Meditation and mindfulness for good health and personal growth
Meditation and mindfulness for good health and personal growth
“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without”
Within us are all the resources we need for life. Unfortunately very few of us actually capitalise on this gift. Whether we seek improvement in our health or we are looking to achieve new goals, we tend to look outside of ourselves for the answer. However, more often than not the solution is within us.
What is meditation?
The most straightforward definition of meditation that I have seen is simply “A state of deep peace that occurs when the mind is calm and silent”. Of course for many, meditation is a way to communicate with the spiritual self and seek enlightenment and is adopted as a way of life. For others it may be a temporary means of seeking inner solace and peace during a difficult time. However, the fact is that the time spent is never wasted; contemplative practice is a powerful and beneficial force for personal growth.
What are the origins of meditation?
The earliest written records of meditation, referred to as Dhyana originate from the Hindu traditions around 1500 BCE (BC). Within these records are also references to earlier forms of meditative traditions thousands of years beforehand. However, these traditions were not just confined to Asia, there are even earlier records of similar practices in ancient Greece.
How is meditation practised?
Different types of meditation have evolved over time. Meditation has been commonly connected with both faith and philosophy and various meditative techniques have been practised in Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism but there is no intrinsic relationship between meditation and religion. Most people are aware that there are different types of meditation, below are examples of two of the normally recognised methods;
Zen (Zazen) Meditation
This is the meditation practised by Zen Buddhists, the term Zazen means ‘study of the self’. This is known as a seated meditation and therefore the body posture is important. Most people have an idea of some of the sitting positions adopted during Zen meditation e.g. the Burmese position, the Lotus position, half Lotus position and Seiza. Information on these is freely available to those seeking further knowledge of the practice.
The purpose of Zen is to search for and reach enlightenment and this is practised through observation of breath, mind and Buddhist teachings. Sometimes chanting is involved. In deep Zen meditation, respiration, heart rate, circulation and metabolism slow down dramatically. An experienced practitioner may breathe as little as two or three breaths a minute, whereas for an average person this is around fifteen. This level of relaxation, which can be even deeper than sleep, has an extremely beneficial effect upon the human body both mentally and physically.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has been popular with celebrity followers from the Beatles onwards. Transcendental Meditation is a special form of mantra meditation which promotes serenity, energy and balance. The technique involves silently repeating a mantra in what is described as ‘gentle effortlessness’. This is done without being in any special yoga position and is intended to transport the individual naturally to a trance-like, quieter style of mental functioning.
According to the Maharishi, there are seven levels of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, transcendental consciousness, cosmic consciousness, God consciousness and unity consciousness. Research has shown that at the higher levels of Transcendental Meditation, experienced practitioners have exhibited unique EEG readings (non-invasive test that records electrical patterns in the brain). According to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the practice of Transcendental Meditation has the capacity, over time, to bring the subconscious mind closer to the conscious mind. Transcendental meditation is normally learned from a qualified TM teacher at a TM learning centre.
Other forms of meditation
People use meditation for a number of reasons. Deep relaxation and spiritual growth are probably why the majority of practitioners take it up. However, meditation for health reasons such as pain control or anxiety is also popular. Local meditation groups are popular where practitioners can come together. As meditation has a close relationship with spiritual thought, there are also religious meditation groups where mutual interest and friendship are promoted.
Improvement in lifestyle and seeking peace of mind is a now commonly recognised as a growing need in our modern society. Many people use meditation as a way of coming to terms with the demands of contemporary life. Here is an example of a simple, popular, effective meditative technique:
Mindfulness as a concept has its origins in Buddhism. Mindfulness is a descendant of the practices of meditation and yoga with the focus on breathing and thought. I suppose to simplify explanation, it would be fair to say that mindfulness is a westernised variation of the ancient Buddhist tradition. It combines ancient meditative practice with science and is credited with being instigated in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
So what is Mindfulness?
Experts say that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside our bodies, moment by moment. Mindfulness is receiving growing recognition in the medical profession as a cognitive therapy. Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had bouts of prior depression.
Mindfulness is about developing a deep awareness of our bodies, the sensations we are experiencing and our relationship to the sights, sounds and smells of the world around us. It is about seeking clarity of ourselves and our surroundings and immersing ourselves in the moment.
So how do we do this?
You can practice mindfulness anywhere. It may be in a way in which you may wish to set aside time for thought and it can also be in a spontaneous way in which you incorporate your mindfulness into your current activities. However, mindfulness should not be seen as an occasional experiment but a lifestyle choice and a continuing experience. Here are a few beginners’ tips on how to start your day:
- Start your day gently; consider setting your radio to wake you with some gentle music or a chime rather than a strident alarm.
- Don’t jump straight out of bed. Become aware of your body and its sensations. Gently stretch to bring your body alive.
- Next become aware of your surroundings. Listen to the sounds and picture in your mind what is making them. Look around you and be aware of your surroundings.
- If you are able to do so, go outside and take in what is around you. Allow your senses to tune in to your surroundings and then centre your thoughts on your body and relax your mind. Whatever the surroundings, appreciate your life, each day is a rebirth.
- Then start your day and build on your early morning mind-set.Now I know it is easy to look at those points above and laugh. In our frantic lives how could anyone possibly make time to do those things at the start of a busy day….and that’s the point. We don’t allow ourselves the time, so we miss out on the preciousness of life. Start now, make the time and develop your routines so that you can do these things. Remember, mindfulness does not to have to be practised in a formal context. When you are out and about you can just as easily appreciate life and actually allow yourself to see and hear life, rather than just passing through it.It’s very easy to start something to improve our lives but most of us give up after a short time. So set yourself some targets. Start with some meditation.
- Allow yourself time, even just 5 – 10 minutes a day to start with just to sit down comfortably and centre your mind on your breathing.
- If you get distractions, let them pass and just return to quiet breathing. Focus on your breathing in and out.
- You can think about your body. Start at the top of your head and gradually concentrate on relaxing your body focussing on each part in turn.
- As you get more practice, you can extend the time doing this and you can get more efficient at actually allowing your body to relax.
- Consider joining a meditation group for support, there are usually organisations in each area.
- You can read up yourself on mindfulness or look for various self-help programmes. You don’t have to spend loads of money.
- Enjoy life – start today.
Mediation and the brain
Meditation in its many forms can have a positive and beneficial effect on the brain. Both physically and functionally. For many years practitioners have given evidence of the perception of change and life enhancement they have achieved through meditation.
Now modern brain scanning techniques have been able to prove that the brains of meditators have structural differences to those non-meditators. Neuroscientists have found that meditation has been linked to larger hippocampal and grey matter resulting in more positive emotions and mindful behaviour. Meditation has also been credited to increased neuroprotective attributes on age-related cognitive decline.
Meditation has been linked to dramatic changes in the brain’s electrical activity, the brain waves, with increased theta and alpha EEG activity which is associated with wakeful and relaxed attention.
Basically the message is – meditation works.