Whenever meditation is brought up in casual conversations, the average person will often times find their mind involuntarily wandering to imagined scenes of Asian monks seated in temples or atop mountains. While there is some truth in associating mediation with monks – individuals who are often cited as being embodiments of both spiritual and religious energies – these techniques are far more than that beneath the surface.
In reality, meditation techniques are fundamentally far more than the general perceived notions. Meditation exists as a fundamental means of relaxation; attaining greater levels of cognizance; heightening your mind’s perceptive abilities; and simply finding yourself. In the same way that we try to strengthen and maintain our physical health by jogging and lifting weights; each of us should try to strengthen and maintain the health of our mind as well.
This is important because just like two sides of a coin, physical and mental health might seem like polar opposites; however, they are far more interconnected that you could ever believe. A healthy mind fosters the growth of a healthy body and vice versa as well. If strengthening your mental health is what you truly desire, meditation is one of the best ways that to achieve it.
While the clichéd trope of meditating monks has long since been exploited by various forms of western media over the years, it is only quite recently that these practices have somewhat stopped being viewed as “ mumbo jumbo”. Buddhists have, for many years, studied, learned and taught meditation and the numerous benefits that these techniques hold.
It is only of late that these meditative techniques have started to get a foothold in the US and the rest of the western world and as a result, scientific studies have been commissioned to gain a better understanding. Through these studies, researchers and scientists have been able to outline and explain the short and long-term effects that meditation has on the human brain. Some of these observable and definite effects are as follows:
So much for being “mumbo jumbo”.
Science! Gray matter in the brain is a truly remarkable and quite useful; correspondingly, it has been seen that meditation can actually increase gray matter considerably in the brain. This increase has been observed in specific regions that are linked to memory functions,sensory perception, speech, muscle control and even emotions. In fact, the Laboratory for the Neuroscientific Investigation of Meditation and Mind-Body Medicine, located at the Massachusetts General Hospital, performed a study that showed that by simply meditating for 30 minutes daily for two months, patients had greater gray matter density. This was especially seen in the hippocampus, the section of the brain that is largely linked to memory and learning, among other things.
Subsequent brain scans that were carried out on these same participants highlighted significant decreases in gray matter within the amygdala, a sector that is known to be associated with stress and anxiety, among other things. It has furthermore been confidently theorized that recurrent mindfulness (via meditation of course) can cause a significant reduction in the diminishing of the frontal cortex. While this is usually age related it can also be caused by mental defects as well, lessening this diminishing can mean less absentmindedness and amnesia.
Another study that case carried out in 2012 showed that individuals who meditated frequently showed fewer signs of being in danger of having a stroke and/or heart attack. It was also observed that patients who suffered from chronic pain and depression had significantly reduced levels of distress related to their conditions. Whether or not the benefits of meditation are “all in your head” can be debated, but one thing is certain; there are concrete benefits to be had.
In addition to the numerous aforementioned benefits, there are several somewhat immeasurable ways that simple meditation can enhance and develop the life of an individual. Even though there is no mechanical gauge that can measure a person’s level of overall happiness (not yet anyway), individuals who have taken to meditation for years or even months have vouched that it has indeed made them “happier”.
Meditation experts have also agreed with this mindset, virtually all of them say that by making meditation a part of your daily life you are opening the door to a better, happier life. This can be viewed by how individuals interact with people in their lives, how they react to events in their day to day lives, and simply how they choose to approach life and the world around them.
Many individuals have simply testified; that by meditating they feel enveloped with a wave of calming force that allows them to take on their daily tasks. This is not new to Buddhists (why would it be) and over the years they have come to refer to it as equanimity – acceptance of life as it is.
Vipassana, in principle referred to as mindful meditation, it thought to be the literal center of Buddhist meditative practices. More colloquially referred to as “the art of living”, it is the most broadly practiced method of meditation in a large portion of Asia. It is believed that it is here that we truly awaken, become able to live more affectionately and more astutely by discovering our true selves.
As a beginner on the journey that is meditation you should, first and foremost seek out a place with the minimal amount of sensory distractions and possible disturbances. Then using a device with a timer – your smartphone will do – set a timer for anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes, whatever amount of time you can both handle and spare (you can even go for longer if you desire). Next find a seat, whether it be the floor or a chair just make sure you are comfortable; your shoulders should be relaxed and your body upright. Soften the belly, open the chest and finally rest your hands on your knees.
Now you are ready. Close your eyes and (without trying to make too much of a conscious effort to direct it) focus on your breathing, only paying attention to your breathing’s natural movements. Whenever your mind starts to stray away in thought you should not fret; your breath should serve as your anchor to your meditation and the present, your means of banishing these stray thoughts.
Counting your breath is a way that beginners can learn to find their focus in meditation, simply count one breath in and one breath out, continuing until you reach ten and start the cycle over again. In time counting should not be necessary.
Images, mantras and even sounds can be used. The reason behind using breath is that it is “universal”; we all have access to it and it can be used virtually anywhere. There are numerous meditative techniques and as such you are encouraged to experiment until you find what works for you.
While meditating you can possibly start to encounter personal feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, and of course boredom. Do not shy away from them. Instead you should acknowledge these feelings and then peacefully let them go. Do not get overwhelmed by your expectation of what meditation should be or if you are doing it correct. Simply meditate.
Don’t be overly focused avoiding your mind wandering, simply bring it back to meditation when it does choose to wander (as a beginner a wandering mind is unavoidable). Then when your timer beeps or rings, simply open your eyes to the world and go about your day. Over time the changes will be noticeable.
No matter how experienced or inexperienced you are at least one thing should remain constant: you should meditate daily. If you think that your day is too hectic then simply start your regimen of with a humble two minutes daily and work your way up from there.
Compared to lifting weights or bench pressing, meditation can be mistaken for being a walk in the park. Make no mistake, meditation is hard work that requires dedication to perform and practice to “perfect”. However, like playing the guitar or riding a bike, the more dedicated you are the easier it will become and believe me, the rewards are very real.
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