It takes a bit of practice to understand the positive benefits of meditation. I used to sit and think I was absolutely hopeless at it, my mind wouldn’t switch off and I thought it was all a waste of valuable time. I would end an excruciatingly long 5-10 minute meditation and feel more frustrated than when I began. For many people, their meditation experience ends here.
Why persistence is worth it
Meditation settles the mind and relaxes the body, restoring a state of internal balance which is the only state for optimal self-repair and healing. The healing and repair mechanisms of the body work best when you are either relaxed during the day or asleep and they largely switch off when you are stressed or active.
Most people are in a constant state of over-arousal:
- muscles are more tense than they need to be, which inhibit natural blood flow
- breathing is fast and shallow which loads up the accessory breathing muscles and unused air can develop in the lower lungs (breeding ground for bacteria)
- the mind buzzes a million miles an hour (in past/future mode) so we cannot process our thoughts and emotions effectively
- heart rate and cell activity are increased
- blood flow to the skin slows down which may lead to skin conditions
- the digestive system, reproductive system and immune system have all been told to stay on hold.
You can ask yourself right now, “Am I tense or relaxed?” and may notice your shoulders are held up and forward in a low level contraction, your jaw may be tensed, your eyes may be slightly squinting, your diaphragm may be locked up and you may not be breathing deeply and fully. Just noticing this is usually enough to start you relaxing. If we are just 10% more aroused than we need to be, year after year, our health is bound to suffer. It could be argued that most health problems come not from stress, but from inadequate recovery time – we don’t relax deeply or long enough to repair ourselves.
People who are reasonably sensitive will notice at least some of the following signs or the relaxation response when they meditate:
- reduced muscular tension
- reduced breath rate
- warmth or tingling on the skin as blood returns to the periphery
- improved digestion
- greater awareness of aches and pains as the analgesic effect of the stress hormones wears off.
Focus, detachment and passive awareness lie at the core of meditation.
Focusing on one thing, eg. the breath, is usually a pleasant escape from random thought and also takes us to the present moment. Most of us think too much. The inner dialogue churns all day, and continues underground when we fall asleep. This relentless thinking burns a stack of energy and we get exhausted.
Our thoughts are driven by emotions – usually some low grade variant of fear, anger or desire. Meditation doesn’t try to block or process thoughts, rather it lets them stream through unattended. The best way to resist the temptation to engage in them is to divert our attention to the sense world – bringing us to the present moment. Sensing shifts us from the volatility of thought to the simplicity or just feeling/seeing/hearing/tasting etc. The brain emits fast arrhythmic “beta” brain waves when we think. Sensing is passive, emotionally more loose and the brain emits the slower and more rhythmic “alpha” brain waves when we sense.
The original cause of all stress is emotion. Something makes us sad or angry or fearful and the hypothalamus initiates the sympathetic nervous system response from that point. In meditation, you can focus on your pain, and by allowing it to exist (dropping your resistance to it so it can start to leave the body). If we watch our thoughts and feelings with detatchment, the pain may remain but we don’t amplify it. By stepping back your perspective becomes clearer. Once you see a physical or emotional tension clearly, it starts to release. Clarity of mind is the secret ingredient. Focusing on part of the body we may have neglected or never noticed is like flooding it with light – we start to see it in increasing detail. If you can see and accept what is happening without trying to change it, it starts to change. Also, when we focus on a body area we increase the blood supply to that place temporarily. When people say they are “giving energy” to that place, they are literally correct. The metabolic and immune system activity, and the flow of nutrients, all subtly increase.
Basic instructions for any meditation:
Focus on a meditation object. Eg. Your breath, body sensations, the ocean, a tree..
When the mind wanders, bring it back to your object
Let all other thoughts and sensations pass by. Acknowledge them but do not engage.
It is that simple.
Once you sort out sitting, walking, standing or lying down meditation postures, you learn to meditate in every activity – eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, dressing, etc. The relaxation comes from just doing what you are doing with awareness / being in the present moment. Meditation doesn’t mean being in trance-like state. We can be easily relaxed and alert while listening to music, exercising, playing sports, eating a meal, having a shower or cleaning the house. It only takes 10 seconds, focusing deeply on something in the sense world, to extract yourself from thought and slow the brain waves down.
Worry is just an intellectual form of fear, and fear can make us completely irrational. We fret about little things that don’t matter or big things we can’t control. As an old wise person once said: “I am an old man and I’ve had lots of worries, most of which never happened”.