“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Believe it or not, the practice known to most Westerners as yoga involves far more than the poses that make up our favourite classes at local studios. In fact, yoga dates back more than 5000 years and consists of eight limbs. The physical aspect or asana is just one of those limbs, intended to prepare students for sitting in stillness. This is mediation – Dhyana – and it involves a withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), or turning our attention inward done through one-pointed concentration (dharana). The word yoga means “to yoke” or unite, and the endgame of this ancient practice is to find a deeper connection to the inner self and union with the Universal Consciousness. This is self-actualization or enlightenment (Samadhi) and it is the ultimate goal of all yogis.
Even if you aren’t on the quest toward enlightenment, there are many reasons to make meditation a part of your daily routine. Studies have shown there are numerous health benefits – both physical and mental – to finding a few moments of stillness every day.
Let’s take a look at how a regular meditation practice can improve your physical health. A vast body of research indicates even short periods of quiet introspection done on a regular basis reduces cortisol levels in the blood. Hypercortisolism (too much cortisol) can lead to weight gain, skin problems, hormonal irregularities, an increase risk of fractures, high blood pressure (which in turn causes an increase risk of heart disease), chronic fatigue, and headaches. Ugh!
Mediation has also been shown to help diminish the perception of pain. Chronic pain in particular has a large psycho-somatic component. This is not to imply that your pain is all in your head. However, it does mean that the brain functions to perpetuate the sensation of pain long after the painful stimulus has been terminated or removed. The one-pointed focus required in meditation helps to interrupt the pain cycle characteristic of chronic pain by direction those cerebral functions elsewhere.
From a mental health perspective, meditation has been shown to decrease the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, help mitigate Post Traumatic Stress and addiction, and improve concentration and memory. Significant mental health concerns should be addressed by a medical professional and meditation used in conjunction with these therapies.
The immense benefits of regular meditation are abundant. But how exactly do we undertake beginning a meditation practice?
The best place to start is by understand what meditation is not. Meditation is not a blank, empty mind. This is by far the greatest misconception. A famous yogi, Swami Prabhavananda, was asked how to achieve an empty mind. He quipped, “Ask a friend to hit you over the head with a hammer.” It is also not intended to be a source of relaxation – although being relaxed certainly helps have a more successful meditation session.
Meditation is sustained concentration. The human brain is an incredible organ. On average, our conscious minds have the ability to process 40 stimuli per second. If we expand to include unconscious processing, that number goes up to a staggering 11 million pieces of information each second. Our sensory organs relay this information to the brain through sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The first step in mediation – sensory withdrawal – is to stop taking in information from the outside world and direct those senses inward in order to note what sensations arise from within us.
The next step – one-pointed concentration – is perhaps the most important, as well as the most challenging. From all the sensations we identify in the previous step, we now choose one on which to center our attention. By far the most common choice is the breath, as it is one of the most concrete anchors for our focus. We can easily observe how the air moves in and out of the body, perhaps even counting the individual respirations as they occur. But the breath is far from being our only option. Other examples include the sensation of contact between our body and our sitting surface, the tip of the tongue and any tastes that come and go, something – perhaps a candle – on which to fix our gaze, or even a mantra – a personally meaningful word or phrase we repeat over and over in our mind.
While concentrating on the selected object or sensation is the goal, is would be absurd to believe we will achieve this single focus without interruption. The average attention span of a human adult is roughly 8 seconds, so it goes without saying that thoughts will keep on coming while we meditate. And that’s ok. The goal of meditation is not to think about nothing. After all, even thinking about nothing is thinking about something. We are not trying to forcefully prevent thoughts from entering our minds. The more we attempt to banish a thought, the more intensely it will return. For example, if I were to tell you that for the next 30 seconds you can think about anything you like except pink elephants, what do you think would happen? Yep, nothing but pink elephants as far as the mind can see.
Just like most skills, concentration can be improved. In fact, that is why it is called a meditation practice. The trick to flexing your meditative muscle lies in the avoidance of getting caught up in storytelling. This is mind wandering or daydreaming – when a thought enters your mind and snags your attention away from its anchor. For example, while meditating, your stomach rumbles and you think I’m hungry. You now have two options. You could follow up the thought of I’m hungry with another thought What should I have for dinner? That could then incite you to starting planning your grocery list and thinking about all the other items on your to-do list. The next thing you know, your timer is buzzing to signal the end of your session and you have spent most of it on organizing your day. An alternative reaction – the one practiced during meditation – is to observe the thought, note that it happened, and bring your awareness back to your anchor. You continue in that manner, no matter how many times a thought pops into your head. Each time one does, you acknowledge it, and refocus. Over time, fewer thoughts will arise and you will become more skillful at redirecting your attention.
The entire practice of mediation can be compared to standing on the bank of a river. Yours thoughts are the water that rushes by. You can either continue to stand your ground and watch the rapids as they churn, or you can get mesmerized by it and fall in, allowing yourself to be swept away by the current.
Example of a meditation session:
1) Find a quiet spot where you are not likely to be interrupted and assume a relaxed posture. Options include sitting on a chair or stool, or cross-legged on a cushion or mat. You could also lie down but avoid arrangements that make you prone to falling asleep. Set a timer if necessary so you don’t find yourself worrying about the length of your session.
2) Close your eyes, or if this is not comfortable for you, soften your gaze so you’re not looking at anything in particular.
3) This step is optional but often allows for a less fidgety session. Scan your body, paying attention to any sensations that may arise, trying as much as possible not to pass judgment on anything that arises. You are here only to act as a witness to those sensations. Proceed as if taking inventory of whatever you perceive.
4) Bring your awareness to your breath or any other anchor that feels comfortable to you. You will return to this anchor whenever you notice your mind has wandered.
4) Be kind to yourself. Your mind will wander. This is a certainty and is not evidence of failure. Your ability to redirect your attention once you notice it has drifted is the truest measure of success in meditation. With practice you can master this skill.
5) Allow for gentle movement to return to your body as you prepare to emerge from your session. Move mindfully and with purpose, avoiding excess of both speed and agitation.
6) Notice how you feel and see if you can bring these sensations with you as you move through the rest of your day.
Seated meditation is not for everyone. It may be that you have physical limitations which make sitting uncomfortable, or you may find stillness overwhelming. People who have experienced trauma may find seated meditation elicits memories or powerful emotions that make having their eyes closed while not moving extremely distressing. Mindfulness meditation is an option that brings meditation into action. In essence, it involves paying close attention to whatever task you are executing, allowing you to be fully present in the moment.
We collectively tend to spend the majority of our waking hours reminiscing about things we’ve done or thinking about what lies ahead. The two most prevalent mental health conditions – anxiety and depression – are rooted in the future and past, respectively. Anxiety stems from worries about things that have not yet occurred, while depression most often arises from rumination, either conscious or unconscious, over losses previously sustained. Admittedly, this is an over-simplification of the two illnesses. Nevertheless, it provides the scientific rationale for the effectiveness of meditation as a treatment for both conditions since it promotes being present in the current moment. We cannot simultaneously think about the present and the past or future.
Mindfulness mediation can take many different forms. In the interest of brevity, we’ll be discussing the most prevalent, the first of which is walking meditation. To engage in walking meditation, it is best to be alone and on a familiar path, so you do not have to pay too much attention to where you are going. Speed is not important. You can move as quickly or as slowly as you desire. The key to a walking meditation is to pay attention to the sensation of your feet as they make contact with the ground beneath you, one footstep at a time. Ideally you would leave your phone at home.
Steps for meditative walking:
1) Begin with a few short rounds of breathwork. Focus on your inhales and exhales without doing anything to alter the breath; simply noticing how the air feels as it moves in through the body and out again. This will help to bring your awareness inward.
2) Start walking. Pay attention to the heel strike (first heel makes contact with the ground), stance phase (time spent on the sole of that same foot), swing phase (as opposite foot moves through into place), and toe off (first foot lifts to give way to the opposite foot making heel strike). The movement of each foot replaces the anchorage to the breath used most often in traditional seated meditation.
3) Once you have a well-established rhythm and awareness of your walking cadence, bring your awareness intermittently to the sounds of nature and other sensations around you. Notice the ambient temperature and how the air feels on your skin.
4) Finally, begin to observe your thoughts and underlying emotions as you would in seated meditation. What are you carrying with you on your walk? See if you can practice simply witnessing these thoughts and emotions and letting them arise and subside like the movement of the tides, rather than getting caught up with the desire to attach meaning to them.
You can develop similar practices with any ordinary task such as housework (vacuuming, dusting, or washing dishes), yard work (raking leaves, shoveling snow, or chopping wood), and personal hygiene regimens (brushing your teeth, shaving, or washing your hair). All that needs to be done to transform any mundane task into a meaningful moving meditation is to simply pay attention. Plus, you get the added benefit of a good cardiovascular workout!
Rituals are one of my favourite ways of practicing mindful meditation. The classic example of such a ritual is the Japanese tea ceremony. In Japanese culture, tea is not just a tasty, soothing beverage. It is steeped (pun totally intended) in rich Buddhist history dating back to when a Buddhist monk returned from his travels in China. Tea has long held medicinal and religious importance in China and in its own rite, came to represent a means of demonstrating deep respect and connection to others in Japan.
Similarly, pigéage – or grape stomping – is a hugely ritualistic practice that dates back to the Greek and Roman empires. Nowadays, machines are largely responsible for punching down grape skins which then ferment in their own juices and the process is repeated until proper flavour, colour, and tannin are extracted, resulting in a delectable wine. Despite the modernization, most wineries maintain some version of the human version, usually held as a fall ritual. The present-day practice is all about just that – an experience – and less concerned with producing a sellable product. The purpose is to afford wine afficionados with an opportunity to be totally encompassed and fully engaged with the viniculture process. Moving meditation with wine… is there a better definition of bliss?
Whether you choose to practice traditional seated meditation or engage in any of its mindful alternatives, every moment spent in quiet introspection is a moment invested in your health and well-being.
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