“I don’t have time to meditate.” Those words permeate my emails and voicemails weekly. When people tell me this, my response almost invariably is “but you do have the time to tell me how awful you feel!”
The term “meditation” carries a long line of preconceived, cultural ideas. In its simplest form, I define meditation as “concentrating on very little for very long.” To be sure, there are much more complicated ways to define different aspects of meditation. Yury Miankovich, a mindful ACE Certified Personal Trainer based in Hanoi, Vietnam, practices daily meditation and defines meditation as “the opposite of talking to God because you are still enough to listen to what she says back to you in silence.” Contrary to popular belief, meditation does not have to involve any specific elements of spirituality, religion or specific practice.
Research reveals some definitive changes occur during or as a result of meditation. Here are a few examples:
• Meditation reduces pain and enhances the body’s immune system overall (Casey et al., 2004).
• Regarding wellbeing in general, meditation can reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, anger and confusion (Benson, 1983).
• Physiologically, during some types of meditation, we increase blood flow to the heart while simultaneously slowing down the heart rate and decreasing cortisol, the stress-hormone, though an overall reduction in stress (Beck, 1984).
• Because meditation can elicit a sense of calm, peace and balance, increasing energy and stamina, meditation can be viewed as an important component of one’s cardio-protective endeavors to reduce heart disease (Ganzel et al., 2010).
• Overall, research confirms that meditation (even moving meditation like T’ai Chi) can help improve one’s overall quality of life (Xin et al., 2008).
With so many different types of meditation, many people feel confused about how to get started. Marcia Hayes, Chopra Certified Meditation Instructor and Mind-Body Programmer for IDEA World and Inner IDEA, suggests starting with something familiar. “While many advanced types of meditation exist, such as transcendental meditation or meditation involving specific numbers of thoughts or prayers using beads,” she says, “I suggest people start with the most simple of methods, which involves one of the most common threads connecting all people: the breath. When we start and finish with the breath with meditation, we start with something so familiar to promote overall success.” Miankovich agrees: “Using something familiar usually attracts people instead of alienating them because rarely can people be intimidated by their own breathing since it’s something they’re already doing.”
Purpose of Meditation
The overall purpose of meditation is to calm the mind so that it can be more alert later. Just like one can sleep restlessly for more than eight hours and wake up feeling exhausted, a few minutes of well-executed meditation can give the mind and body renewed sense of both mental clarity and physical alertness, respectively (Astin et al., 2003). Because the mind controls the body and the mind can never be completely blank, true meditation occurs when we are able to quiet and limit —not stop—the stream of consciousness that constantly permeates the mind. I often liken the thoughts of the brain to metaphorical monkeys that constantly play around in the head. The goal of meditation is to tame these monkeys so that only one is active at any given time during a meditation.
Mantra meditation is one of the most common types of mediation, and occurs when we focus on a sound, word, number or simple phrase repeatedly with minimal distraction. The more we can concentrate on our mantra without letting other thoughts permeate our consciousness, the more we achieve meditation’s benefits. Timers, beads and even recordings of guided meditation all can help keep us on track when we meditate, but starting by counting the breath simplifies this process.
Starting meditation does not demand perfection. You just need a willingness to let go of the brain’s normal stream-of-consciousness randomness and an ability to start to funnel the many thoughts we have to just one to three thoughts per meditation. The more benefits you reap from your meditation practice, the more you will look forward to exploring your favorite types of meditation and even learn how to set more time aside from your regular activities to meditate.
A Breathing Meditation
Sit in a comfortable position that allows the spine to extend and elongate, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep. Set a timer (smartphones work well for this) for two minutes. As you inhale (either through the nose, mouth or both), count up from one to three. As you reach three, pause very briefly and exhale slowly, counting down from three to one. Repeat this until the timer tells you that your two minutes are finished. Try to make the inhalation and exhalation last about the same amount of time without becoming too preoccupied with perfection, and focus only on the numbers of your breath. When and if your mind wanders from your breath to other thoughts, recognize that without frustration and gently guide your mind back to the numbers. Continue this until your timer signals the end of your session, and gradually add a few seconds per day. As you become more comfortable with this mediation, you may wish to increase the length to up to 30 minutes, adding approximately one minute per week.
Astin, J.A. et al. (2003). Mind body medicine: State of the science, implications for practice. The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, 16, 2, 131-47.
Beck, A.T. (1984). Cognitive approaches to stress. In P.M. Lehrer & R.I. Woolfolk (Eds.), Principles and Practices of Stress Management (pp. 255-305) New York, N.Y.: Guilford.
Benson, H. (1983). The relaxation response: It’s subjective and objective historical precedents and physiology. Trends In Neurosciences, 6, 281-84.
Casey A. et al. (2004). Mind Your Heart: A Mind/Body Approach to Stress Management Exercise and Nutrition for Heart Health. New York, N.Y.: Free Press.
Ganzel, B.L. et al. (2010). Allostasis and the human brain: Integrating models of stress from the social and life sciences. Psychological Review, 117, 1, 134-74.