What is Meditation?
Let’s consider meditation to be a form of mental exercise. When we do physical exercise we train specific parts of our body and increase our physical fitness. In a similar way, meditation is a tool to train our mind – e.g. our thoughts, or our feelings, etc.
Meditation involves creating a meditative state by focussing our attention on something specific, such as our breathing, a visualisation, or the universe. While there are lots of things we can concentrate on; an important aspect of meditation is that focussing our attention helps quieten our thinking mind.
With practice and sometimes some guidance from an experienced meditator, we get better and faster at generating a meditative state. The aim is not to stop thinking or feeling. Focussing attention onto something specific means we concentrate on that instead of concentrating on thoughts. There are great techniques to facilitate this.
Types of Meditation
There are many different ways to meditate. While concentrative meditation is ideal for beginners, it’s also practiced by experienced meditators. There’s also mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, guided meditation, and many more. It’s better to practice the type of meditation that works best for you.
In concentrative meditation, for example, a meditative state is induced by focussing on one or more specific things throughout the entire meditation, such as your breathing, an object or a mental image. Whenever your attention moves away from this focal point, gradually bring your attention back to it.
Mindfulness meditation initially uses concentrative meditation to induce a meditative state by focussing on something specific. Once in this state, we then allow thoughts, images, emotions, etc., to naturally go through our mind without bringing our attention back to the initial focal point. This broadens our mind’s awareness.
Transcendental meditation has some similarities to mindfulness meditation. A mantra (e.g., specific vocal repetition) is often used and we learn to transcend, or go beyond our thoughts and feelings. With practice we broaden our awareness further and experience our connection with, and relationship to, all things.
An experienced meditator and/or teacher can help you learn the basics, more advanced techniques, and to overcome such beliefs as “I can’t meditate because of too many thoughts”. Again, there are special techniques to facilitate this.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation has a positive impact on our body. It reduces blood pressure; lowers heart rate; and, improves breathing regulation. It can improve our ability to manage pain. The more we meditate, the more likely we are to experience these and other benefits outside of our meditations. Positive impacts on the brain have also been found, such as slowing down brain deterioration; improving brain cell connections; and, brain activity changes. Experienced meditators often display these changes when they are not meditating, suggesting some changes may be permanent. Lasting changes in the brain may be explained by neuroplasticity, a science that shows our brain can be permanently retrained.
Meditation may literally slow down the ageing process. Studies have found experienced meditators to be years younger biologically when compared to same chronological age comparison groups who don’t meditate. Another benefit is that meditation reduces stress and anxiety. For instance, meditation lowers cortisol and lactate levels, and raises skin resistance. High cortisol and lactate, and low skin resistance are taken by researchers as measures of heightened stress.
Aside from the positive impacts mentioned and all the other benefits not mentioned and not yet discovered, there are some real practical uses of meditation. Meditation can be used for general relaxation as well as to develop a more permanent level of calmness in our everyday lives. It can also help to problem solve challenges while in a calm meditative state; to stimulate our mind; and, it can help with insomnia.
With positive impacts on our brain, body, ageing, mental healthiness and general wellbeing, no wonder so many psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, and doctors recommend meditation. Health practitioners not only recommend it, more and more actively practice meditation themselves. Health professionals must tell you meditation is no replacement for medication. That being said, meditation is slowly becoming a non-drug treatment because of its far reaching benefits for us all.
Meditation is something with great flexibility. We can meditate sitting on a chair, lying down or even in a particular posture. In the same way, we can meditate by our self, with another person or in a group. Experienced meditators often say meditation has a different feel or different ‘energy’ when meditating in a group.
While meditating in a group is not essential to have a great meditation, there are benefits of meditating in a group. Group meditation is great when first starting out. This is because it allows you to ask questions and to talk about what you experienced in your meditation session. It means you can learn things from the teacher or facilitator, as well as benefit from the experiences of others in the group.
Another advantage is the large number of meditation groups around. If one group works well for you then that’s great; however, you can always change groups when you feel like you have learned all you can learn there. Also, different groups use different meditation techniques. Going to a few groups is a great way to learn new techniques. Keep in mind; however, that you can still learn excellent meditation practices without having to take on a group’s particular philosophical beliefs.
Here’s a Meditation You Can Try Yourself
Meditation is something you can learn. This concentrative meditation involves simply focussing on your breathing. This is an excellent way to get started because it’s straightforward, easy to learn, and you can practice it by yourself if you want to.
Find a chair, take off your shoes and turn your phone on silent. Put new age music on and/or light a candle if you want. Sit with your back straight and avoid crossing your arms or legs. Place your palms on your thighs and your feet flat on the floor.
Now you’re ready to start. Slowly close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Once you’ve taken these first breaths, start to watch your breathing by being aware of it. Be aware of the air filling your lungs when you breathe in. Notice how the air leaves your nose or mouth as you breathe out. As you continue to watch your breathing, you may notice your attention going somewhere else. Once you notice it, be consciously aware that your attention has diverted, and simply gradually bring your attention back to your breathing. This is a useful technique experienced meditators often use when starting to think about something during a meditation.
After a few minutes, as you continue to be aware of how air enters and leaves your body, you will usually start noticing you feel more relaxed. Typically, heart rate and breathing slows down and you feel more at ease. After meditating on your breathing for 10-30 minutes, slowly move your attention away from your breathing. Place your attention onto where you’re sitting and notice where your hands and feet are placed. Begin to be aware of where you are in the room. When you are ready, gradually open your eyes. If you want, go and drink a glass of water or a cup of tea because you can easily become thirsty after a meditation.
So now you have experienced a getting-started meditation. It’s usually easier to meditate when it’s quieter and you’re less likely to be disturbed. Guided group meditation is an even better way to get started because you usually have an experienced meditator talking you through the entire meditation.
We have looked at what meditation is, some types of meditation, the positive impact of meditation on our brain, body, ageing, mental healthiness and general wellbeing, as well as some practical uses. New benefits are being discovered every day. No wonder so many psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, and doctors not only recommend it, more and more regularly practice meditation themselves.
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