Meditation: What’s the Real Story?
If you’ve ever felt anxious, fearful, worthless, angry or depressed, I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
Going to endless therapy appointments to no avail and trying another medication filled with nasty side-effects really sucks.
Wouldn’t you love it if there was a FREE and natural way out of this vicious cycle?
Good news, you’ve found it! It’s called meditation and I’ll show you how it can work to change your life.
Meditation is a spectrum of ways of being that affect consciousness. It’s being aware of your awareness and turning it inward toward listening, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, feeling and being aware of the existence of life inside and outside of oneself.
The ways to define meditation is an exhaustive list. You might find that when you begin on a path of meditation, your personal definition of meditation will be found in the stillness of your mind. Your personal definition of meditation is naturally developed during your meditation practice.
How does meditation really work?
Have you ever noticed that when you are faced with a problem or a difficult situation, that you can come up with the best solution if you have time to not think about it? Taking a walk or driving around aimlessly brings you a fresh awareness and you can come up with a solution.
For me, the place where I come up with the best solutions is the shower. My mind seems to go into a trance as the water soothingly cascades downward turning my confused perceptions into little puddles that flow down the drain. The answers suddenly appear.
That’s how meditation works. It gives your mind a much-needed break from habits like overthinking, obsessing and overreacting and the solutions have an easier time reaching your consciousness.
In daily life, when you’re faced with a situation where you don’t have time to walk or shower, you have a much shorter time to formulate a response. Meditation has already made space in your mind to give you that “headspace” in a much shorter period.
It’s like a daily intermission from life. Your mind gets time off from daily stressors and your body gets a few moments to relax.
Meanwhile, your inner cast of characters: stress, annoyance and turmoil get to take a break and transform themselves for Act II. As a theater major I see the world in creative terms. All the world’s a stage and inner transformation is no exception.
Meditation does these cool things because it strengthens parts of your brain that oversees decision making. But more on the science-y part later.
For now, let’s move onto defining meditation.
Meditation can also be a scientific act of being present, relaxed and aware to evoke endless benefits from lower blood pressure to higher emotional intelligence. Simply paying attention to your consciousness can affect or alter it and help you to experience a life filled with richness, satisfaction and peace of mind.
The most “to-the-point” definition of meditation is that it is a “state of consciousness” or “awareness of the present moment.”
It can also be a sacred, devotional or spiritual act that aligns a person with her higher self or higher power.
Meditation for the Real World
Let’s say someone in your personal life did something to really infuriate you.
In the heat of the moment you may not be aware that there is a response that might be even more effective than sending them a passive aggressive text message or f-word-filled email rant. I know. What a let-down.
But it might just save your life. Meditation gives you the peace of mind to expose your awareness to your inner spoiled brat, and re-introduces you to your inner grown person.
The Best Part About Meditation (Accomplish #lifegoals)
Much of our lives are spent planning and thinking of ways we can change the past. Breaking news: We can’t. But that doesn’t stop our minds from trying.
Meditation helps us recognize the difference between ourselves and our thoughts. You are the observer of your thoughts you are not the thoughts themselves.
When this concept is practiced daily, you start to notice that fewer of your usual triggers get triggered. Fewer of your buttons get pushed. And suddenly a whole a range of responses to choose from comes into play.
The goal of meditation is to transcend the mind and journey toward your pure essence as a being of love and inner harmony. At first sit, your mind will not be as docile and easy to control as you’d like and thoughts will run through it like an unruly puppy running from a bath.
But with practice and time, stillness and serenity become more accessible and that unruly puppy luxuriates in its warm, calming bath.
Meditation allows your mind’s intellect to relax for a while which frees it up to find better solutions to problems, explore your motivations and discover why you react to things the way you do.
If your mind is always full of thoughts running wildly to and fro, it doesn’t have the time or space to evolve into higher thoughts that might help you to
- Solve problems more creatively
- Finally lose those last 5 pounds
- Beat cravings and overeating
- Sleep better
How Meditation Works: 3 Parts of the Brain
Meditation is the only form of exercise where you can sit and still get in shape. These are the structures that get the best workout:
- Lateral Prefrontal Cortex – We’ll call this, “Command Central”. It regulates emotional responses originating from the reptilian part of the brain. It overrides automatic responses and takes charge in making decisions based on reality and less on a perspective colored by the past.
- The Medial Prefrontal Cortex – Let’s call this part, “Me, Myself and I”. Because that is what it constantly refers to. It processes information related to you: your thoughts, reflections, desires, future and interactions with others.
- Amygdala – which we’ll call “Cape Fear” because it is responsible for our emotional reactions including the world-renown “fight or flight” response. It can also be known as the “Oh Sh*t Center”.
Usually “Me, Myself and I” (Me Center) connects to “Cape Fear” (Amygdala) with many unsettling consequences such as paranoia that a small cough you just developed is undoubtedly a serious, life-threatening disease (usually after conferring with WebMD), or that Jon from the Customer Service Department meant his comment in a totally nasty way and should be punished for it immediately and painfully.
Unfortunately, “Command Central” and “Cape Fear” do not have a strong natural link to one another, so all the fears, insecurities and worrying can loop over and over into obsessing and rumination patterns.
Meditation Saves the Day
Add in a dose of meditation and “Command Central” steps in and kicks “Me Center” and “Cape Fear” in the ass.
When a person meditates for 20 minutes per day for at least 8 weeks, change starts to happen and this fight is interrupted. “Command Central” starts working at a higher capacity and puts the brakes on the “Me Center”.
Meditation also starts to shrink “Cape Fear” (the amygdala) which is good news for your awareness, concentration and decision making. You can control to your responses to stressful situations. Your capability for deciding how to respond gets stronger and your knee-jerk reactions will grow weaker.
Here’s the Deal on the Scientific Definition of Meditation
Over 1000 studies on meditation have been done since the 1950s. Since that time, scientists haven’t come to a definite agreement on the definition of meditation. Fortunately, some of them have formulated specific criteria to define meditation.
Any clearly defined technique that consists of
- Muscle relaxation
- Logic relaxation – not trying to analyze or explain psychophysical effects, not judging good, bad, right or wrong and not creating any type of expectation of the process.
- A self-induced state using focus or anchor such as breathing, gazing point or word.
Definition 2: An experience of “thoughtless awareness”
Definition 3: “Techniques that seem to restrict awareness to a single source of stimulation for a definite period of time.”
Definition 4: Turning the attention toward a single object, concept or image to gain greater spiritual insight or achieving psychological well-being.
Definition 5: Self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness under voluntary control and foster well-being and development of calm, clarity and concentration. 1
A comprehensive definition of meditation put together by scientists at the American Psychological Association is:
“Meditation is a self-induced state that involves logic relaxation which may involve a state of mental and physical relaxation, use a self-focus skill or anchor, and involve an altered state of consciousness, mystic experience or enlightenment embedded in a spiritual context involving mental silence.” 6
Meditation is the golden key to all the mysteries of life. ~Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Many of these scientific definitions of meditation are in line with what meditators have known for thousands of years. That meditation is a collection of techniques to observe the effects of stillness on the mind and body.
4 Popular Types of Meditation
Let’s look at three types of meditation that are popular today and define each.
- Mindfulness Meditation usually uses focused attention to encourage mental stillness. The focus is usually on a physical sensation such as the breath or on outside sounds or a focus point. Whenever thought come up, notice them and return to the breath. Mindfulness meditation or simply, mindfulness, can also be practiced while doing mundane tasks such as doing laundry or washing the dishes. There are many focuses in mindfulness meditation such as gardening, knitting, woodworking, even craft beer making.
- Transcendental Meditation aims to encourage mental focus and limit distracting thoughts with the use of a mantra. Every time that unruly puppy of thought comes up and starts running wild, students are encouraged to refocus on the mantra.
- Sahaja Yoga Meditation aims to encourage the experience of “thoughtless awareness”. The intent of Sahaja Yoga is to become aware of the eternal nature residing in our pure state, that of the Self or Spirit.
- Guided Meditation – This is my favorite type of meditation to use when I have a goal in mind, or when I’m struggling to stay focused. Guided meditation is listening to a series of instructions designed to provoke imagery, mental calmness and/or a certain feeling or desired mental state. When you’re struggling with focus, attention or relaxation or just want a calming voice to chill to, guided meditations are the way to go. Here’s one to get you started.
The Most Important Part?
The most important thing about meditation is that it’s simple. There is no need for flowery words, complex images, expressions or gestures. It is simply “being” in a certain way. And although “being” seems like a super easy thing to do, it is not always easy, especially for beginners.
KISS: Keep It Simple, Swami
When you first sit down to meditate, you might be able to do it for about 1 minute before finding the need to get up and find the need to straighten every book on your bookshelf or set the correct time on the microwave.
The great news is that 1 minute is all you need to start off with a meditation practice. It’s the best way to start.
On the first day, do one minute, on the next day, add two, on the third add three and so on until you reach about 20 minutes. This is the magic number that scientists say that it takes daily meditation practice to start to improve your well-being and reap all those incredible benefits that we talked about earlier.
How Can You Use It? (3 Ways to Ninja-fy Your Life)
There are many types of meditation and each one produces a different benefit according to one’s personality, style, goals and desires.
- Unfocused awareness – paying attention to the present moment while being aware of thoughts and distractions that arise. This unfocused awareness usually finds us shifting our awareness again and again into the present moment.
Our brains naturally shift from focusing on the present moment, to focusing on avoiding pain, strategizing our next move, planning for dinner, wondering why pandas are so damn adorable and clumsy.
- Focused awareness – is paying attention to a stimulus such as breathing, sounds, bodily sensations or a focus point. This is what is mostly practiced during mindfulness meditation.
- Thoughtless awareness – Your mind is entirely in the present moment. There are no thoughts of past or future. Thoughtless awareness can be practiced either while sitting or while doing a task that is repetitive and doesn’t require decision making or heavy machinery.
I use this meditation when I’m swimming laps in the pool. My mind goes relatively still and I listen to the sounds of breathing bubbles and the splashing of my arms through the water around me.
It’s also good to try thoughtless awareness while you are gardening, or playing with your pet. Other activities such as folding laundry, washing dishes or bathing are good too. What activities can you think of where you can practice thoughtless awareness?
Change your life in 60 seconds
Do you have just 60 seconds to practice something that might just change your life?
Now that you’ve got the scoop on what meditation is and how it works, how about you try it for yourself? This short, one minute practice can get you started on a practice that can change your life.
- Find a spot that isn’t in the middle of traffic. Any quiet place will do.
2. Set a timer for 1 minute.
3. Find a comfortable pillow or chair and sit comfortably.
You can cross your legs, put them in front of you or kneel if you want. Find the best position that works for you.
You may let your eyes close or rest your gaze rest on a spot a few feet in front of you and slightly down.
Notice your breath. Does it make your chest or belly rise and fall? How does it feel flowing in and out of your nostrils? Keep your focus on this.
When a thought pops into your head remind yourself to refocus on your breath.
When the minute is up if you feel a little more relaxed you’ve done it right. Congrats!
Meditation is an integral part of most spiritual traditions. Christian meditation involves the act of speaking to God through prayer and listening to God through meditating on biblical passages.
Christians spend time in quiet reflection with God as they are implored to “Be still and know” (from Psalm 46:10). Christians might see the act of prayer and resting in God’s powerful presence as the highest form of meditation.
In his book, “What is Meditation? Buddhism for Everyone”, Rob Nairn describes Buddhism as “a collection of skillful methods of working with the mind.” In terms of meditation, this definition captures the essence of Buddhism quite well. In Buddhism, meditation is called Dhyana.
The Buddhist Center describes meditation as “a means of transforming the mind”.
Buddhist meditation encourages mental strength, flexibility and awareness.
- A strong mind is resilient, focused and able to cultivate positivity and calmness during storms and difficulty.
- A flexible mind is one that is expansive, creative, and open to different perspectives so that one can develop new, healthier patterns of navigating life.
- An aware mind is alive, receptive and has knowledge and wisdom to develop positive emotional responses and ways of operating effectively in the world.
The Buddhist tradition of meditation has many different types but the principles of calming the mind and gaining insights apply to all types of Buddhist meditation.
Simple Buddhist Meditation
- Sit still, focusing on breathing.
- Reflect on feelings whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. At times in life, we don’t always know what we are feeling. A short meditation to check in with yourself to take your emotional temperature is helpful to strengthen awareness of yourself and your inner emotional world.
- Reflect on bodily sensations in the present moment. Do a quick mental scan of the areas in your body and how they feel. For example, how does it feel for parts of your body to touch the mat or chair you are sitting on?
- Are you feeling any areas of pressure, tightness or pain? It’s all about noticing and not necessarily doing anything to change them. Although if you do notice tightness you can release it more easily by releasing it with your breath.
Starting a meditation practice is easier once you understand what meditation is and know your purpose for doing it. Meditation is a wonderful journey where you may experience everything from the simplest of insights to life-changing mystical experiences. It will help you to organize your thoughts, recognize your emotions and triggers and respond effectively to life’s many twists and turns.
Here are some fantastic resources on meditation that I highly recommend. I’ve used a bit of each of these resources to grow my meditation practice and heal my anxiety and depression.
1 Defining a complex intervention: The development of demarcation criteria for “meditation”. Bond, Kenneth; Ospina, Maria B.; Hooton, Nicola; Bialy, Liza; Dryden, Donna M.; Buscemi, Nina; Shannahoff-Khalsa, David; Dusek, Jeffrey; Carlson, Linda E.
Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol 1(2), May 2009, 129-137. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0015736
M Wenner – LiveScience. com, 2007 – scn.ucla.edu
The Science of Meditation http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200105/the-science-meditation
R Manocha – Australian Family Physician, 2000 – sahajayoga-wissen.org