Meditation is defined on Wikipedia as “a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content...or as an end in itself.”
It's obvious to me from this definition that meditation is an incredibly difficult practice to accurately define. Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese zen practitioner credited with bringing the practice to America, said that “...you become very idealistic, and you set up an ideal or goal which you strive to attain and fulfill. But as I have often said, this is absurd. When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself...”
Suzuki believed that Americans and westerners were at an advantage in starting with meditation because we had no preconceived notions of what it was and what we could attain. With meditation pervading our western culture, it is apparent to many that there are tangible benefits of the practice. There are plenty of celebrities (like Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, and Sting to name a few), athletes (like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and many more), and professionals (people like Rupert Murdoch, Tim Ferris, and even Steve Jobs was known to be a big believer in meditation) that practice meditation on a regular basis because of the benefits they perceive.
Despite the scientific benefits we will outline further in this article, take everything with a grain of salt. When beginning meditation, try to keep in mind that attaining something for yourself is the opposite of what this practice is about. Before going any further I want to briefly note that there are many different forms of meditation, with two of the most well-known (at least in western culture) being Transendental Meditation (often referred to as mantra meditation) and Vipassana (often referred to as mindfulness meditation). Many experienced practioners believe, that no matter the form of meditation, the end results are typically the same; achieving increased calmness and better concentration.
Meditation – Presence and Preparation
Being engaged and immersed in the present moment is the gift of meditation. Many religious and philosophical understandings (both eastern and western) find presence to be the ideal state of consciousness.
The irony is that meditation is the easiest place to cultivate the state of presence. A calm environment without outside stimulation makes it easy to focus on the present moment. Meditative practices are generally the perfect place to feel the emotions and sensations of the body right now.
Taking this into our daily lives filled with constant stimulation can make it far more enjoyable and appealing. More importantly, being present can make daily life fulfilling and calmer. A quiet meditation practice truly is practice for every day life.
Physical Posture and Sitting
Physical posture plays a significant role in meditative techniques. Some aspects are symbolic while others are more practical. Zen posture states to “...sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. This is the most important teaching.”
In this posture you are expected to keep your shoulders and ears in one vertical line. Shoulders are to be relaxed and your chin should be slightly pulled in towards your neck. Your abdomen should be engaged and fingers clasped together.
Vipassana meditative teachings require the head to be covered in reverence. While this is different from zen posture, most meditative practices have something similar as they developed from the same stem many hundreds of years ago. When starting out with meditation, you might feel an itch, pain, or another sensation that comes with the posture. It is best not to address the pain or itch if you can avoid it. Observe the sensation with curiosity as opposed to reacting to it (by scratching or moving).
This is a metaphor for your mental state throughout life. You might find many distracting or distressing factors, but keeping a balanced mind will help you feel more content and fulfilled no matter the surroundings.
Research on Meditation
The philosophical aspect of meditation is important, but for analytical and logical individuals who want to improve brain chemistry and enhance cognition, the research can be more compelling. Over the past few decades, research into meditation has blossomed as eastern practices are more revered and used in the western world.
Using EEG and fMRI scans of the brain, scientists have discovered a lot about how meditation impacts the brain. Experienced meditators find stronger coupling between certain regions of the brain (such as the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dosolateral prefrontal cortices). Increased gray matter is another benefit that is seen in the cerebellum, which is the region that plays a role in motor control, attention, and language skills.
Elderly patients using a mindfulness practice can help prevent age related cognitive decline as well. For people with brain trauma, meditation may not reverse this, but it can halt neurological decline.
Empathy and Compassion
Harvard University researcher, Sara Lazar, completed a comprehensive mindfulness / meditation study using MRI scans. She found that “brain regions associated with attention, introspection, and sensory processing were thicker” in the subjects who did meditation. The prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, regions important for empathy and compassion, were increased in thickness as well.
The most startling conclusion from this study was that meditation can actually make practitioners more empathetic and compassionate towards others by increasing the thickness of this region of the brain.
Relaxation and Calming Effects
Being or feeling “relaxed” can be a subjective experience depending on the person, compared to more stressful situations, and a number of other factors. However, Mind-Body Medical Institute founder, Herbert Benson, found that meditation can actually lead to physical changes known as the “relaxation response.”
This response, induced through meditation, creates changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and even blood pressure. In some cases, brain chemicals and neurotransmitters are physically altered because of the practice as well.
In our overstimulated and stressful worlds, the parasympathetic system often gets neglected while the sympathetic nervous system (arousal, preparation for vigorous activity) is overstimulated. Studies of EEG activity show that meditation can reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system while increasing the parasympathetic, which has profound long term health effects.
Flow and Peak States
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a mouthful, I know) is one of the foremost researchers on the state of “flow”. This Hungarian scientist helped to develop the concept and modern scientists have found that meditation leads to increased flow states. Because mindfulness increases attention span and objectivity, the practitioner usually has better creative awareness, which is translated to more frequent and fulfilling flow states.
By reducing cognitive stress, humans can reduce aging and improve immune function. Chromosomes have protective caps called telomeres, which are linked to longevity and correlates with stress and depression. By engaging in a meditation practice, you can improve your telomere length and slow the process of cellular aging.
Putting Theory into Practice
Now that you have an understanding of the philosophical and scientific aspects of meditation, you might feel a bit overwhelmed about how to begin. Meditating does not have to be a long, painful, and boring process to suffer through daily. Instead, it should be a fun, immediately gratifying, and enjoyable experience to integrate into your life.
Start with 5 minutes
Instead of doing 20 minutes or even as high as an hour, just start small. Taking a 5 minute break while you are at work can have profound impacts on anxiety and stress levels. Focus on your breath as it goes in and out of your nostrils. Just breathe in and out and focus on that breath for a few minutes. If 5 minutes is even too much, start with 10 breaths.
Go for a walk
Sometimes a moving meditation can be easier than sitting. Pay attention to the heat from the sun, the wind blowing in your face, or any other sensation that nature is providing for you. If they are too subtle, just focus on your breath while you are walking. Keep your electronic devices out of your hands and just walk.
Ancient meditation practitioners used yoga as a physical practice. You can also engage in yoga with mindfulness. Focus on your breathing with yoga and it can become a powerful tool.
Sometimes it takes an “all out” approach to really immerse yourself in a practice. There are many meditation retreats around the world and the 10 day Vipassana retreat is one of the more rigorous courses. It may seem daunting, but it will be one of the most impactful events of your life. You will not have 10 days free on the calendar so just find a retreat and do it!