What is meditation?
Now you can't put meditation into a little box and give it a black-and-white definition because so many different traditions around the world have lots of ways to meditate, many of which don't involve sitting with your eyes closed. Also, not every exercise to focus on something for a long time is necessarily meditation.
In the oldest traditional sense, meditation is a way to ventilate the mind. Instead of letting your mind drown in a relentless, runaway train of thoughts, you become the observer of your mind. You focus inward and start developing one-pointed concentration, which gives you much greater clarity and the opportunity to choose happiness no matter what situation you're in.
What are the benefits of meditation?
- Meditating stimulates the growth of new brain cells and grey matter, which makes us smarter and helps counteract some of the mental effects of aging.
- The new grey matter formed in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus by meditating helps to improve your long-term memory.
- Meditation effectively makes you less reactive to stressful situations. That means your overall anxiety levels can decrease over time. Some people were able to decrease the amount of stress hormones in their bodies just by daily meditation.
What are some of the main types of meditation?
In the late 1950's, an Indian teacher named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to London and started teaching his now trademarked method, Transcendental Meditation, or "TM." Many band members from the Beatles became his students and were some of the first celebrities who began making it a famous technique.
While each student must receive instructions in person, tailored to their needs, the practice is essentially sitting quietly and repeating a Vedic mantra for 20 minutes, both in the morning and evening. With TM, you get more personal instruction and membership privileges to meditate with your local TM group.
Many different methods fall under the umbrella of guided visualization. One of the most famous is the Guided Imagery method. What they all have in common is that they are very active, often taking you on a journey through your mind by making you follow a script that can help you forgive yourself and others, open your heart, relax more or just learn more about what you're really seeking to become more happy. It's great if you have a good imagination.
This Chinese system of natural healing includes physical exercises, meditation and breathing control, which has many similarities to Tai Chi. Here, the movements themselves are meditation. There are five basic types of Qigong. Medical Qigong teaches how to heal yourself and others by balancing your body's natural flow of energy.
Martial Arts Qigong trains you to protect your body from attacks while fighting and how to use your Qi in battle against your enemies. Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian schools have also come up, integrating Qigong's physical aspects with a more spiritual focus on enlightenment according to the teachings of their respective masters. Overall, Qigong is great to calm your mind when you're feeling very restless and hyperactive.
The concept of mindfulness -- or full awareness in all thoughts, words and actions -- is a very ancient philosophy common among Buddhists, Hindus and almost every spiritual culture around Southeast Asia. Even the Native Americans practiced a mindful meditation of walking on the ground "like you're softly stepping on your sacred mother." This kind of meditation is very obvious in the practice of "Vipassana," where you sit and observe the sensations in every part of your body as well as your breath for hours at a time.
Metta is a Pali word that means kindness, benevolence, and good will. This practice comes from the Buddhist traditions, especially the Theravada and Tibetan lineages. “Compassion meditation” is a contemporary scientific field that demonstrates the efficacy of metta and related meditative practices.
Demonstrated benefits include: boosting one’s ability to empathize with others; development of positive emotions through compassion, including a more loving attitude towards oneself; increased self-acceptance; greater feeling of competence about one’s life; and increased feeling of purpose in life (read more in our other post).
How to do it: One sits down in a meditation position, with closed eyes, and generates in his mind and heart feelings of kindness and benevolence. Start by developing loving-kindness towards yourself, then progressively towards others and all beings. Usually this progression is advised:
- a good friend
- a “neutral” person
- a difficult person
- all four of the above equally
- and then gradually the entire universe
The feeling to be developed is that of wishing happiness and well-being for all. This practice may be aided by reciting specific words or sentences that evoke the “boundless warm-hearted feeling”, visualizing the suffering of others and sending love; or by imagining the state of another being, and wishing him happiness and peace.
For both of these meditation practices, the most important point is to sit in a way that your spine remains straight and you feel relaxed. Don't lean against a wall because it will make you sleepy, causing you to lose your ability to focus.
Meditate on pure expansiveness.
Close your eyes and mentally state an intention like "I want to feel peace within myself that expands out to the entire world." Say a short prayer if you like. Then just pretend you are watching your thoughts as if they are a TV show. Let your thoughts play like children. Notice them, observe them and let each thought go its own way. You can imagine that each thought goes into a bubble and blows away. After a few minutes, you can start to perceive a vast, calm space behind all these thoughts. Focus on that open space.
Do the inner chanting of "So-Hum" meditation.
This practice is best to do alone in a quiet place. Take a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Now breathe normally and watch your breath for a minute. Count the seconds as you breathe until you reach 60 seconds. Now chant the Sanskrit syllable "Aum," also written as "Om," three times aloud. This sacred sound purifies the mind. Now feel the vibration of the sound "Aum" inside you. Inhale and imagine chanting "So." Then exhale and imagine chanting "Hum." With every breath, inhale to the sound of "So" in your mind and exhale to the sound of "Hum" in your mind. Repeat for as long as you can until your breathing naturally slows down quite a lot. After a long time, you'll feel the inner sounds slip away, and you'll be able to concentrate on the pure silence left behind.
Five practical tips for meditation
- Find a buddy to meditate with once in a while. It's easier to focus on meditating when you're sitting nearby someone else who is also meditating. You don't even need to both be doing the same kind of meditation. That doesn't matter. Just having both of you focused and concentrated on meditating and sitting in the same room is enough to give you both a much better experience.
- Pick something to focus on. If you don't, you could drown in your thoughts. Example of things to focus on are: a candle flame, one star in the night sky, the smell of incense or even a constant sound such as ocean waves or a fan in the room. Some Native Americans meditate on just the sound of steady drum beats in ceremonies.
- Meditate in the morning, shortly after you wake up. The best scenario is to get up just a little bit early, take a quick shower and then sit down and meditate before checking your phone, before reading the emails, before jumping into your day. If you just commit to doing this every day, the entire rest of your day will feel more calm, peaceful and wonderful.
- Start meditating for very short amounts of time. Keep it simple and easy in the beginning. You can very gradually increase the amount of time that you're sitting as you feel comfortable. For example, if you really love it, then you could sit for five minutes more each day. For most people, it would be better to increase the amount of time you're sitting per week rather than per day.
- Take some time at least once a month and go to a nice, quiet place that you really like, preferably in nature. Spend some time where you can just turn off your phone and have no disturbances. Be away from everyone and everything. Make it a little meditation retreat day. You can meditate and read a nice book about mindfulness. This break will give you some much-needed time to go a little bit deeper into your meditations and recharge your battery.
Give it a try and discover how much happiness can come from truly "unplugging" with a good meditation practice.
About the Author: Suzanne Leopold started Living Mavens in 2016 to share some of the products and techniques that help her focus inward and transform her life. With over 15 years of exploring energy and manifesting modalities, she is passionate about creating a life she loves and sharing her discoveries with others. To learn more on how to consciously create a life you love, go to www.livingmavens.com