What is Meditation?
The dictionary defines mediation as:
- To spend time in deep thought, often with the mind in a practised state of emptiness.
- To think deeply and carefully.
- To reflect upon.
Now, I have some issue with the first definition, as I think the notion that the mind should be in a state of emptiness is what puts a lot of people off even trying to mediate, and what makes people feel that they can’t meditate, or that they’ve failed at meditating in the past.
The mind has between 50,000-80,000 thoughts per day (experts range in their estimates!). To expect that during your first hour of meditation you’re going to banish that hour’s 2100-3300 thoughts, is, quite frankly, ludicrous! Perhaps after a lifetime of daily meditation you might get there (the ‘practised state’ of the first definition), but it’s highly unlikely to be something that comes naturally, or easily, within the first few sessions. However the other definitions do help us out.
Meditation is about focusing the mind, and keeping it focused. Other thoughts (2099-3299 of them!) will pop into your head whilst you’re focusing on one thing. The key is to just let those other thoughts come and go. You can acknowledge them without fixating upon them.
Focusing deeply on one thing, whilst allowing the other thoughts to come and go, helps to quieten the mind. It helps keep us in the present moment. It’s a mindstillness practice that really works!
How do you meditate?
There are many different ways to meditate. Below I detail four.
Some of the simplest, easiest, and most powerful are breathing exercises, where the awareness is taken to the breath. This can be as simple as observing the breath as is, to practising breathing techniques that help lower the heart rate and so calm the mind and body.
Guided meditation is usually carried out sitting or lying down whilst listening to a person reading a mediation script. These scripts often take the form of stories or journeys through the body or imagination. These are the mediations you might find at the end of a yoga class, or as a stand alone class. They are a very effective way of facilitating a group meditation. However with recordings easily available via YouTube and apps, they’re also available for the individual to try in their own home, and are a great introduction to meditation.
QiGong, Tai Chi, Aikido and many of the movements between yoga asana are forms of moving meditation – movements that generally flow, are reasonably simple and repetitive and are often done with a strong breath connection.
As with all meditation, moving meditation helps calm the mind and create awareness.
Walking a labyrinth, Sufi whirling and dance movements are other examples of moving meditation.
This is the repetition of a syllable, word or phrase either vocalised in a chanting, speaking or whispered voice, or silently in the mind. The words can be chosen for their meaning and/or sound, and can be of the affirmation or traditional variety. The sound and vibration of the words are often just as important as the meaning. So some of the older, well used words, often from the spiritual traditions, are not translated, but used in their original language (often Sanskrit, Pali, Hebrew, Aramaic, Tibetan).
Mantra translated means ‘tool of the mind’ or ‘tool to free the mind’. Mantra Meditation helps to relax and still the mind.
Transcendental meditation is a form of mantra meditation.
What are the benefits of meditation?
As with massage, meditation helps to switch on our parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest’, nervous system. This is the nervous system which is active when we are in a relaxed and calm state, and is the one that is often under used in our modern world.
Most people, most of the time, are running on their sympathetic, ‘fight or flight’, nervous system.
Evolutionarily, these two systems ran in sync to keep us safe. However whilst we don’t often need to run from a lion nowadays, our body reacts in the same way to phone alerts, work emails, social media alerts, adverts and other similar stimuli, as if they were all lions. It acts as if they’re a threat that we need to get away from. That’s a lot of threat! And this is why many people today have an out of sync, inbalance of their parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems that can lead to insomnia and sleeplessness, anxiety, stress, a reduced immune response, high blood pressure and a flitting concentration and mind, to name but a few.
Meditation helps for a few reasons.
1) A regular meditation practise gives us a certain amount of down time on a regular basis.
This is time away from technology and the demands of life in general. It is time to connect mind and body. Time to stop and be with yourself. The most important relationship you have is with yourself, and yet it is probably the most underappreciated and underworked on relationship.
2) Meditation gives us a way to calm and still the mind.
Not empty it, but gently concentrate it on one thing. This helps us in our everyday life, as we can use the technique at any point we need, to bring the mind back into focus. It’s a great way of switching off the mind chatter and helping us to relax into sleep, for instance.
3) Meditation actually changes the grey and white matter of the brain, in a structural and functional way.
These changes include increasing decision making capacity, improving awareness and concentration, decreasing the stress response (fight or flight) centre in the brain, decreasing activity in the Default Mode Network (also known as the ‘me centre’ or ‘monkey mind’ – the source of most unconsciously thought thoughts). This leads to a decrease in depression, anxiety and pain and an increase in positive feelings of wellbeing. Meditation has also been shown to help preserve the brain matter through the aging process.
(A quick Google search will throw up lots of science based meditation research, but here’s one to start with.)
4) It helps in the heart brain connection and in establishing a coherent heart rhythm pattern.
Now, this is a really important point. It’s almost impossible for one part of the brain to tell the other part to switch off/relax. This is because the brain uses a baseline, a ‘norm’, which it tries very hard to stick to. It doesn’t like change. Evolutionarily speaking, change is risky, and therefore unsafe.
The heart brain connection is very important, with most of the communication (90%) being FROM the heart to the brain. In effect, the heart sets the brain’s baseline.
The heart rate is controlled by the automatic nervous system (not under our conscious control). The parasympathetic nerves (vagus nerve) slows the heart rate down, and the sympathetic nerves speed it up. This is what accounts for the heart rate variability – the difference between consecutive heart beats. The heart rate variability is an important indicator of health and fitness, and is also a marker of biological aging. It is high (the heart is very responsive) in younger, fitter individuals, and it drops as we age.
Emotions affect the heart rate variability.
Emotional Stress, including anger, anxiety and frustration cause irregular and erratic heart rhythm patterns. Conversely, positive emotions such as love, joy, appreciation and care give a smooth, highly ordered heart rhythm pattern.
What this shows is that an emotionally stressed person’s parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system are not working optimally together – it’s like trying to drive the car with both the gas and break pedals pressed down. It’s a jerky ride, and bad for the car! It’s also bad for your body, and helps to explain why emotional stress has such negative physical effects. (Shout out to HeartMath for this great analogy. For more information about the science, check out their website ).
So if you’re in an emotionally stressed state for most of the time, this is the signal the heart sends to the brain. The brain’s baseline, the thing it wants to stick to, is stress. So it tries it’s best to keep the body in this stressed state. This is why just telling yourself to relax and telling your brain to stop won’t usually work. What we need to do is give the brain a new baseline for it to maintain.
Resetting the baseline.
Going for a walk in nature, spending time with people you love, doing something that relaxes you – these things help you to feel strong positive emotions like joy, love, peace and contentment. Feeling these emotions causes the heart to beat in a coherent way. This sends a different message to the brain.
So, if you’re in an emotionally good state most of the time, this is the signal the heart sends to the brain. The brain’s baseline, the thing it wants to stick to, is a calm and relaxed state. So it tries it’s best to keep the body in this calm and relaxed state.
Meditation is one way of helping to set a new brain baseline as it evokes the positive feelings mentioned above. The use of breathing techniques, so key in most meditation practises, are also fundamental. The vagus nerve also connects the diaphragm to the brain. Therefore breathing techniques that slow the breathing rate down also slow the heart rate down. This is why taking three big breaths (counting to five on the in breath and five on the out breath) when you feel stressed really does work!
Having a coherent heart rate benefits the cardiovascular, immune, endocrine and nervous systems, helping them all to function optimally. It creates the conditions for optimal health and maximum physical and mental performance. Who doesn’t want that?!
5) Meditation is good for those around you too.
The heart’s electromagnetic field is roughly 60 times greater in amplitude and 5000 times stronger magnetically, than the brain’s. What this means is that the heart really does project a signal outside of the body.
It is thought that we can pick up on these signals from others – perhaps the basis of intuition, and the reason we really can feel energy shifts in a room full of people. I’m sure everyone’s experienced the ‘awkward moment’ in a social situation, or the lift in energy that the entrance of a particularly happy person can make to a room.
One person’s heart energy (affected by their emotional state) can affect another person’s emotions (and so in turn their heart energy). Achieving heart coherence doesn’t only benefit you, it benefits those around you too! So if you thought you were just a bit ‘woo woo’ don’t worry – the science is catching you up!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post (which ended up being much longer than I intended!). There is a lot of information easily available online about the benefits of meditation and how to meditate. If this blog has piqued your interest, I encourage you to research more for yourself.
And if you fancy joining in a meditation class, I’ll be running classes in Altrincham the first Friday of every month, starting Friday 3rd May 2019. If you’d like more information, or to put your name down to attend, please get in contact.
I look forward to working with you soon,