Any time where a person’s mind is either totally quiet or completely focused (without thoughts outside of one particular chosen stream) they’re meditating. So, being totally absorbed in an activity can be regarded as a form of meditation: you are completely present and your mind is not wandering from what you are doing. There are many forms of meditation, but what we typically imagine is the image of a person sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, and that is indeed a form of meditation known as:
Zen. Zen meditation involves remaining totally in the present moment. You will be aware of your breath, of the sounds around you, and you remain alert. Being human, the mind will frequently stray, and when that happens, you gently return the attention to the breath, to the sounds and sensations you are experiencing, without judging or berating yourself. At first you might only be free of thoughts for a second or two, but as you continue to practise, the gaps between thoughts will become greater and you will start to experience a sense of peace. You absolutely don’t have to sit cross-legged if that is uncomfortable for you. As long as the spine is straight, you can sit in a chair, lie down – whatever is comfortable for your body.
A popular form of meditation, and one which is a great introduction, is:
Guided Visualisation. As the name suggests, this involves listening to someone guiding you through the meditation. They might ask you to take your attention around various parts of the body, or they might invite you to imagine walking through a beautiful meadow or along a beach, for example. I personally really enjoy guided visualisations last thing at night, I find they really help me sleep well.
A great meditation for busy lives is:
Mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that can be done with any simple, repetitive activity that doesn’t require us to think or plan. A good example can be doing the washing-up – you simply give your FULL attention to the task at hand. So you notice the feel of the warm water on your hands, the sounds of the plates and the splashing, the scent of the detergent, and so on. I find this can really be wake-up call as to just how much we sleepwalk through our lives and don’t pay attention to what we’re doing!
A similar form to this is:
Movement. This can take the form of a walk, paying full attention to the motion of the body and the sensations within, or in a formal sense it can be practised as Tai Chi or yoga – the physical practice of yoga is entirely a moving meditation.
Concentrative meditation is another form. This involves single-pointed awareness of something we are looking at, typically a candle flame or flower. If the attention wanders, again, we gently draw it back to the object of our attention. And similar to this is:
Mantra meditation. Here we pick a word that resonates with us – perhaps “peace” or “calm” for example – and slowly repeat it, either silently in our heads or out loud. This can be a great “quickie” one to choose, especially if someone’s driving you up the wall and you need to regain your composure!
So that’s a brief overview of a few different types. It’s not a one size fits all thing, some you’ll enjoy and others won’t appeal as much, and that’s fine, it’s about finding what works for you.
To appreciate the benefits of meditation, it’s helpful to know a little about the nervous system and how it works, because what meditation fundamentally does is balance our Autonomic Nervous System. This has two sides: the Sympathetic or Fight or Flight response, and the Parasympathetic or Rest and Relax response. You have undoubtedly felt Fight or Flight many times. Perhaps you’ve sensed you were being followed at night and your heart raced, you felt hyper-aware of your surroundings and your breath became fast and shallow – you were primed to escape, or to fight for your life. Maybe you saw a car veering towards you and swerved just in time to avoid it, thanks to the rush of adrenaline you felt coursing through your veins. Our Sympathetic Nervous System protects us from danger and has maybe saved your life on a number of occasions. But there is a catch.
All of these physiological changes happen in a split second – they have to, they’re potential life-savers. So they happen before the assessing and reasoning parts of the brain come to the party. In these days of e-connectivity, stressors come thick and fast , and whilst our brains and bodies still perceive these alerts as real threats, we rarely need to respond with strong physical action. When the stress response is appropriate we run or fight, then the body returns to normal. But when the stressor is a traffic jam, or on a computer screen? There’s nothing to flee, nothing to battle, and we become trapped in a prolonged state of fight or flight, and that’s very bad news for our bodies. It increases our risk of heart disease, stroke, and digestive conditions such as ulcers, and causes weight gain. It messes up our sleep patterns, and can cause depression and anxiety disorders.
So at that point, we need to switch into the other side of the nervous system: the Parasympathetic Nervous System or the Rest and Relax response. When this is engaged our blood pressure and heart rate drops, our breathing is full and steady, digestion improves and we feel calm, at ease and relaxed.
That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation reduces stress and anxiety. When we meditate, our Nervous System begins to switch from the Fight or Flight response, into the Rest and Relax response. Our blood pressure drops, which is great news for reducing our overall risk of stroke and heart disease. Our heart rate slows, and in turn we begin to feel a greater sense of relaxation and wellbeing. As the Fight or flight response disengages, our level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol drop. High levels of cortisol make our bodies hold onto excess fat, especially around the middle of the body. Whilst it IS important to eat healthily and take plenty of exercise, we can diet and exercise until we’re blue in the face; if we are full of cortisol, we are always going to struggle to maintain our best weight. So yes, what I am saying is that by simply sitting or lying still and meditating, you can help yourself to stay slim. Can’t be bad huh? Got to be worth a try!
Meditation also aids restful sleep. Partly for the reason I just outlined; that we have fewer stress hormones coursing around our system, keeping us in a perpetual state of anxiety and readiness to fight or to flee. When we’ve got ourselves out of that state by meditating, we’re already ahead of the game: we’re actually ready to rest and to let our bodies do all the great repair work they do overnight. And partly because, when we have one or two meditation techniques up our sleeves, we can use them as we settle down for the night, helping us to drift off…. Kind of like reading ourselves a bedtime story… or advanced sheep-counting!
So those are two of the major benefits. What else does meditation have to offer us? Well it gives us greater clarity of thought, an increased ability to focus and to concentrate on the task at hand. As we start to learn to clear our minds of the incessant brain chatter, we become much more able to think clearly – basically we spend less time faffing about and become more efficient. People often tell me that they don’t have time to meditate – and I do understand that concern, we all lead very busy lives today and taking 10 minutes to simply be still might seem like an indulgence or a waste of time. But if I said to you that if you lend me £10 now, I will give you 20 or even 30 pounds back this afternoon, you’d take me up on it, right? Well it’s the same with meditation. Because of your increased ability to concentrate, because of your increased efficiency, that 10 minutes you spend meditating is going to give 20 or even 30 minutes back in the form of increased productivity. That’s a great investment. I wish the banks offered that….
What else? Well, meditation helps us to feel more motivated to achieve the things we set our sights on. Now that we’re feeling more relaxed, more focused, less stressed and as though we’re doing something truly beneficial for ourselves, it’s so much easier to carry those feelings through to all areas of our lives – whether that’s to take better care of your health, spend more time having fun with your friends or partner or kids, try that new hobby, get that promotion…. whatever your own dreams might be. And we ENJOY those things more – because meditation helps us to be truly present – to experience our lives fully…. RIGHT NOW.