It used to be seen as a ‘far-out’ spiritual practice done by hippies and eastern sages. Today, the art of simple meditation is taking center stage in research, answering questions from how to eliminate stress and prepare for handling future emotions to quickening the mind for better productivity in work. Anyway you slice it, the science of meditation is becoming just that – a science.
Great strides are being made in the medical world around the benefits of meditation – which is great news for the spiritual community who has recognized its benefits for thousands of years. Research is showing in the brain, the area known as the amygdala (which is associated with emotional responses – including such feelings as fight or flight) decreases activity during meditation. Another study shows those engaged in what is termed ‘compassion meditation’, while being shown pictures of others – whether positive, negative or neutral – show exceptional responsiveness in the amygdala. Overall, participants who had completed the study and over the following 8 weeks- showed more balanced emotions as well as greater levels of compassion toward others.
Another study at Harvard reported those who meditated had a greater ability to control alpha brain waves states – the state of mind that automatically filters information – such as mundane distractions- to allow in only the most beneficial and harmonious for processing. Not only does meditation have the capacity to eliminate stress, but it can improve life in so many profound ways including ‘rising above’ the mundane to live in a state of peace. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
If it’s so simple, why don’t more people meditate?
Cultivating a healthy and effective meditation practice may not be a easy as the benefits one will receive. We live in a fast-paced, demanding world of go, go, go – who has time to sit and do ‘nothing?’ First of all, priorities need to be rearranged in order for the amazing gifts of meditation to be reaped. After all, it does take commitment and dedication to get yourself to ‘do’ the practice. Even the simplest methods, consisting of just sitting for 5 minutes watching your thoughts, is often deterred by a telephone call, text message, needy family member or a sleepy body.
How does one get past the obstacles?
1- Commit to the practice – every day – at least 5 minutes: Set your alarm, sit down where you will be left alone for at least 5 minutes every day. Try and make it the same time and the same place – as this will create new neuropathways in your brain that will eventually allow this experience to become ‘involuntary’, or a new habit.
2- No matter how it goes – you did it right: Even if you don’t follow the protocol ‘correctly’, give yourself the credit for having tried. The point is to sit and if you did this, you accomplished your goal. Over time, the body and mind will start to weed out undesirable thoughts and impulses that keep you from wanting to sit. Be the master of your body and your mind and choose to sit no matter how it goes.
3- Choose one method and stick to it: There are so many meditation practices out there it is easy to want to dabble in all the many types of meditation looking for one that ‘works’ for you. What is true is that any of them will work, but only if you stick to one and go deep with it. At first it’s fine to play around looking for what feels most natural, but choose a method fairly soon – one you can do without too much difficultly – and stick to it.
What methods are there?
Many types of meditation practices exist from simply following the breath in and out to repeating mantras to following specific instructions for an allotted time period – often called ‘kriyas.’ There are so many choices, too numerous to go into here – though I will describe just a few. For more information, visit a local meditation or yoga center, or search the web for instructors near you. It’s always great to have someone to help out at the beginning just to make sure you are ‘doing it right’ – especially to answer any questions that will inevitably arise as you start practicing.
‘Following the breath’ is a simple method that involves using your inner awareness to watch the flow of breath as it moves in and out of the body. Keeping attention on the breath helps distract the mind so that it stays focused on the practice and does not wander into other thoughts. This can be done for 5-10 minutes and is very calming and nourishing to the body/mind. Follow breath as it flows in the nose, down the throat and into the lungs and back out again. There are a multitude of breath variations creating a whole body of knowledge known in yoga as Pranayama. If you want to go deeper and learn more, there is certainly a wellspring of wisdom out there. To begin, simply following the natural flow of breath will do.
Mantra repetition, also known as Ajapa japa, is the simple focus on one word, sound or group of words or sounds repeated mentally over and over for an allotted time. A popular mantra used is the sound of ‘OM’ – representing the initial sound of the creation of the universe and often associated with the opening of ones psychic center or third eye. Other mantras include ‘LOVE’, ‘OM NAMA SHIVIAH’, ‘SHANTI’, ‘YAM’, ‘OOOH’, ‘MMMM’, or any other numerous combinations of sounds or words. In the Vedic tradition one uses a mala, or strand of 108 beads for Japa practice, counting one bead for every mantra.
Kriyas are used in different types of yoga and are generally more advanced, utilizing specific hand gestures, tongue placement inside the mouth as well as combinations of rhythms and directions of breath. More can be learned about kryias from a qualified yoga instructor.
Meditation, Stress and Creativity
Meditation is a simple and fantastic way to eliminate stress in the body and can be practiced by anyone of nearly any age. There are four and five year olds practicing meditation and often with greater proficiency than adults, as they are already aware of that calm and peaceful space we would like to return to. Those who meditate, no matter what style is chosen, all report reaching a blissful, mindless state often referred to as ‘the zone.’ It is the same space one reaches when feeling deeply inspired to create – art, writing, music or other crafts. Meditation is that single pointed awareness found during the sexual experience and in moments of great joy. Children practically live in this state until taught by those around them otherwise. Meditation is presence in the moment, unconcerned with past or future happenings.
Stress is a condition of worry – whether about things that have happened in the past, repeated in the mind, or about something one is afraid will happen, or hopes will not happen. Stress is not a condition of the ‘now moment’ generally. To feel stress means you are not at peace with what is occurring presently. The truth is – we can only control what we are feeling in this moment. Meditation gives the tools to bring oneself back to presence and remove unwanted mental chatter regarding the past and the future. In the mind of one who meditates, the goal is to forget all else and notice what IS, right now. It seems simple enough, almost too simple. That’s the beauty of meditation – simple effort can eliminate seemingly mountains of stress and disharmony. Take a few moments today to quiet the mind and try it out.
Written by: Stasia Bliss