Current research supports the benefits of meditation because of its ability to calm the body, enhance the parasympathetic nervous system, decrease stress hormones like cortisol and increase overall quality of life (Hölzel, 2011). Nevertheless, some people erroneously associate spiritual and religious practices with meditation, despite the fact that meditation merely is a form of mental training. Meditation is a process of calming the many thoughts of the mind, often referred to as the “monkeys” in the East. Practitioners aim to tame the monkeys of the mind and calm the internal dialogue (Amat, 2006).
Meditation vs. Prayer
People often confuse prayer with meditation. Whereas prayer involves a constant talking to a higher power, oftentimes called “God,” with either memorized recitation or a stream-of-conscious technique involving requests, meditation consists of more silence. ACE-certified Personal Trainer Yury Rockit Miankovich, who is based in Hanoi, Vietnam, says that “prayer involves constant dialogue and asking, but meditation involves being silent enough to listen to your inner voice to hear what it says back to you.”
The key to understanding meditation, then, lives in the fact that the word “silent” is the word “listen” with the letters simply rearranged. Our goal in meditation is to be silent just long enough to be able to give repose to the brain.
Silent = Listen
Because the living brain cannot be completely void of thought or process, meditation involves a process of calming down this internal thought process. “Thinking of just one monkey at a time is one way to explain meditation,” explains Miankovich,” because the mind quiets down and gets to actively recover and rest from the internal, non-stop dialogue of daily life. This one thought or thought process is a mantra.”
In the beginning, those who are new to meditation may find it easier and experience more success by starting with several short periods of meditation instead of one longer period. Set a timer for three minutes as you explore the meditation options listed below. Knowing that you have a timer prevents the mind from wondering, “Am I almost done?”
Options for Meditation
The following suggestions offer simple ways to get started on a meditation path:
This technique is a good starting point for the meditation novice. The purpose of guided meditation is to allow the mind to have multiple, though relaxing, thoughts, without being in control of those thoughts, thereby stopping the normal stream-of-consciousness flow of the mind. Because you are concentrating on something other than your own internal dialogue, the brain can enter a meditative state without having traditional brainwave activities.
Have someone you trust and whose voice you like record the following passage so you can play it back with your eyes closed when you want to experience a guided meditation.
With your eyes closed, imagine that the backs of your eyelids form a large, empty screen or canvas. Projected on this screen you now see the flame of a candle, and this flame glimmers peacefully. It’s burning from the most inner part of your being, inside of you. The color of your candle and the color of your flame are up to you. Focus on the flame. It’s your center, your purpose in life, your motivation, your peace. Imagine that as you inhale through the nose and exhale through the nose that the flame glows stronger when you inhale, and your body senses the warm sensation of this colored light. This color embraces all colors on the planet, and so it serves as a symbol for purification and relaxation. As you concentrate on your breath and on your color, imagine all of your senses being filled with this color. Think about tasting your color, hearing your color, smelling your color, feeling your color throughout your body and seeing your color in everything. Let your body relax as you reap the benefits from those movements. Healing occurs when we invite it, when we let it, when we open up to it. Keeping your eyes closed, let that light recede gently into your subconscious as you start to wiggle your fingers, move your shoulders, and come out of this meditative state.
Start with a focus on your breath while your eyes are closed. Try to inhale and count up from 1 to 2 to 3. As you exhale, reverse the process from 3 to 2 to 1. The speed is not as important as concentrating on the numbers, which are your mantra as you try to make the length of the inhalation match the amount of time you spend on the exhalation. As you become comfortable with this process, you can substitute single-syllable words for your mantra on the inhalation, such as “I claim this,” and “Let it go” on the exhalation. In this way, the mantras stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system by empowering a brain-body-breath meditative connection.
Choose a word that means something positive to you, such as “peaceful,” “joyful,” “meditative,” “relaxed,” or even your own first name. Try to focus on nothing but that word as you inhale and exhale. If you become cognizant of the process, such as in saying “I’m doing it,” or if you find yourself frustrated with the process, gently recognize that your mind has drifted from the mantra and guide it back to your word for the rest of the allotted time of your meditation. Sometimes hearing one’s inner voice occurs during the meditation, but far more often the effect of a true meditation comes after the mediation itself finishes and an additional clarity becomes apparent.
As you become comfortable with these techniques, think about expanding your practice by doubling the amount of time. Sitting upright or lying on your back, as appropriate, will allow the breath, the chakras—the energy centers along the spine—and the meridians to flow unblocked. A focus on the breath contributes to a deeper sense of wellness and mindfulness (Ganzel), so having an aromatherapy candle nearby may assist with creating an additional incentive for deep breathing. Finally, choose a quiet place void of distractions so you are able to focus on the mantra you choose.
It’s important to note that many different types of meditation exist. The three examples provided in this post serve as merely a point of departure that I often use when first explaining the benefits of meditation. Whichever form of meditation you choose, remember that the overall purpose is to give repose to and help center your non-stop working mind. As you explore your meditation practice, you may consider learning additional meditation techniques to expand your horizons.
Amat, J. et al. (2006). Previous experience with behavioral control under stress blocks the behavioral and dorsal raphe nucleus activating effects of later uncontrollable stress: Role of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. The Journal of Neurosicence, 26, 51, 13264-13272.
Ganzel, B.L., Morris, P.A. and Wethington, E. (2010). Allostasis and the human brain: Integrating models of stress from the social and life sciences. Psychological Review, 117, 1, 134-174.
Hölzel, B.K. et al. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 6, 537-559.