WHAT IS MEDITATION?
Meditation is a habitual mind and body practice that has been used for millennia to cause physical relaxation, mental calmness, and increased mindfulness (the practice of bringing your attention to your current experiences and connecting with them).
By regularly meditating, you can train your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts from negative to positive ones.
Meditation can involve sitting quietly, focusing on your breathing, focusing on how your body feels, repeating a mantra (saying or word) to yourself in your head or out loud, or just having several seconds to breathe and calm down before acting.
You can use meditation for many reasons, including reducing stress and anxiety, increasing awareness of yourself and your surroundings, learning how to concentrate better, creating a more positive mood and outlook, increasing self-discipline, developing healthy sleeping patterns, and even increasing pain tolerance.
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
Meditation has the built-in benefits of being free, easy, fast, and can be done anywhere with or without others.
There are direct benefits from meditating, like feeling more relaxed and less stressed immediately afterward, but there are also long-term benefits to your mental, physical, and emotional health.
- Reduced stress: This is the most common benefit sought after by those considering meditation. Stress can have many adverse side effects, such as depression, anxiety, poor sleep, increased blood pressure, fatigue, and inability to concentrate. Meditating routinely has been proven to reduce stress and even the biological markers of stress.
- Reduced anxiety: This is closely linked to reduced stress, as stress and anxiety usually come hand in hand: less stress usually means less pressure. Meditation is known to ease anxiety in daily life and reduce anxiety disorders, such as phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and panic attacks.
- Improved sleep: Because stress and sleep are connected, reducing stress would also improve sleep. Meditating regularly may decrease the amount of time needed for you to fall asleep, help you stay asleep longer, and even improve the quality of the sleep you get by helping you relax and clear your mind.
- Decreased blood pressure and heart rate: Reducing stress can also reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety, like increased blood pressure. Long-term high blood pressure is problematic because it can affect your heart functioning and blood flow through your body. Regular meditation can decrease blood pressure measurably.
- Improved immune system: Reducing stress also has the physical benefit of boosting your immune system. Once you lower your pressure, you also reduce the number of inflammatory molecules in your body triggered by stress; fewer inflammatory molecules mean a calmer immune system ready to fight off infections more efficiently.
- Improved emotional health: Meditation is known to improve your self-image, decrease depression, and help you have a more positive outlook on life by identifying negative thoughts and changing them to be positive. Identifying and actively controlling your inner thoughts can be very powerful in changing your mood and emotional states, such as by helping you manage your anger, angst, or anxiety.
- Improved self-awareness: Regular meditation can also increase your mindfulness, which taps into your self-awareness. By internally reflecting and focusing inward during meditation, you better understand yourself and your inner thoughts.
- Improved control of addictions: By increasing your self-awareness and self-control, you can also identify and control triggers for addictive behavior. Meditation has been shown to help increase willpower, redirect attention, and control impulses and emotions.
- Increased pain tolerance: Pain is a very subjective topic and can even change depending on the mood or situation you’re in; if you’re stressed, your pain tolerance may be lower. Medication can make you less sensitive to pain by increasing your ability to control pain, effectively increasing your pain tolerance. Meditation may also help manage chronic pain or pain experienced at the end of life.
- Increased life span and improve age-related memory loss: Meditating is like exercise for your brain—it enhances your attention and memory while decreasing worrying and mind-wandering habits. Some older people have even found that meditation improved their ability to perform memory tasks, concentration, and mental quickness. Meditation can also improve memory in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and slow the development of dementia (Khalsa, DS. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2015, vol 48, issue 1), as well as helping caretakers cope with the stress of taking care of a loved one (Hurley et al. Aging & Mental Health, 2014, vol 18, issue 3). A 2018 review article by Russell-Williams, et al. in Reviews in the Neurosciences summarized ten studies that all reported significant differences in or significant trends toward reduced cognitive decline, lowered perceived stress, increased quality of life, and increased functional activity in the cortex of the brain in people with Alzheimer’s disease or MCI.
TYPES OF MEDITATION
There are many different kinds of meditation. Below is a short overview of some popular types:
- Guided meditation: You use as many senses as possible (smell, sounds, touch, etc.) to form mental pictures of places or situations you find secure and relaxing. A teacher or guide may verbally lead you through this type of meditation.
- Hypnosis (also known as hypnosis): Hypnosis is similar to a guided meditation where a guide (usually a hypnotist) helps people achieve a relaxed and hyper-focused state of mind where they are susceptible to suggestions from the hypnotist. According to the American Psychological Association, most clinicians agree that hypnosis may be a “strong, effective therapeutic method for a wide range of conditions, including pain, anxiety and mood disorders.” Hypnosis can also help people change their habits, such as quit smoking.
- Mindfulness meditation: You increase your conscious awareness (called mindfulness) by focusing on what you experience, such as your breathing or what you hear. This focus allows you to observe your thoughts and emotions without judging them.
- Mantra meditation: You quietly or silently repeat a word or phrase (mantra) to prevent distracting thoughts from racing through your mind.
- Yoga: You use your body and mind by moving into a series of poses while controlling your breathing. This promotes flexibility and physical health while allowing you to focus more on the present and less on a busy day and other activities you have to do.
- Tai chi: This is a form of Chinese martial arts where you gracefully move through a self-paced series of movements and poses while practicing deep breathing.
- Qi gong: This is a traditional Chinese medicine where you meditate, relax, perform breathing exercises, and move your body.
HOW CAN I LEARN TO MEDITATE?
Occasionally getting started can be the hardest part. Start meditating for 2–5 minutes each day to stick to it and make it a part of your routine.
If you find it hard to meditate for the entire 2–5 minutes at first, stick to the time frame you choose and keep trying.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself easily meditating for that amount of time.
There are numerous websites and phone apps that can teach you how to meditate or lead you through meditation, where someone talks you through the steps of meditating.
Here are some general simple steps to get started with meditation:
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the ground or cross-legged, whichever is most comfortable for you.
- Either close your eyes or softly gaze straight ahead and focus on your breathing. This will help you get out of your head and focus on your physical being and body.
- Pay attention to how your body feels. Are you carrying stress somewhere? Try to relax the muscles in that area actively. An excellent technique to learn is a body scan, which helps you focus on your entire body one place at a time. Begin at your head and quickly work your way to your feet, paying attention to each area (head, eyes, face, ears, neck, shoulders, upper back, arms, etc.) as you work your way down. Focus on how each area feels if you have tension there, and actively relax each area as you move through.
- Once you’re connected to your body, focus on your thoughts, but picture your thoughts outside of your head; separate your body from your thoughts and emotions. Identify how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking, and allow yourself to watch your thoughts float by without judging or criticizing them. It can be tough to do at the first moment but stick with it. Every time you feel yourself getting lost in your thoughts, ground yourself by re-focusing on something physical, like your feet flat on the ground or the rise and fall of your chest with each breath.
- Once you’ve met your time goal, once again focus on your breathing for another 30 seconds or so, then slowly open your eyes or refocus on your surroundings.
You can incorporate meditation into your daily life through deep breathing, body scanning, repeating a mantra, walking while meditating, praying, reading and reflecting, and focusing on what you love and what you’re thankful for.
I hope after reading this article, you have come to understand what is meditation.
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