With all the information streaming around us, it is no surprise that our minds get cluttered and our emotions get thrown off-kilter throughout the day. The practice of daily meditation, or sitting quietly with one’s mind empty, helps us to counteract data overload by cleaning out the excess and calming us so that we can see more clearly. It allows our minds to recoup and process all the stimuli with which we have been bombarded. It creates mental space. John Ratey, author of A User’s Guide to the Brain, says, “Our brains are not infinite. They run out of space, run out of gas, as it were. If the brain is busy trying to filter uncomfortable and frustrating noise, worries, or other concerns, there is less ‘brain stuff’ available for perceiving.”
Meditation is a powerful method of coping with life’s challenges and difficult people. Although some perceive it as a daunting or boring practice that only religious people do, because of its effects on mental and physical health, brain processing, and athletic performance it has garnered keen interest in the sports, medical, and personal development fields.
How meditation improves physical health
There are many health benefits of meditation. Studies have shown that meditation lowers our heart rates, reduces blood pressure, and lowers the metabolism. These results have been found to provide anxiety sufferers with a sense of peace without medication, to reduce the incidence of migraine headaches, and to soothe chronic pain. The meditative state can counteract the flight-fight response to bring calm and focus during stressful situations.
Another health benefit of meditation is that it also appears to boost our immunity. The findings of one study show that “women who meditate and use guided imagery have higher levels of the immune cells known to combat tumours in the breast.” And researcher and neuroscientist Richard Davidson tested meditation’s effect on the immune system by giving flu shots to a group of volunteers from a high-tech company. A control group received eight weeks of meditation training. By the study’s completion, the meditators showed a healthier immune response to the flu than those who received only the immunisation shot.
We can acquire the health benefits of meditation as soon as we begin to practise it. We continue to grow new neurons throughout our adult lives; our brains possess a kind of neuroplasticity. At the E. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior in Madison, Wisconsin, Davidson is working to prove that we can reprogramme our minds through meditation to overcome anger, anxiety, and depression and to alleviate the need for pharmacological solutions. Meditation appears to develop the left prefrontal lobe, which regulates positive emotion.
To meditate, all you need is to sit quietly somewhere for a set period of time, say 10 to 40 minutes daily, and let your mind rest. It sounds simple, but it can actually be a tough daily discipline. To help you start, I offer the following suggestions derived from both expert advice and my own efforts to integrate meditation into daily life.
Practical meditation tips for beginners
Create a meditation routine
- Create a meditation space. It can be as simple as a cushion in the corner of your bedroom or a full meditation room with a pleasing, peaceful decor
- Make a commitment to try the practice for a set period of time and tell someone you respect about this commitment. “I will practice 20 minutes of seated meditation daily for the next three months,” might be a declaration. My teachers have suggested 60 to one hundred days as a minimum commitment to make a habit stick
- If you miss a day, go back to the cushion the next
- Create a ritual that your body will become as accustomed to as your morning cup of coffee. An example would be to turn off the lights, light a candle, sit in the same spot, or wrap yourself in a blanket. The ritual settles us into the practice and into the desired mental state more quickly.
Make it comfortable
- Buy yourself a meditation cushion or use a chair on which you can easily sit upright
- Stretch or exercise a little before sitting
- Find a quiet place free of distractions, and turn off the phone
- Each day will be different. If you are tired or agitated before beginning, create bridges to the cushion, like taking a cool shower or reading a favourite poet.
Learn to sit
- Keep your spine straight, with your chin tucked in slightly and your jaw relaxed
- Rest your hands on your knees or in your lap
- Close your eyes or leave your eyes half-closed gazing toward the floor
- Listen to your breathing, clearing your mind of all thoughts
- As thoughts and emotions arise, acknowledge them: “That is a thought” or “That is anger,” and let them move through
- When thoughts and emotions do carry you away, return to your breath.
Helpful tools for the beginning meditator
- When breathing, repeat a positive phrase, like “Thank you,” “I am well,” or “all is well”
- Count your breaths
- Set a timer so you don’t keep looking at the clock
- Use beads to count your breaths and measure time. Move from bead to bead with each in-out breath. A rosary, found at most Christian supply stores, and Buddhist mala beads serve well. With 108 beads and a few “oops, I’m off in thoughtland” deviations, one trip around helps keep you on the cushion for a good 15 minutes.
Meditation not only strengthens but softens
Meditation not only strengthens but softens us as well. It has often helped me win the game I call my “internal hide-and-seek.” For example, I might wake up feeling lousy. When I started meditating seriously, I couldn’t name the feeling, it was just this edgy state that I hated. If I observed my actions, I found that it caused me to want to control my children’s every movement. Since I had committed to a teacher that I highly respect to do seated meditation for a year, when those edgy mornings came, I still went to my cushion, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do.
As I sat, first fighting the feeling, I would make lists of what I wanted to do that day or think about the dream I had the night before. Then my thoughts would clear, and I would settle in. Soon I would notice the emotion and say to myself, “I’m miserable.” If I could just let myself feel the sadness or even the depression that appeared, it would transform. Day after day, I became more comfortable with letting myself be miserable, afraid, or depressed, and I got better at letting everyone in the house be just as they were. I felt much better about my interactions with others when I was able to be gentler with myself.
There are still days when I want to run and hide and I am not interested in meditating. Yet when I do meditate, I am constantly amazed at how it helps me locate myself on both my inner and external battlefields. I gain not only some peace of mind but also new perspective on my challenges.
Spot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!