So you have heard about the endless benefits meditation provides especially for those who suffer from anxiety or depression. Perhaps you have attempted it on your own or by following an online guide. However, has anyone actually explained why it is good and how it is actually going to help you? Let’s be honest, how often do you pursue anything in life without knowing why you are doing it or what you are hoping to accomplish? Read on as I provide you with a lay persons overview that you might find incredibly helpful in your journey to inner peace.
If you have read some of my other articles, you know that I am not an expert in anything. What I do offer though, is a refreshing insight into issues that may seem obvious on the surface but leave you scratching your head a short while later. Similar to why I wrote about the unspoken relationship between breathing and anxiety, the idea of why exactly meditation works is often skipped over in favor of diving in to the actual process. While the thousands of videos and articles preach of HOW to meditate can be beneficial, it helps to understand the concept behind the process prior to jumping in.
Let me start by saying, meditation is meant to return your mind to it’s original state. This one statement alone should ease the burden we place on ourselves when embarking on such an adventure. Your goal is to simply revert back to what your brain does best, not rewrite it or try to elevate to some super-human level. Alternatively, this may seem as a daunting challenge but have patience and see why this is far from the truth. The key throughout this is simplicity. Once we make something complicated, we tend to lose faith.
When we are born, our brains are fine tuned and function as designed. Life was far less complexed and consisted of eating, sleeping, reproducing all the while remaining alive. It is only with the passage of time and introduction of external stimulus that changes occur, some good, some not so good. This de-evolution may start out innocently in young children but can grow into more significant problems as we mature. Pause for one moment: At this point in the conversation, things can become a little murky as we transition between the physical “brain” and abstract “mind”. Again, lets not complicate this and just agree that there is going to be some grey area. But in general, when I say “brain”, I mean a neuron or frontal lobe whereas, “mind” is what we see internally. Continuing on, our brains will change throughout our lives to some degree. For some, these adaptations are hardly perceptible and for others, it as if the coding has become completely scrambled. Andy Puddicombe, a Buddhist monk on Netflix’s “Headspace” series, describes this best. Imagine viewing a highway from the side of the road. For those whose “coding” is unchanged, the road is a few orderly cars moving left to right. For the unfortunate, the road is a frenzy of cars of different sizes and colors, horns honking, moving back and forth without pause. Now, replace those cars with your thoughts and you can start to imagine where meditation comes into play.
I am going to assume that most of those still reading are of the unfortunate group and are seeking a tranquil country road in lieu of the chaotic highway. Don’t worry, you are not alone as most lives are full of excessive stimulation, stress and drama. For many, this is more of an annoyance and energy drain, leaving us tired and moody. However, it is amidst this internal chaos where the fine line between reality and fiction can become dangerously blurred, giving birth to anxiety and depression. Left unchecked, our brains can become so lost in activity that “what if” thoughts come to dominate. What if they think I am awkward? What if I forget to turn the stove off? On an on, these thoughts run wild and morph into fictitious stories that your brain perpetuates on it’s own, no longer programmed to rest when not needed. Again, It was much more simple when we only needed to eat, sleep, reproduce and stay alive.
This is the “why” when considering if meditation is right for us. The next question is “how” does meditation help us. This leads into the complex biology of neurons, brain receptors and the critical role hormones such as serotonin and dopamine play in regulating moods. I am not a neural scientist and have no intent to explain this in detail. However, in the era of YouTube, everyone wants to be heard and this includes people with far more knowledge and qualifications than myself. If you want to learn more, seek them out and do your own due diligence. Regardless, you can feel comfort in knowing that research verifies the effect meditation has on our brain. This includes physical changes to our brains as it reverts to it’s original programming. If you do decide to research this further, you will start seeing the connections between holistic approaches like meditation, existing therapeutics such as SSRI’s and current research into the potential life-changing benefits of psilocybin, better known as “magic mushrooms.”
Focusing on meditation, you now have the “how ” and “why” and need to plan your next steps. For those who are suffering from mental illness, you should never stop medications without the consent of your physician. Better yet, take advantage of the clarity they can offer and use that time to begin engaging the benefits of mindfulness. Think of the medication as a temporary off-ramp, siphoning half of the cars off your highway, allowing you the respite needed to begin the process.
When you do decide to start meditating, understand that it is not easy. For those with active minds, you will need patience in learning how to slow your thoughts. My advice is to try multiple methods and take what works from each, put them together and faithfully practice. Research has shown that physiological changes can begin occurring after 30 days, so stick to it and do not let slow progress deter you. For beginners and intermediates, your goal is to watch and slow your thoughts, not clear them away. Imagine again, a busy highway and trying to stop the cars all at once. Instead, watch one car move left to right, then another. Eventually the cars will be seen as individuals, no longer part of a chaotic cluster. Soon, as your mind recognizes the random thoughts, there will be fewer and fewer and at times, none.
- Focusing on breathing during meditation is extremely popular but may not be right for you. As an alternative, try visualizing/touching an object, repeating a phrase or mantra, or stare beyond your closed eyelids. The key is to find something you can bring your focus back when your mind wanders.
- Release any tension your carrying as you prepare to meditate. Focus on your shoulders, neck, cheeks, forehead, back, legs and wherever else it resides. A quick cheat is to clench the muscle for a few seconds and then release. By the way, do this all day, every day!
- Try meditating with your eyes open if closing them is difficult. Find an object such as a leaf on a tree, and watch the movement in the breeze, its color change in the sun, etc. Using you eyes and ears will help you from becoming distracted by too many thoughts.
- Do not fight thoughts from occurring! Your job is to recognizing when a thought develops, not stop it. Over time, when your mind wanders, you will acknowledge it quickly, slow it and gently return your focus. Meditation does not require force or effort, just acceptance.
- Silence is intimidating so try adding soft background music or meditate outdoors where everyday sounds will provide a distraction from the difficult task of calming an active mind. The stimulus can also be physical such as the bobbing of a float in a pool or warmth of the sun.
- Stop thinking that meditating means sitting with your legs crossed, straight back and hands clasped. Get comfortable and don’t worry if you fall asleep on occasion. With experience your brain will learn to separate sleep time from meditating and for those naysayers, there is a difference.
- Bored? For a change of pace, try meditating while you walk, shower or exercise. Remember, meditating is being mindful of your thoughts and this can be accomplished in many different ways. If remaining still uncomfortably increases your minds activity, try “moving mindfulness” as described below. I guarantee there is something that works for you.
- Most importantly, do not set time limits. It is VERY difficult to quiet ones mind and the added pressure of timing yourself will be too daunting. A quick 5 minute break in the middle of the day is far better than forcing yourself to endure 30 minutes of frustration.
- Lastly, a mind will wander and that is expected. It is quite healthy to have an imagination and entertain an occasional, fanciful thought such as winning the lottery. The key is to not cross the line where wandering thoughts become story time. Your brain is not meant to be entertainment. When that happens, gently pull back, return your focus to the ground beneath your steps, the sounds surrounding you and any other stimulus that is occurring at that moment. If you want entertainment, read a book!
- Do not entertain “what if” thoughts or fictional stories (daydreaming). These are almost certain to never come true, so stop listening to them. When you recognize your mind telling a story, let it go.
- Limit far-fetched daydreaming as your brain cannot always differentiate the good and bad narratives. You may encourage the good as they stimulate creativity but in the case of depression, the bad stories can be perpetuated as well. With a wandering mind and not-so-perfect level of serotonin, it is best to keep a wrap on how much daydreaming you undertake and return your thoughts to the moment when you are done.
- Letting Go. Anything that makes you feel bad, let it go. This process can be done with negative thoughts, anxious thoughts, repetitive thoughts, worries, etc. When you recognize they are occurring, say the words “Let It Go.”
- Moving Mindfulness: Focus on the here and now (awareness). For example, when washing dishes, focus only on the process. I have a sponge, I am spreading bubbles across the plate, I am rinsing the plate, the water is warm, the soap is rinsing off… This will help teach your brain to focus on the moment, not wandering.
Let these come naturally and appreciate the stillness that may start as a few seconds but can grow into minutes. The further your mind slows, the more your brain will revert to it’s original purpose.