Humans share the common experience of being barraged with fluctuating thoughts, feelings and emotions throughout the day. While our capacity to think and feel can be a source of inspiration for our work and passions, this constant flux of thoughts can be distracting and make it difficult to remain in the now. One particularly effective solution for taming the mind is meditation.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is simply a practice of tuning in. It’s choosing to tune in even when a myriad of thoughts might interfere with the meditation. Once you begin to tune in, you can become more aware of your thought patterns. When you recognize these patterns, you can begin to release them, eventually moving into a meditative state where you are keenly aware without being attached or overwhelmed by any one thought.
Benefits of Meditation
Talk to anyone with a regular meditation practice and they will likely share how the practice has improved several aspects of their life. Meditators often report having an overall improved sense of well-being, lower levels of stress and an increased ability to practice mindfulness—the ability to stay in the present moment.
In 1968, cardiologist and Harvard mind-body medicine professor, Dr. Herbert Benson, tested the effects of Transcendental Meditation, a specific form of silent mantra meditation. Benson and his colleagues wanted to see if meditation could counter the physiological effects of stress. They observed that during meditation:
• Heartbeat and breathing rates slow down.
• Oxygen consumption falls by 20%.
• Blood lactate levels drop (blood lactate levels typically rise with stress and fatigue).
• EEG ratings of brain-wave patterns shift from beta—or an awakened state—to alpha, a more relaxed state.
Benson described these observations collectively as the relaxation response. In 1997, nearly 30 years after publishing his initial research, Dr. Benson found that any meditation practice could produce these physiological changes as long as the following four conditions were present: (1) the environment was relatively quiet; (2) the meditator maintained a passive attitude; (3) the meditator sat in a comfortable position; and (4) a mental device was used as a point of focus (e.g., reciting a mantra or prayer, or visualizing a favorite color) (Benson, 2000). Additional research has shown meditation to reduce blood pressure, boost immune function, improve sleep quality, and decrease anxiety and depression. (National Center for Complimentary and Integrative, 2018). These benefits are thought to be the result of increased parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity, the branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for the body’s activities when at rest.
As with any healthy practice you are trying to incorporate into your life, the best way to begin a meditation practice is to begin. To get started, you simply need to adopt a few habits:
1. Commit to a regular practice. Even a few minutes a day will be beneficial. Set a timer so that you don’t have to watch the clock. You can add a few minutes to your practice each week. The more you meditate, the easier it will be to sit in your awareness for longer periods of time. If possible, practice at the same time every day. If that’s not possible, practice when you can.
2. Find a place in your home (or even your office) where distractions will be minimal. Eventually, you will be able to meditate anywhere, but having a sacred and protected space will make it easier in the beginning.
3. Breathe. Relaxed breathing can serve as a bridge between your active day and your meditation practice. Feel free to incorporate any breathing technique that helps you to feel calm and relaxed.
4. Maintain a passive attitude during the process. Release any concerns about whether or not you are doing it correctly or accomplishing anything.
To begin enjoying the many benefits of meditation, try this simple mantra meditation exercise:
• Set a timer. Start with 5-10 minutes and gradually increase your meditation time.
• Sit upright in a comfortable position. You can sit in a chair with your knees comfortably apart or on the floor in a crossed-leg position. It may be helpful to prop a pillow or blanket under the hips for comfort.
• Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Notice any restrictions in your breathing. After a few moments of simply being aware of the breath, try the following centering breathing technique. Take a long, slow inhale through the nose. As you begin to exhale, slow down so that the exhale is gentle and of equal or longer length as the previous inhale. Next, take several breaths in and out of your nose as you naturally would. Finally, repeat the long, slow inhale and exhale. Repeat this cycle as many times as you need to until you feel relaxed.
• Choose a mantra, word or sound that pleases you. It can be anything—a word such as peace or calm, your name—anything you like. Say this mantra quietly (but out aloud) five times. Continue repeating the mantra silently until the timer chimes.
• Let your mantra find its own rhythm as you repeat it over and over. If and when your thoughts wonder to something else, allow yourself to be aware of the distraction and then bring your attention back to your mantra.
If you are new to meditation, the practice can feel unfamiliar and even a bit awkward the first few times you try it. Be patient with yourself and stay the course; you will be glad you did.
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Benson, H. (2000). The Relaxation Response. New York, N.Y.: William Morrow.
National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (2018). Meditation in Depth.