Meditation isn’t just for Tibetan Monks and Hardcore Yogis, it’s for anybody who has an interest in being happier and less stressed. Which I think would have to be practically everybody. The practice of Meditation is well backed by many studies and is proven to increase immunity, improve emotional balance, reduce stress and improve cognitive function. Here’s a really interesting excerpt from a National Geographic Article I read last week.
For 2,500 years Buddhists have employed strict training techniques to guide their mental state away from destructive emotions and toward a more compassionate, happier frame of being. Spurred by the cascade of new evidence for the brain’s plasticity, Western neuroscientists have taken a keen interest. Can meditation literally change the mind?
For the past several years Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been studying brain activity in Tibetan monks, both in meditative and non-meditative states. Davidson’s group had shown earlier that people who are inclined to fall prey to negative emotions displayed a pattern of persistent activity in regions of their right prefrontal cortex. In those with more positive temperaments the activity occurred in the left prefrontal cortex instead. When Davidson ran the experiment on a senior Tibetan lama skilled in meditation, the lama’s baseline of activity proved to be much farther to the left of anyone previously tested. Judging from this one study, at least, he was quantifiably the happiest man in the world.
Once you get mixed up in the world of meditation you’ll find that there is an abundance of techniques and practices you can try such as Mindfulness (Vipassana), Zazen, Transcendental, Guided Visualization, or Heart Rhythm. The choice of which Meditation you follow is very personal and dependant on how you feel during and after practice. I have found the two best suited to myself are Vipassana and Zazen (which I have only started practicing recently). Also Yoga, Bikram in particular feels to me like a 90 minute moving meditation. I always exit the hot box feeling exhilarated, joyous and thoroughly refreshed. In case you are not aware of all of the above types of meditation, here is a quick rundown of a few different forms with a very brief description.
Mindfulness (Vipassana) – Born from Buddhist tradition, one of the most popular forms of meditation. It aims to bring presence to the body by allowing the mind to “just be” as it is. Seeing and accepting thoughts or feelings that come to you and then letting the same thoughts and feelings pass with some detachment. The practice of Vipassana is all about observation and awareness without interfering, awareness of the mind (letting it run), awareness of the breath (while not changing your breathing pattern), awareness of sensations in the body (without changing positions to accommodate).
Zazen – Seated Meditation, very minimalistic with little instruction. To practice Zazen one should begin by sitting comfortably with a straight posture and hands positioned in the cosmic mudra, follow your breath, while not changing the breathing pattern. Start by counting inhales as 1, exhale as 2, up to 10. If your mind wanders, or you lose count, start back at 1. Until you can count comfortably all the way up to 10 without losing focus. Then begin counting the breath cycles, so inhale / exhale is counted as 1, again all the way up to 10 until you can do this without losing focus also. Eventually the aim of Zazen is to be able to sit peacefully and follow the breath without counting, without losing focus.
Transcendental – TM is practiced by repeating a mantra provided by a TM teacher, the mantra is a sacred word given to the student and should be kept to themselves. The mantras are rumoured to be approximately 16 possible words distributed to TM students based on their age rather than being a sacred word well suited to their being. Transcendental Meditation, has a mysterious characteristic in the community. It has been said to be an expensive practice and as such is perhaps not suited for everybody.
At the moment I practice either Vipassana (usually guided) or Zazen (silently), there is an app available for iPhone called “Mindfulness” ($1.99). It offers guided meditations of different lengths from 3 to 30 minutes. I also use it for my Zazen meditation as you are able to set up Silent meditation with Bells signalling the start / end of the 20 mins or however long you wish to practice.
Meditation is a free, relatively easy practice that does the world of good for emotional and mental health. Unfortunately I often find it hard to make time for meditation, yet I’ll happily waste half an hour scrolling through posts on social media. It’s a little concerning to think that I’m superficial in the sense I can’t take 20 minutes of my day to do something fantastic for my mind and soul. I suppose it falls back to discipline, meditation is a practise by which we learn to discipline the mind. How can I be any good at meditation if I’m not disciplined enough to make it to the mat. In any case, it’s something I’m working on. My little goal for the month of December. To wake up 30 mins earlier each morning, before the stressors of the day and make time to meditate.