My teacher once said that the best meditation is a light sleep. All mystery flew out the door. Ok so he obviously liked his sleep but really, meditation is any state which enables you to get in touch with your inner thoughts and feelings. It can be a guided meditation where a narration guides you through a process or just wonderful silence – a place of introspection and contemplation. Meditation can also be used to contact the inner worlds and states of trance. Whether these worlds exist in reality or not I won’t discuss here so let’s move on to more about the hows and whys of meditation.
These past several decades meditation has come of age in a confluence of eastern mysticism and western science. What is exciting about the new research is how meditation can train the mind and reshape the brain. It has been shown that physical activity for the brain, including meditation, promotes growth of new brain cells. We can actually rewire our brains to change our behavior – make us more happier, control anxiety etc. Modern knowledge in neuroscience underscores the idea of neuroplasticity, meaning that the brain is an organ that changes in response to experience and in response to training. Our brains are intimately interwoven with both our internal and external environment, in ways that literally shape the physical structure of the brain.
So each time you successfully use meditation or an altered state of consciousness to solve a problem, program a new ability or achieve insights, you increase your chance of success the next time.
If we were to have a single goal or desired result to meditation then surely it would be to relax, find a quiet place and still the mind. From this would spring all the benefits that we associate with a more calm, refreshing and balanced life. Meditation can be done at any time – you can do it on a bus, walking in a forest, listening to music or finding a quiet place at work for 10 mins to get some inner time and space. I find that during the day if I feel I need to recharge, I simply go outside and sit down or even stand in the forest and do a quick meditation. Sort of like Gongoozling. Now gongoozling is a wonderful old term or activity to suggest that one observes things idly. For me it’s like wandering about aimlessly or being still in nature in a state of quiet contemplation. A beautiful place to be.
So meditation is therefore something you can do not just for your own benefit but also for all of humanity and living things. It can be a gateway to possibilities and profound learning where you may develop an inner joy, a knowing that transports you beyond the everyday world to connect to your nature self, your true self. Importantly it can grant you a more silent composure. A detachment that allows you to separate yourself from the world, tempering the ego/personality and not getting involved in the ups and downs of the world. It can also be about exploring the unknown – times where the mind’s eye truly sees where you can push through emotional and spiritual blocks. Sort of a clearing where thoughts and feelings rise up and you get to see things in a new light.
Two Types of Meditation
I see two types of meditation here – one is less structured – just perform it when you need to, such as gongoozling or taking a short break from work to relax. The other is the structured meditation which is done on a regular basis for a certain period and maybe even done at at a particular time of the day. This is really mindful meditation where you are almost like watching your feelings.
So to set up the latter type of meditation, I feel it’s best to dedicate a particular time of the day to initiate a rhythm. This will get your body and mind into a pattern, helping you focus your mind. Morning is good, as this is when it is quiet and the pulse of Gaia – or at least where you are on the planet – is yet to get going. Of course you might prefer the evening, as this is when the benefits of relaxation will be greatest. Each time you meditate it should be for a similar duration as this also sets you up into a rhythm of certainty – around 30 minutes is great but you can set it how you prefer. Even 10 minutes is beneficial but it has been shown that for most of us it takes at least 15 minutes to develop a deeper state of concentration.
It is important to note here that when you first start to meditate it may seem like nothing is happening and your mind may start to wander and ask what am I doing here? You will find that as you set up a rhythm, you will begin to allow a stillness, the mind will begin to pacify and the purity of your consciousness will begin to filter into your meditations.
Position and Posture
Positioning yourself for meditation doesn’t necessarily involve a torturous lotus position. That’s for supple bodies that many people like me just don’t have. I find sitting in a chair with feet flat on the floor,bBack straight and hands in my lap the best way. Some prefer to lie down but I tend to nod off. Find the position that you like and you feel comfortable with. If you want to do the whole lotus thing with thumb and forefinger together then go for it.
Dealing with distractive thoughts and outside noises in meditation is as simple as allowing them to be – let them come and go and just say to yourself or acknowledge that with every such event you feel yourself going deeper and deeper. I use these exact words – going deeper and deeper and I find them very soothing. Just say them to yourself – deeper and deeper.
Set up a steady breathing rhythm – nice slow even deep breaths. I like to breathe in and out through the nose – I don’t think it really matters. Again whatever you feel is best for you. Let’s not get caught up in the right way to do things here. If you are new to meditation then I think one of the best ways to start is to focus on your breathing and concentrate on that. Some people even like to breathe in for a number of counts and then out for a number of counts. This helps them focus.
Another thing one can do is focus on a word or image while meditating. Transcendental meditation, TM for short, invented by Maharishi Yogi uses a mantra or special word that is repeated silently to oneself during meditation. You could also focus on a symbol or object in your mind’s eye to enhance your focus. These are just some of the things that may appeal to you to give a go if you desire.
Dedicating Your Meditations
If you like you can dedicate your meditations to an aspect of your life that you need to change or that you feel will connect you to the greater good in some way. This could be simply healing a part of your body or it could be in relation to releasing energy around a situation that involves a love one or colleague. For example let’s say that you have a challenging situation with a family member that you can’t resolve. Then a technique is to visualize them in your meditation and hold them in your mind’s eye and breathe them in, and as you exhale release them and the situation – feel it releasing out of your life. You may like to dedicate just one day to this or several or more. This can be a powerful exercise so get creative with it. You can do this breathing and releasing as a healing exercise with an area of your body by focusing on it and breathing through the area.
So these are the basics of meditation: setting up a dedicated time, the duration, your breathing, focusing on a word or image and if you feel a dedication with your meditations.
For me there are two broad aspects to a more structured meditation. One is when meditation is done for enhancing our everyday well-being. The other is to allow us to go deeper and access altered state of consciousness. You can’t really separate the two completely however. The benefits of the first are well documented so there is no point in elaborating here – only to say that relaxation and finding time to still oneself and contemplate is a first step and often ongoing aspect of a more spiritual and analyzed life. This cannot be understated as something that is needed in our lives – especially with the planet flying along the anxiety expressway. The second aspect – accessing altered states – are for people who want to explore more in their meditations. More on this in a future article.
What the Buddhists Think
One can’t talk of meditation unless one mentions Buddhism. In Buddhist tradition meditation is a word that is equivalent to a word like cooking. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing. Each of these meditative practices calls on different mental skills. There are three common forms of Buddhist mediation. The first is focused attention where they specifically train themselves to focus for long periods of time. The second involves voluntarily cultivating compassion – a daily activity I mentioned in the Gamma part of this discussion. The third is called “open presence”. It is a state of being acutely aware of whatever thought, emotion or sensation is present, without reacting to it. They describe it as pure awareness. What I like about Buddhism is that it is very much like science- based on experience and investigation not dogma.
Right Brain Left Brain
One brain researcher, Richard Davidson has used brain imaging to show that meditation shifts activity in the prefrontal cortex (right behind our foreheads) from the right hemisphere to the left. Other researches detected significant increases in activity in several areas of the left prefrontal cortex after 2 months of meditation. Davidson’s research suggests that by meditating regularly the brain is re-orientated from a stressful fight-or-flight mode to one of acceptance, a shift that increases contentment. People who have a negative disposition tend to be right prefrontal oriented; left prefrontals have more enthusiasms, more interests, relax more and tend to be happier. Ok the simplified notion that strong right brain people who tend to be more creative are probably not as contented as those who are more left brain orientated simply because creativity and an unsettled life go more hand in hand than not – and I think this is a very important point.
The brain produces neurotransmitters to help it along. Dopamine boosts your powers of concentration encouraging persistent, goal-centered state of mind whereas noradrenalin produces an outward-looking vigilant state. Serotonin is crucial to the normal functioning of the brain frontal lobes – lack of serotonin here leads to anxiety and even aggression. Meditation has shown to help us get our neurotransmitters working together in harmony. A good amount of serotonin to combat depression and a balance in dopamine to allay the anxiety. I think of these as the yin and yang of the brain. Serotonin is Yin – the feminine, the introspection. The dopamine is the yang – the masculine, the outward looking, the ambition. More on this in another article
Meditation is something that humanity needs more of – if only to embrace our space of tranquility. May peace be with you on your journey.