There is increasing evidence about how meditation – in all it’s various forms – can be good for our physical and mental health. It’s reported to reduce anxiety and stress, help lift depression, balance moods, improve eating habits, help cope with grief, assist with managing chronic pain and can even improve immune function.
There are different forms of meditation – using a mantra for example, guided meditations, and even yoga and tai chi are classed as forms of meditative practice. Although initially seen as a ‘Buddhist based’, meditation is now gaining greater popularity and is losing its association with Buddhism – and taking on a more mainstream approach.
However meditation can be intensely frustrating, hard to grasp and difficult to understand. People who have tried to meditate will experience a busyness in their mind they have probably not experienced before. This often lead them to believe they ‘can’t meditate’. What is happening in fact, is a realisation of ‘what is’. Your mind hasn’t just started to become crazy – it is like that all the time.
In essence the concept behind meditation is the bringing of the mind back - not clearing the mind or ‘thinking of nothing’ (although these things might happen). It is about paying absolute attention to the present moment, returning to the present moment when the mind wanders. It is the amount of times you bring it back that is important– not getting caught up in the busy thoughts - again and again. Eventually, the mind will quieten a little – and you find just a little bit of space in the craziness.
It’s not very often in life we stop and pay attention – especially to any physical or emotional discomfort we might be feeling. But, when you pay attention, without making judgments or attempting to change an outcome, you become very aware and in tune with what is happening - both within you and outside of you.
This awareness can highlight the ever changing state of your mind and body. You become aware that nothing is constant or static. Pain changes. Thoughts and feelings come and go. By observing these thoughts / feelings / emotions and sensations we can learn to cultivate an attitude of acceptance – we are constantly changing. In times of difficulty, the greatest thing you can do is learn to accept, without judgement, without trying or wanting to change, yet knowing that eventually 'this too shall pass'.
One popular style and becoming mainstream is ‘mindfulness meditation’. Mindfulness has been described as the practice of “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”.
You can be mindful in any activity; breathing, walking, eating, working – being present, and becoming a non-judmental observer. But often meditation and mindfulness (for example mindful breathing) is about being still. About being quiet. About observing the moment…. And this moment…. And this moment….
An example a breathing meditation might look like this: Breath in…. breath out… pause… breath in… I feel a little hungry. Must remember to buy some bread. Whoops I’m supposed to be meditating … breath in.. breath out… oh my leg is a little sore, I wonder if I should move it? Am I supposed to move it? Should I move it away from me? Why is my leg sore? …Oh…. breath in, breath out… I forgot to…Oh I’m supposed to be meditating – I’ll try to observe the next few breathes…. breath in, breath out….
It is the ability to return to the breath again and again that is the essence of meditation.
How does meditation improve health? Sometimes it’s a simple matter of developing an understanding of your mind and body. That your pain is worse with tension for example. That it moves. That it’s not constant. That it is forever changing. Reducing the resistance to the pain is sometimes enough. Sometimes the increased awareness can lead to new insights about other things in your life. Your reactions. Your thought processes. What drives your decisions. Insights will naturally occur.
If you are just starting out, I highly recommend guided meditations to begin with - and if at all possible, find a teacher to help answer your questions and provide reassurance along the way.
For more info and some ‘how to’ on meditation I highly recommend:
For mainstream information Headspace offers simple guided meditation and advice
Pema Chodron is highly gifted and very gentle teacher in compassion and meditation
Lodro Rinzler has written a number of books about how to bring the concept of Buddhism into everyday life - light and entertaining reading
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