When we hear the word “meditation” many of us have images of a robe-clad monk sitting cross-legged for hours on end in silence and stillness. While this can be one method of meditation for some, there are in fact many different ways to meditate, and you don’t have to be a monk, or sit cross-legged, or wear robes to do it!
What is meditation?
Meditation is the practice of quieting the mind and attaining an inner state of awareness.
In the Sanskrit language, this is referred to as dhyana, the seventh of the eight limbs of yoga. According to the ancient text the Yoga Sutra, the purpose of meditation is to interrupt the fluctuations of normal mental activity, such as sensory knowledge, memory, and imagination.
In practice, meditation involves a concentrated focus on something, such as a sound, an image, a feeling, a word, or your breath. You could think of your mental focus like a laser beam, and meditation is the practice of learning to aim that laser beam in whatever direction you choose to aim it and keep it there.
Meditation is a systematic process which takes practice … and patience! It’s sort of like taming a puppy who would much rather be running around than sitting still. In essence, you are training your mind like you would train the puppy: to come back to you when you tell it to, and to sit still, even if just for a few minutes at a time.
Scientific research on meditation
There have been over 3,000 scientific studies on the benefits of meditation and how it impacts the mind and the body.
Back in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which is still going strong today. Through this eight-week, evidence-based program, intensive mindfulness training is offered to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.
MBSR shows consistent reductions in medical and psychological symptoms across a wide range of medical diagnoses. In other words, it consistently and reliably makes you feel better both mentally and physically.
At Harvard University, researchers have studied how meditation changes the brain in subjects with depression. Through MRI imaging of the brain, they found that changes in brain activity in subjects who have learned to meditate hold steady even when they are not meditating.
The part of the brain that was particularly changed was the amygdala, the area responsible for emotions like fear and anxiety. The amygdala is also responsible for turning on the stress response which releases adrenaline and cortisol, the “fight or flight” reaction in the brain. Meditation helps mitigate this response, increasing resistance and reaction to stressors.
Benefits of meditation
There are so many benefits of meditation, both physical and mental, and science consistently backs them up. Having a regular meditation practice can help you:
- disengage from negative thinking
- reduce stress and anxiety
- decrease worry
- feel calmer and have better emotional control
- improve your mood and increase your overall sense of well-being
- increase your sense of connectedness and empathy, improving interpersonal relationships (especially through metta/loving-kindness meditation)
- improve focus, even in the face of distractions
- improve learning and memory
- increase creativity
- overcome addictions
- reduce alcohol and substance abuse, and emotional eating
- improve cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke by half
- enhance your immune system
- reduce physical and emotional pain (better than morphine, in one study!)
- decrease depression and regulate mood and anxiety disorders
- increase gray matter concentration in the brain
- increase gamma brainwaves (these are the fastest brain waves and very subtle. The brain has to be quiet to access them, and they are associated with expanded consciousness)
- manage ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- reduce blood pressure
- decrease inflammation in the body (psychological stress is a potent trigger of inflammation, and inflammation is linked to most degenerative diseases)
- reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Types of meditation
There are many different ways to meditate, and you are encouraged to try several to see what fits and suits you best. As I said above, you don’t need to sit cross-legged for hours or chant in Sanskrit, though some people choose to.
Below are just a few that I enjoy. Try them for yourself and see what you think!
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of intentionally focusing on the present moment with open attention, monitoring all aspects of your experience without judgment or attachment. The goal is not to get rid of thoughts, but to accept and non-judgmentally pay attention to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise. You can sit still for this kind of meditation, or do a more active meditation while you’re doing any activity, like washing the dishes.
For example: notice the bubbles on your hands and the dishes, the sensation of the water on your skin, the sound of the running water in your ears, the smell of the dish soap, and stay in the present moment with your actions, rather than daydreaming about something in the past or in the future.
One of my favorite types of moving mindfulness meditation is to do a walking meditation. When I take a walk, instead of talking on the phone or thinking random thoughts in my head, I focus on the sensory input available to me on the walk: the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground with every step, the various shades of green in all the leaves and the grass, the sensation of the wind in my hair and on my skin, the sound of the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, the clouds in the sky, all the different colors and shapes of flowers, and so on. I also focus on my breath, in and out, rhythmically and evenly.
Breath awareness is a form of mindfulness meditation where you focus on the breath: the sound of the breath in your ears, the sensation of the breath in your nostrils and on your upper lip, the expansion and contraction of the ribs and diaphragm, slowing the pace of the breath, and so on. Breath awareness is a foundational element of most types of meditation, as slow, deep breathing helps down-regulate the nervous system, making you feel calm and focused.
Pranayama in Sanksrit literally means “life extension,” and involves the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises. It is believed that by doing this kind of breath control we can lengthen life. There are many different breathing techniques in pranayama, like the breath of fire, lion’s breath, rabbit’s breath, and more.
One form of pranayama I especially enjoy is alternate nostril breathing, where you close up one nostril and breathe a round of breath through the other, then switch, back and forth. First breathing out then in on each round increases energy, and breathing in then out on each round encourages a deeper sense of calm, so you can choose what you need in that particular moment.
Another technique is to do a mental body scan of each set of muscles throughout the body, noticing if there is any tightness or tension, and consciously relaxing it. You can sit or recline, just be comfortable in whatever way that looks like for you. I like to start with the head and work down to the feet.
Focus on the muscles of the forehead and eyebrows, and encourage them to relax. Then bring awareness to the jaw and the mouth, perhaps parting the lips and teeth, and relax them. Then the neck, the shoulders, and so on, until you’ve made your way all the way down to the feet. You can also linger on each body part for a few breaths, noticing that muscles release even more tension on the exhaled breath, just like when you sigh.
Progressive muscle relaxation is similar to the body scan, but here you feel the contrast of first tightening the muscles, and then releasing them. Get in a comfortable position, whether seated or reclined, and go through each set of muscles, tightening for a few seconds, and then releasing. Clench your jaw, then release. Lift your head off the ground for a few seconds, then put it back down. Squeeze a fist, then release, and so on. I like to do this one laying on the floor. If you fall asleep, congratulate yourself for having achieved such a deep state of relaxation!
Chanting mantra is another form of meditation that involves repeating a sound, or a word or a phrase in Sanskrit, for the purpose of focusing your mind. Some meditation teachers insist that both the choice of word and its correct pronunciation is very important, due to the “vibration” associated with the sound and meaning. Others say that the mantra itself is only a tool to focus the mind, and the chosen words are irrelevant.
One of my favorite mantras is “Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo” which is chanted often in the Kundalini yoga tradition. There are many ways to translate it, but one is, “I bow to the All-That-Is. I bow to the Divine Wisdom within myself.” Sometimes I chant it out loud, sometimes I whisper, and sometimes I just think it over and over in my head.
Similar to chanting a mantra, in that it also uses the voice, I sometimes like to repeat positive affirmations to myself. Sometimes I speak them out loud, or whisper, or just think them over and over and over again. Sometimes it’s related to a goal I’d like to attain in the future that I haven’t achieved yet, but I use present tense language so my brain feels like it is already happening in the here and now. I also only use positive language focusing on what I DO want, versus what I DON’T want. For example: “I can handle whatever comes my way” or “I am enough, I have enough, I do enough” or a simple one that’s one of my favorites: “I got this”.
With conscious visualization, you focus the mind on a specific vision, like something you’d like to see happen in the future, and then hold that thought unwaveringly in your mind, allowing yourself to feel all the emotions that go along with it. For someone who is looking for a relationship, they might imagine what their perfect partner would look like, and hold the vision of that ideal person in their mind. Or if they want a new job, they might imagine what the ideal new job would be like, and imagine themselves doing it.
At the end of each of my yoga classes, I recite a version of a metta prayer or loving-kindness meditation. This type of meditation comes from the Buddhist tradition and involves well-wishes toward yourself, others, and the world. With closed eyes, in your mind and heart, you’ll generate feelings of kindness and benevolence. Start by developing loving-kindness towards yourself, then progressively towards others and all beings, going through this progression:
- a good friend
- a “neutral” person, like the nice lady at the grocery store checkout counter
- a difficult person in your life
- all beings in the entire universe
My favorite version uses this language:
May I be peaceful and happy
May I be healthy and strong
May I be safe and free from fear
May I be filled with love, kindness, and forgiveness
Then you would continue the same lines for a friend, the neutral person, the difficult person, and so on.
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See? So many choices and ways to quiet and focus the mind, I’m sure there’s something here for everyone! Even starting with two to three minutes a day can have incredible effects on your nervous system and your mind … the important thing is actually DOING it.
I have some coaching clients who set an alarm three times a day during their workday at the office, and when the alarm goes off, they stop everything they are doing and just breathe for a minute or two. They all report that even this small meditation has given them great benefits.
Remember that it’s called a meditation practice, not a meditation perfect, so just get started even in a small way and enjoy all the benefits of your quieter mind today!