Most of us have heard of the numerous benefits of meditation which help to counteract the effects of frenetic, fast-paced lives, ridden with anxiety, stress, fear and worry. But for anyone who has battled with their thoughts before giving up in frustration, meditation may seem an elusive or even unattainable pursuit.
Meditation, Naval gazing, communing with God, call it what you will – meditation need not be complicated or difficult. Learn a few simple techniques, close your eyes and see your life change.
Embracing your thoughts
Start your meditation practice by dropping expectations of what meditating ‘should’ feel like and disregarding beliefs that you ‘can’t’ do it.
The mind is made up of thoughts, so these are a necessary part of our meditation practice. The difference from normal thinking is that in meditation, we observe our thoughts arising but do not engage with them and give them fuel to continue. Without attention, thoughts will slow down and eventually fade away.
Be here now
So what to give the ‘monkey mind’ to focus its ceaseless energy upon? The most common and accessible method is simply to watch your breath.
Observe your in-breath and out-breath without trying to control it. Feel the sensation of the breath on your nostrils and your upper lip, and how your belly, chest and collarbones become animated with each breath in and out. You may wish to try counting your breath, ‘one, two, one, two’, continually.
Which brings us to another potential pitfall for new meditators – how to build concentration? Take comfort in knowing that this won’t happen overnight and avoid berating yourself for losing concentration as this will only take you further away.
Rather, when you realise you’ve become lost amid mental clutter, simply step back and return your attention to your breath, over and over again. Repeatedly resuming concentration will build your mental stamina and lengthen the periods when you are concentrating. In meditation, your senses remain active but eventually you’ll learn not to engage with sense objects such as nearby sounds and smells.
Medical benefits of meditation
Neuroscientists have found that mid- to long-term meditators shift their brain activity during waking hours from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex, which decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety and encourages feelings of calm and happiness. They also display less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.
Research shows that meditation can reduce or eliminate drug addiction, high blood pressure, infertility, asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), premenstrual syndrome (PMS), tension headaches, and stress-related conditions including irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, and insomnia. It has been used successfully in helping sufferers manage chronic pain and is a key component of Ornish therapy, a treatment to reverse heart disease.
Studies by the Transcendental Meditation organisation have even linked meditation with prolonged longevity; two factors are scientifically determined to extend life – calorie restriction and lowering of the body’s core temperature – and meditation has been shown to effect the later.
Deepening your meditation
Maintaining a regular, ideally daily, meditation practice can lead to long-term, deep-rooted changes to your values, attitude and life direction. Meditation tends to lead to greater affinity with people, animals and nature as the distance between the subject and object, between ‘I’ and ‘them’, diminishes. It’s common for meditators to gain deep insights and feel greater unity with the silent witness behind all one’s daily activities.
For first-time meditators or those needing inspiration or motivation, meditation groups can guide and encourage you to sit longer than you may otherwise. It can also be useful to hear other people’s experience of meditation and to have support if your meditation leads to larger long-term life changes.
There is no right or wrong method, emotion or behaviour during meditation. It is simply a time for you. We spend so much time looking after our loved ones, our bodies, possessions and careers, but give little or no time to the health of our minds. Try a few techniques to see which one feels best for you but remember not to get too caught up in technique and performing it ‘correctly’.
Meditation is not a selfish pursuit, on the contrary, it makes you better at dealing with and caring for others. With sustained effort, meditation will reveal its rewards to you and everyone around you.
General tips to enhance meditation
• The best time to meditate is sunrise or sunset
• Meditation is most effective on an empty stomach
• Try to develop a place and routine for your meditation
• Avoid lying down but be comfortable
• Try to relinquish expectations and to relax
• You can sit with your eyes open if you find this easier. Focus on a point of stillness and keep your eyes half-closed.