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The science behind meditation

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In this post we’ll explore why meditation could be beneficial in your life, the research to support its benefits and how you can easily incorporate it into your life.

Prolonged stress takes it’s toll

These days with the Internet, smart phones, and the notion that we need to be unequivocally available for work I’m sure we can all relate to feelings of anxiety and work fatigue. Stress and anxiety can both psychologically and physically harm us by increasing our chances of heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders as well as causing us to lose mental clarity, decisiveness and drive. Stress is of course a normal reaction to difficulties and can sometimes be beneficial, so it should not be our aim to completely eliminate it. My opinion is rather than attempting to get rid of stress completely, we should use tools such as healthy eating, exercise and lifestyles choices to keep our stress levels in check. Now I’m finding that maybe meditation and mindfulness techniques are useful and practical ways of reducing stress and staying healthy.

The evidence

By using MRI technology researchers at Harvard University found that meditation activates the part of the brain that governs the autonomic nervous system which is in charge of the functions in our bodies that we can’t control. These functions, like digestion and heart rate, have quite a lot of sway over how the rest of our bodies work. So it makes sense that affecting change in these functions would potentially affect change in our overall health.

The Maharashi study only studied participants using the Maharashi form of meditation which differs from other forms. See more info here.

 A study at the Maharishi School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, also found a decrease in the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ in people who started meditating* as well as decreased muscle tension, normalisation of blood pressure, increased autonomic stability, and increased electroencephalogram ability (a measurement of electrical activity of the brain).

Other studies have shown that a group of meditating individuals in their 50’s had a biological age 12 years younger than their chronological age. The study also showed that even people who took up the practice at the age of 80 lived longer and were more healthy and happy than those in a control group of the same age.

Studies by Jon Kabat-Zin showed that psoriasis patients who practiced mindfulness meditation while undergoing regular treatment recovered faster than a control group of patients who underwent the treatment without meditation. Collins and Dunn did a similar study concluding that patients suffering from dermatomyositis (a type of skin disease) recovered faster while using meditation and visualisation as it boosted their immune system. Meditation is also being studied in relation to the treatment of eczema and acne.

So though more research needs to be done on the subject it does stand to reason that bringing our minds and bodies into a calm state as a regular practice will reduce our stress levels which will in turn benefit our health and wellbeing.

The practicality of incorporating meditation into your daily routine

In our socio-economic conditions it is both impractical and unlikely that we are going to run off to become Buddhist monks, and meditation is commonly perceived as a time consuming task that must be done only under peaceful circumstances like within the walls of a temple or yoga lounge. But forms of meditation can be practiced within the frame of our modern lives in the office lunch room or even in your kitchen while washing up.

This is not a be all end all in-depth guide but simply an introduction to some of the key elements of meditation and my experience with introducing meditative techniques into my life.

So what actually is meditation?

To define meditation can be a tricky thing as it has been used by so many different cultures throughout the ages and can mean different things to different people.

The word meditation can be used to refer to techniques designed to promote relaxation, to receive psychic visions, to get closer to god, contact spiritual guides, take astral journeys, build internal energy (chi, ki, prana, etc.) and see past lives. It also can refer to the act of deep concentration of the moment and a quest for deeper awareness.

In his book, “What is Meditation?” Rob Nairn refers to it as a state of “bare attention.” He explains “It is a highly alert and skillful state of mind because it requires one to remain psychologically present and ‘with’ whatever happens in and around one without adding to or subtracting from it in any way.”

In this post we are referring to meditation as the clearing of ones mind by focusing wholly on the present action of the meditator while in a state of relaxation. This is a type of ‘mindfulness meditation’ which is a form of Buddhist meditation, the act of paying attention with purpose or being completely in the present moment without holding judgment. It is a useful tool that can help us lower our stress levels as well as gain a better ability to concentrate more completely.

The steps of mindfulness meditation or are simple.

1. Find a place that is both quiet and comfortable to sit or stand. Your posture is important so keep straight but not stiff.

2. Concentrate on putting aside all thoughts of the future and past and stay in the present.

3. Become aware of your breathing, focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body. Pay attention to the way your body feels.

4. Let thoughts come and go through your mind. Don’t fight to suppress them simply take a note of each thought and let them float away. Remain calm and in the present by using your breathing as a focus point to return to.

5. If you find yourself becoming engrossed in your thoughts, simply observe each thought without judgment and simply return focus to your breathing. There’s no need to feel like you are failing if this happens. Thoughts are a natural process so it will take time to get the hang of setting them aside.

6. When you reach the end of your session simply sit for a moment while becoming aware of your surroundings.

Apparently even just 10 minutes a day can create meaningful change in both your physiological and psychological wellbeing.

My attempt at meditating

As someone with a terrible track record for being still I’m very aware of how difficult it is to clear your mind and relax. In the past I have found it very stressful when thoughts start entering my head and felt as if I was failing. This stopped me from relaxing so I never felt that I’d truly reached a meditative state. Then the other day I read an article on mindfulness meditation that explained we shouldn’t worry when thoughts come into our minds but rather take note of the thoughts without judgment then let them float away.

So I chose an area in my apartment that I felt comfortable in. I got into position and straightened my posture then took three deep breaths, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. I then set my alarm clock for 10 minutes so I wouldn’t constantly be thinking about the time. As I’m a bit hyper I knew I wouldn’t be able to relax without it. I closed my eyes and focused on my physical presence. I then turned my focus back onto my breathing and tried to clear my mind. I imagined my thoughts as misty clouds drifting out to sea and my breath as the ocean rhythmically coming in and then rolling out again.

As thoughts continued to enter my mind I let them come and let them float away again without trying to control them. This time I did not feel stressed over the thoughts or consider them as failure and so I was able to reach a deeper state of relaxation.

Towards the end of my 10 minute session my thoughts turned towards feelings of boredom and I kept wondering when the 10 minutes would be up. I started to have thoughts that this was not working for me and had to actively stop myself from worrying. I forced these thoughts to drift away and focused back on my breathing. Surprisingly it was becoming harder and harder to focus on my breathing as more and more thoughts were entering my mind towards the last few minutes. I did feel a sense of contentment and relaxation but I didn’t really feel like I was reaching a level of deep meditation.

When the 10 minutes were up I open my eyes slowly and to my surprise I did feel extremely different. I had a light headed feeling though my body felt really heavy and grounded. I did not expect to feel this calm and relaxed as I felt that the meditation was not working at the time of doing it. I felt so relaxed it took me a few minutes to begin to move again. I started by taking in my surroundings and stretching and then took five more deep breaths while still in a state and tranquility.

Mindfulness practice post meditation

Afterwards I made myself a pot of tea with the idea that I would try the concept of mindfulness as used by psychologists. Mindfulness is a type of self-awareness training that has been adapted from Buddhist Mindfulness meditation and is used in psychology to treat a variety of disorders including depression, personality disorders and anxiety. The concept is to be aware of the present without holding judgement of it but just to observe. Mindful eating is where you sit down to eat and concentrate on nothing but your meal and the act of eating in the present moment. So as I spooned the tea leaves into the teapot I took in their scent and appearance. I chose an organic lose leaf tea and added some rosewater for flavour and fragrance to enhance the experience. I made an effort to focus on the act of preparing the tea, the rumble of the water heating, the gentle splashing of it pouring and swirling in the pot.

As I sipped my tea I noticed that all my senses seamed heightened. The fragrance and taste were absolutely amazing. The steam on my face felt ridiculously awesome and the heat of the tea was intense.

My tips for a successful meditation and mindfulness tea ritual

If you choose to follow your meditation with a pot of tea then my tip would be to prepare the tea pot and tea leaves, and milk or whatever you add before you begin meditating. I found that opening the fridge and container for the tea was jarring. I’d also suggest that if you do choose to use a timer then have a pleasant and calming piece of music to be the alarm to bring you around.

Making time for meditation

Obviously taking time out every day for meditation is quite difficult in many peoples lives these days as we’re all so busy, busy, busy. But where there’s a will there is a way!

In some countries where meditation is a common practice people just incorporate it into their every day activities. For example when they’re collecting crops or washing the dishes they use that time to meditate. The more you do it the easier it becomes.

Other micro-meditation techniques perfect for office life are 1 minute meditations. Simply turn away from your computer (or whatever you’re doing) and concentrate on one thing. I stare at the clock and block out everything but the second hand ticking away. It’s not as great as a longer meditation but I found it certainly reduces my stress levels. 

5 comments on “The science behind meditation

  1. Alex Solivais
    May 13, 2013

    As far as the Maharishi and Harvard studies go, were those conducted to research mindfulness meditation? I know the Maharishi School has done a number of studies on Transcendental Meditation, which is a whole different beast. Cortisol reduction is actually referenced during the traditional TM sales pitch, and they claim that TM is the only form of meditation to have that effect.

  2. Tom
    May 13, 2013

    Next article, please provide a hyperlink or at least a citation for those of us interested in continuing on your research path.

    Thank you for writing.

  3. Konrad
    May 13, 2013

    Great article! It was interesting and helpful.

    Would you mind citing your sources (the studies)? Thanks!

  4. Editor or Contributor
    May 13, 2013

    Hi all, thanks for commenting! I’ll add hyper-links to this article and put in some extra reading links. I also have some books I found useful on the subject so I’ll list them.

    Alex – yes the Maharishi school studied only a particular form of meditation that they have trademarked. I initially added this information but then deleted it as I didn’t want the article to get too long and confusing but I’ll add it in again as a side note. There are other studies that have come to the conclusion that other forms of meditation do effect cortisol levels though in my opinion all this info should be taken with a grain of salt as there may be many variables that aren’t mentioned.

    I believe if you feel mindfulness meditation benefits your life positively then do it. There’s enough evidence to suggest that it has a positive physical effect but like all scientific theories they are simply accepted as correct until they can be disproved.

    I’ll add further reading links asap though a lot of my research was from studies that may not be available on the web. I’ll still list them though.

    In the mean time I hope you found this article interesting and useful as a jumping off point.

  5. Pingback: Test Driving Mindfulness | NLP THIRTEEN

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This entry was posted on May 8, 2013 by in General Articles and tagged .
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