, self-acceptance, positive relations with others.
Improves the immune system – The immune system is highly intelligent, and for still unknown reasons, is greatly influenced by the positive and negative thoughts, sensations, moods and experiences. Since meditation creates positive mental environment it helps the immunes system to flourish. It also increases the level of antibodies which help in the fight against diseases. A lot of studies showed that mindfulness meditation increases the electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, and the right hippocampus (all parts of the brain that control positive emotions, awareness and anxiety), which when stimulated make the immunes system function more effectively.
Lowers the high blood pressure – Since stress is one of the most common reason for developing high blood pressure and heart disease, reducing the stress levels can help prevent these conditions. Practicing meditations reduces the stress, brings balance in your life, and helps you focus on things that can help you lead healthier life.
Types of Meditation
There are hundreds types of meditation techniques out there, but the following four, in my opinion, are the base for all the other.
Breath Meditation – Breath Meditation is also known as Mindfulness Meditation and the one that most of people start theirs meditation journey with. During this meditation the attention is focused on the breathing. When you focus on the breathing you become intimately more connected with it and with your inner self. You pay attention on you breathing in and breathing out, feeling the inhaling of the cold air and exhaling of the warm air. During this kind of meditation you can also imagine that when you breathe in you are inhaling in all the good feelings, emotions and thoughts, and while breathing out you are exhaling all the bad ones.
Mantra Meditation – Mantra Meditation consists of repeating a word or a phrase, either silently or loud, while meditating. It varies from repeating the syllable “Om” to singing a devotional music. One of the most popular Mantra Meditation is the Transcendental Meditation, which involves silent repetition of nonsense word given by the teacher.
Kinesthetic Meditation – During Kinesthetic Meditation the attention is focused on the bodily sensations. This kind of meditation can be static or movement. The most popular static meditations are the Chakra and the body scan meditation during which you focus on one body part at the time, while the most popular movement meditation is the Tai Chi.
Visual Meditation – The Visual Meditation involves focusing on a mental image, whether it is a single picture or entire mental movie. You can imagine being on a beach, in a forest, close to a waterfall, and focus your attention on the sound of the water, singing of the birds, rustling of the trees etc.
Although there are many more types of meditation, I consider these to be the very basics for all of them. All the other types (Zen, Concentration, Chakra, Walking, Reflective, Samadhi, Dancing etc.) of meditation are combination of the ones mentioned before. Here are some of them:
Zen Meditation – Also known as Zazen, meaning “seated meditation” in Japanese. The Zen meditation has its origins in Buddhism. Zazen is usually practiced seated on the floor over a mat or cushion with crossed legs, although it can be practiced seated on a chair. Traditionally Zazen is practiced in half-lotus or lotus position. When it comes to the mind aspect, it is practiced in two ways: focusing on the breath and shikantaza (“just seating”) – the practitioner is as much as possible in the present moment, observing what passes through his/her mind, without dwelling on anything specific.
Walking Meditation – This is one of the easiest and the simplest types of meditation. Take a walk in your neighborhood. In a park, on the beach, on the streets, and pay attention to your breathing and surroundings. Become aware of the trees, sounds, aromas, but don’t comment on them. Just be aware of everything that’s around you and don’t think about anything else.
Concentration Meditation – Although every type of meditation requires concentration, while performing this type of meditation you can focus on using one of your senses. Focus on a sound, gaze at a flame, light an aromatic candle and focus on the smell.
Dancing Meditation – Remember Sandra Bullock’s dance in “The Proposal?” Or Meredith’s and Christina’s in Gray’s Anatomy? That’s the kind of dance I’m talking about. Play a song you like and start dancing in the rhythm. Let the music guide you. Give in and open up yourself to the music.
Most of the time people that are just getting into meditation ask which type of meditation is the best. The truth is, there is no such thing as best meditation technique. There are hundreds types of meditation out there, so my recommendation is to explore among them, see which one(s) best suits you and make it (them) part of your daily habits.
As you can see from the different types of meditation, there is no single posture for practicing meditation. You can do it while walking, running, dancing, seated on the ground, on chair, or meditation pillow, you can lay down etc.
When you are doing sited meditation or you are laying down, make sure your spine is as straight as possible. To make it easier for you, when you are practicing sited meditation and you find it hard to keep your spine straight, for beginning, sit down next to a wall and place your back against the wall. That will help you keep your back straight without having to pay attention to it. You will also notice that while keeping your back straight your head by default would lean backwards, so try to pull down your chin little bit and keep it in natural position.
When you’ll start meditating, you will also notice that your mind will start wandering and a lot of thoughts will start to appear. But don’t worry about them. Just think of the thoughts as clouds in the sky, let them pass by as they come in, and focus on your breathing or your mantra. In time you will be able to manage them easily and get into meditative state faster.
How to establish a meditation practice?
As I mentioned before in the article about creating habits, one of the most important thing that will help you develop a meditation habit is consistency. It doesn’t matter how long you meditate as long as you do it every day, or even a few times per day. To make things easier for you in establishing the habit of meditation, always meditate at the same time and try to associate it with another activity that you do at that time. For example, when I meditate in the morning, I first drink 2 glasses of water, I read my monthly vision statement and start meditating afterwards. And night time I meditate before I go to sleep. These times of the day are also proven to be the best times for meditation, because during those periods the brain activity is close to the alpha (awake but relaxed – the resting state of the brain – when we are conscious about our surrounding – some meditative states) and theta (light sleep stages – the senses are withdrawn from the external world and focused on senses within – deep meditation) brain waves.
Besides this, meditation experts also recommend that you meditate in the same place. Don’t choose your bedroom or any other place that you associate with sleep, but a place where you feel relaxed, comfortable and calm.
Start small. 5 minutes to begin with are great start. As you become more experienced, the meditating time will increase.