Science of Meditation

‘The more modern science and the ancient science of mind come together and work together, the more our knowledge will be expanded. Then eventually we can educate humanity on the importance of our inner world, our mind, in order to promote peaceful families, a peaceful society and a peaceful world.’ – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Meditation and Mindfulness seems to be the buzz word at the moment whether it is in the media, every wellness magazine or at your local yoga class. The number of people practicing meditation is increasing exponentially, and I am no exception. It has not been an easy journey and it has taken me over 5 years to get the hang of it, but I am happy to say I am a regular meditator. In principle meditation is easy; close your eyes breathe and focus on quietening your mind. In reality, it can be really hard to get to that state where your mind is completely relaxed, but it is worth the effort.

There are many benefits associated with meditation and it is well documented in the psychotherapy world, and it is also increasingly being encouraged in the corporate world to promote overall wellness and productivity of employees. I work at a large bank and we have a monthly meditation sessions running across quite a few sites across the UK. For me this is not just an indication of the popularity of meditation, but an indication of the vast benefits of meditation.

Defining Meditation

Origins of meditation is often thought of as arising from ancient Eastern traditions including Buddhist and Hindu practices, but there are also evidence of meditative techniques in the west as far back as 20 BC. The best way to describe meditation is as state of thoughtless awareness. There are varieties of meditation techniques and practices, although some inevitably does involve sitting crossed legged and chatting, others most often involves sitting comfortably and focusing on breathing, and they do all have a common goal; to slow down, and eventually, stop the constant stream of cluttered thoughts and activities of our mind so you are left with pure awareness of the current moment, the NOW. For those who are more spiritually inclined, this is the point where you are often thought to connect with your higher self or the universe.

Neuroscience of Meditation

There have been several studies into the benefits of meditation, as far back as 1950’s and gaining more momentum in the last few decades as branches of science such as positive psychology have been established. There are clear evidence that long term meditation changes the structure of the brain including noticeable thicker cortex in areas processing attention, introspection (observation of one’s mental state) and sensory processing.

A study by Holzel et al., (2011) showed that meditation lead to increased brain tissue in the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory, as well as reduction in the amygdala, region connected with stress and anxiety.

Modern technology such as functional MRI scans have shown that meditative states have impact on our brain waves including reduction of beta waves (thinking state) which means that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would, therefore becoming more relaxed mentally and physically.

Other studies have also shown that people who mediated regularly had stronger activation of the brain that is associated with empathy and therefore leading more compassion.

one beautiful asian woman naked sitting with petal flowers in silhouette studio isolated on white background

 

Wellness and Meditation

The list of benefits arising from continuous practice of mediation is vast and I have picked out a few that stood out for me:

  • Boosts your immune system – studies have even shown that mediation type relaxation can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence and help in reducing infections.
  • Increase physical healing – known to help in post-operative healing.
  • Emotional Balance – i.e. Meditation can make you happier by increasing positive emotions and reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Helps to build better relationships – by building compassion and increasing emotional wellbeing.
  • Increases focus by improving attention and increasing memory.

Meditation and Law of Attraction

Meditation can be a really useful tool in the manifestation process of the law of attraction. When you want to attract something in your life that you desire, meditative state is perhaps the best point to connect with the universe at a subconscious level. A lot of ‘new thought’ thinkers point to ‘theta’ waves as the key to the optimal brain state where you can manifest your desires. Theta state is the deep relaxation light sleep stage often used in hypnosis to reach the trance-like state. If you can control this state, then you have heighten ability to focus and concentrate, giving you the ability to re-programme your thinking by visualisation and re-affirming your desires.

Tips for Meditation

  1. Start with choosing the right time and convenient place; perhaps early mornings and somewhere really quite and comfortable
  2. Make sure you are sitting comfortably – spine straight and feet firmly on the ground is sufficient. You don’t have to sit crossed legged if it is not comfortable!
  3. Start with the breath – Breathing deeply slows the heart rate, relaxes the muscles, focuses the mind and is an ideal way to begin practice
  4. Meditate with Purpose – meditation is an active process and focusing your attention on single point can help; perhaps meditating to be more compassionate or meditating for general wellbeing
  5. Notice your frustrations – don’t simply try and ignore it as it is more likely to become a larger thought; so notice and then let go by focusing on your breath or the sounds around you.
  6. Small steps in the right direction can go a long way – some people click to meditation like ‘duck to water’ but others may take a longer journey to a get to a point where they can confidently say they can meditate. The key is to keep practicing; even if it is just for few minutes a day.
  7. Experiment – try different types of meditation practices; perhaps a read a book on meditation; download a meditation app or attend a local class! Different methods work for different people.

‘Quite the mind, and the soul will speak’ – Ma Jaya Bhagavati

Advertisements

Practical Mind Tools: Mindfulness

The concept of mindfulness has taken off in a big way in recent years from medical psychology field as part of mental wellbeing therapies including mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to the corporate world, where numerous mindfulness based courses are popping up to improve productivity and enhance business success. What is mindfulness and how can it be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to wellness and success?

For me the elegance of mindfulness is the simplicity of the concept; paying attention to the current moment.  That means switching off from your ‘auto-pilot’ mode and paying attention to your current thoughts, feelings, or the world around you without judgement. Although mindfulness goes in hand in hand with meditation, unlike meditation, the beauty of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at any time by anyone and without any prior knowledge or skill set.

IMG_6621

Mindfulness example: Mindful showering

Next time you take a shower, pay full attention to taking a shower and try and use all your senses to pay attention; feel the water on your skin; sense the temperature of the water; smell the soap or shampoo; hear the water trickle down and watch the lather of the soap. Whatever you do, pay full attention to having the shower. Chances are half way though your mind will start to wonder and think about plans for the rest of the day or the chores that you need to get done still, but try to gently bring it back to the present moment and focus once again on your senses and paying attention to what you are doing.

Mindfulness is not actually a new concept; along with meditation practices it is rooted in two and half thousand year old eastern traditions. The reason for recent popularity is perhaps due to numerous medical and psychology studies into the practice which has shown benefits for those suffering with mental ailments including stress, anxiety, depression and medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic pain. By practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, you can improve your stress levels (mindfulness has shown to decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol), improve attention span, memory, mental reliance and much more as it has even proven to change the actual structure of your brain.

Mindfulness example: Mindful eating

By far this is one of my favourite mindfulness exercises and this is to eat a chocolate mindfully! Pick your favourite bar of chocolate and aim is to savour it and eat it mindfully as you can. Look very closely at the wrapper in your hand as you open it; smell the chocolate; feel the texture of the chocolate in your hand; feel the texture as it melts; take a small bite and savour it in your mouth; try and taste all the subtle notes of the chocolate from the sweetness to the slight bitterness of the chocolate. The more time you take to eat the chocolate, the better.

Of course, one of the most popular methods of practicing mindfulness is mindful-meditation and there are loads of good books, websites, blogs,  and even mediation apps that take you through this practice. Some of my favourite are:

  • BOOK: Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world – by Prof Mark Williams (Author) and Dr Danny Penman (Author)
  • APP: Headspace Meditation App

Having read about mindfulness and meditation about 10 years or so ago, I have only been getting to grips with mindfulness in the last few years. One of the reasons for my slow uptake is the fact that even though mindfulness is the easiest concept to understand, it is the hardest concept to put in practice, but like anything in life, it becomes easier with practice and the more you practice the better you will become to paying attention to your life. After all practice makes ‘profound changes’! (see previous post!)

“You learn something every day if you pay attention” Ray LeBlond