So, what’s this thing called meditation all about? Well, it’s an inside job, so to speak. It can change our perceptions of stress by shifting our consciousness to ourselves, and to our own cognitive responses and emotional patterns. The result? Over time we come to view our own reactions and feelings from a more grounded perspective. We learn to observe our emotions instead of letting them run the show.
Meditation can seem like such a lofty thing, but it doesn’t need to be. Anyone can do it, and everyone can benefit. So today I’d like explore meditation; the health benefits it creates, and how to get started. It’s really quite simple and you can learn it very easily.
Fancy candles and various techniques aside, the idea of meditation is being present It’s about what goes on in our own minds – all the mental blah, blah, blah that taxes our brains and frays our nerves. Whether you consider meditation as a spiritual practice or not, being present is about reclaiming our own “spirit” – the self or deeper humanity that exists behind the barrage of meetings, schedules and ongoing story lines. It can be a real trip to peek behind the curtain, let alone throw it aside. What you feel is something so essential and simple you can often feel like you’ve come home.
As with all things good and natural, meditation isn’t just a good idea in theory. Research has demonstrated time and again that a regular meditation practice imparts striking changes to our physiological functioning, as well as our brain structure. Several studies have shown that meditation can lower blood pressure and reduce the activation of certain brain regions associated with worrying and anxiety. Likewise, meditation over time thickens the brain and increases the connectivity within the brain. Insular gyrification (the folding of the brain’s cortex), the researchers found, increased with added years of meditation practice. Associated with these structural changes are benefits like faster processing, better memory formation, and more integrated decision making.
Plus, there’s my personal favourite. Yes, all you epigenetic junkies out there, this one’s for you. A recent study examines the epigenetic profiles of those who received eight weeks of meditation instruction and practice. In less than two months, meditation was enough to upregulate several genes related to “energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance.” Likewise, genes related to inflammation and the body’s stress response were downregulated.
Okay, so maybe you’re convinced. But where’s the time? How do I make this happen without becoming agitated by the random itches and distractions that inevitably creep up whenever I sit down to “quiet” myself?
First off, let me say that I’m no guru. Let’s just say it doesn’t come naturally to me. But I have had some great mentors, and over time I have picked up a few pointers that I feel comfortable offering up some advice.
To start, set a low threshold goal. Don’t expect to do an hour “sit” in at the beginning. Longer times yield deeper peace, sure. It’s not for everybody, however, and that goes double for beginners. Remember, small wins… Carve out as much time as you can – when you can. Even if it’s only ten minutes, make them ten solid minutes. Once you begin to feel the benefits, you’ll likely prioritize meditation in a new way and create more time for it. Think of it this way: meditation can allow you greater peace, concentration and sleep. This all means you can be more efficient. Just those gains alone will bestow upon you the extra time to invest in your practice. Kinda like exercise, no?
While you likely can’t make it to the local meditation centre every day, consider trying a weekly group practice to develop the discipline. You’ll learn a great deal from the instruction and just absorb the good energy of a group sit. We’re more likely to stick with the sit if we’re in a group. No one wants to be the jerk who got up in the middle of the session or who makes a ton of noise scooting around. We’re on our best behaviour with our fellow people. With time, that behaviour sets in as the “normal” default come meditation time. From there, we can transfer the discipline to our home practice.
Use the power of habit to your advantage. Create the same associations at home by trying to practice at the same time of day or in the same space for a while. Make a calming space in your home or yard. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – no specialty IKEA shopping required. That said, once you’ve gotten the hang of it, there’s no need to save meditation for home or your nearest Zen centre. I know a footy player who needs to hang around downtown all day and finds spots in local parks for some meditation time each afternoon.
As for technique, start simple. Sit up straight on a folded blanket or comfortable pillow. Use a chair if you prefer, or even lay on the floor if you think you can stay awake.
You’ve likely often heard to focus on the in and out breath. Do it. Don’t try to manipulate the breath, or do it in any special way, other than breathe into the abdomen. Just follow the rhythm. Do this alone for a few minutes to try and empty the mind. Notice thoughts come and go. If one starts to take hold, release it without self-judgment. Notice your body’s sensations. Feel where the tension is bound up. Release it progressively, using the breath as a centre point and rhythm for the release if it’s helpful. The concept here is to let go of all you can – mentally and physically. With practice, you may not need to focus on the breath. You’ll be able to come back to that clear, silent awareness, but the breath can always re-centre you. Again, group instruction or even a good CD recording that allows some instruction time with some silence can be helpful for many people.
Meditation, when we give ourselves time to explore it, can be a progressive means to getting out of our modern hyper-rational minds and letting something deeper, more instinctually and solidly primordial fill the space. In meditation, we let ourselves dwell there for a short time, but the experience can dramatically change what we bring back to daily living.