What is meditation? Tracing the roots from age-old tradition
By dictionary definition, meditation means to reflect, ponder, or contemplate. But these actions can look different from person to person, and as such, meditation is much more.
Today’s modern iteration of mindfulness meditation is derived from a tradition first depicted in ancient Indian wall art dating back to 5,000 BC. When meditation got its start, Indian sage Patanjali referred to it as a transformative experience of fundamental unity, advaita, designed to help humans find the interconnectedness of all living things.
The practice of meditation was then adapted as a staple in other cultures, eventually finding its way to Buddhist teachings. Buddhists emphasized the mindful and personal aspects of meditation, focusing on the practice’s ability to affect two major qualities of the mind: vipassana (“insight”), a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens, and samatha (“mind calming”), a state of calm and tranquility that can be experienced throughout the body.
Modern Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield is one of the key teachers who integrated these original teachings of vipassana and samatha, developing mindfulness meditation, which is practiced widely today. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of acknowledging the conflicting thoughts in your brain and then choosing where you’d like to focus your thoughts. You can learn to observe the thoughts as they appear and take note of any patterns or sensations that come up in the body.
The goal is not to empty your mind; it’s to understand and take control of how your thoughts contribute to the way you feel. This can help you live more consciously outside your practice, instilling mindfulness, alertness, and awareness.
With a long-winded history and a lengthy list of benefits, meditation can touch every facet of your life. We’re going to break down how meditation can impact your life and why it could be beneficial to your health to start implementing a daily practice.
Mindfulness meditation can help you calm the clutter in your mind.
The stream of thoughts and questions that cross your mind daily can be overwhelming: I’m struggling to focus at work. Am I drinking enough water? Did the kids finish their homework? I’m worried about tomorrow’s deadlines.
None of these thoughts or questions are inherently bad, but when you’re overwhelmed and consumed by these daily stressors, it’s hard to feel like you can gain control over them to operate more calmly and efficiently. Sometimes, the best way to calm down is to take a step back from your checklist and find a moment to quiet your mind with a meditative practice. We know it’s easier said than done! It takes practice to learn how to effectively use meditation to begin reaping the benefits.
During this pandemic, there are even more stressors and uncertainties adding to our typical anxieties. Meditation is an amazing tool that can be used to alleviate some of this stress. It’s the perfect opportunity to recharge your brain and find quiet away from high-pressure situations.
The benefits of meditation can manifest in improved overall health.
Physical and mental stressors can elevate levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. These chemicals further contribute to fatigue, issues with sleep, and general anxiety and depression. A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that mindful meditation reduced the inflammatory response, helping those who practice find relief from psychological and physical symptoms of distress.
Another study found that meditation can help people find calmness and alleviate anxiety, helping activate a better connection to our autonomic nervous system, the system responsible for our heart rate, digestion, and the “fight or flight” response. By practicing meditation, we can activate the neural structures involved in the control of this system, allowing the body to learn how to calm itself more efficiently.
When it comes to cognitive benefits, meditation and breathing exercises can help sharpen your mind and strengthen your focus while conducting tasks. A study by Trinity College Dublin determined a link between meditative breathing and the natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical acts as a “brain fertilizer” that is released when we are feeling challenged, curious, or focused.
Ready to start reaping the benefits of meditation? Read on for our tips and recommendations for starting a meditation practice:
1) Just go for it.
Your environment is never going to be “just right” for you to get started. There may always be noise coming from outside your window. You may never be able to set up that dreamy meditation studio in your home.
Meditation may seem daunting, appearing to be a practice best completed in front of a picture-perfect sunset or amid a serene ocean backdrop while sitting in a perfect lotus pose. While our senses and surroundings do contribute to relaxation, the “perfect” environment is not necessary to get started.
Before you begin, choose a guide or teacher to direct you through your meditation practice. We suggest an online meditation app like Calm* or Headspace* or any teacher of your choice.
Once you’ve found your guide, find a comfortable seat, perhaps on a sofa or in an arm chair, and commit to taking a couple of minutes out of your day to breathe. Whether you have your feet on the floor, are lying on your back, or are sitting cross-legged, you should make sure to keep a straight spine and sit in a spot that is clear of immediate physical distractions.
2) Practice extended focus.
Now that you’ve done the foundation work of carving out a few minutes each day to simply breathe, it’s time to practice real focus. For those of us running through our days on autopilot, this can be a difficult task. Our minds are accustomed to drifting from thought to thought, and you may find you need to consciously pull yourself back to the current moment multiple times.
As you listen to your guide or meditate on your own, try to focus on your breath in order to keep from fidgeting or feeling anxious about the next step. Remember that your mind does not have an off switch. The challenge here is to accept the thoughts that are coming up, observe them for what they are, and return to your state of mindfulness.
Some guides suggest using mantra meditation, a mental thought or repetition that can bring a sense of calm and consistency to scattered minds. A mantra can include affirmative words, like love, light, and joy, or a chant, such as “Om.” Anxious minds can find some comfort in holding on to a mantra or phrase throughout a practice.
With consistent practice, one can eventually achieve dhyana, a state of uninterrupted focus and awareness.
3) Notice your breath and the sensations it causes in your body.
Breath is at the center of mindful meditation. By allowing yourself to notice your breath, you gain a heightened awareness that contributes to both your physical and mental well-being. The key is to breathe naturally, observing the nuances of your inhales and exhales as well as the sensations they cause in the body as the breath moves through your chest, rib cage, belly, and shoulders.
You may find yourself becoming more aware of how you are sitting, the temperature in the room, or even the texture of the cushion you are sitting on. These external factors contribute to how you feel and can help you find clarity in seeing everything as it is – vipassana. As you notice these sensations, you can practice achieving a calming awareness – samatha, peacefully abiding and breathing as is.
Once you’re comfortable with your natural breathing rhythm, you may want to try deep breathing techniques to further your practice. There are two basic types of breathing: chest and diaphragmatic. Chest breathing is an automatic response to stressful situations or exertion, while diaphragmatic breathing, the deep breathing method used in kundalini yoga, is a technique used to reach relaxation.
In practicing the kundalini technique, the goal is to expand the reach of your breath and energy to all areas of the body. According to the Cleveland Clinic, diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient way to take in more air more easily, ultimately using less energy and effort to breathe properly.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also a great practice for those who suffer from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as it can help you force out the air buildup in your lungs and increase oxygen flow in your blood. It also helps regulate your autonomic nervous system, regulating blood pressure and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol – altogether relaxing the body.
Another well-known deep breathing exercise, created by IIN visiting teacher Dr. Andrew Weil, is the 4-7-8 technique, where one breathes in through the nose for four seconds, holds the breath for seven seconds, and exhales audibly for eight seconds. This practice can help you not only physically relax but also learn to balance your breath intake as you breathe deeper in order to exhale more purposefully.
However you choose to practice your breath, allow your mind to stay conscious and supportive of your practice.
4) Don’t judge yourself for “not doing it right.”
As you practice mindfulness and conscious breathing techniques, you may find yourself doubting the effectiveness of your practice. As you can tell from the abundance of techniques and teachings, there is no one “right” way to meditate.
Often, the judgments we make of ourselves are based on stories, or samsakras, that we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe. Perhaps you’ve tripped during a yoga class or tried meditating once but were unable to sit still. Your subconscious can take this information and label yourself as “too clumsy” or “too fidgety” to meditate. This is a habit reaction and an internal story that contributes to unnecessary judgment.
Meditation is a personal, individualized, and introspective practice; it’s also a chance to practice self-compassion. If you find yourself judging your capabilities, observe the thought, take note of how it makes you feel, and exhale it out of your consciousness.
5) Appreciate the work you did and be kind to yourself!
Remember to close your practice with kindness. This is your moment to show gratitude for yourself and bring the mindfulness that you’ve cultivated into the next action of your day. Perhaps that action is enjoying your first sips of morning coffee, noticing the sun shining through your window, or mindfully stepping into your clothes for the day.
When you are kind to yourself, this kindness can translate into the energy you put out into the world. Your mindful practice and commitment to your own health will likely have a positive effect on the way you show up in your relationships and interact with family and friends. As you have taken the time to de-stress, you allowed yourself to recharge and find energy to extend kindness to others. This can be as simple as setting up a date with your spouse, checking in on an old friend, or helping a coworker with a tight deadline.
Now it’s time to bring your meditation practice to life.
We could all use a bit more mindfulness and clarity right now. If you’ve never tried meditation but have always wanted to, let this be your sign to finally say yes and try something new! You may be surprised by its impact on many aspects of your daily and weekly routine.
Remember that you are not your thoughts. Our feelings of stress are temporary and situational, and incorporating a mindfulness meditation practice is meant to help you explore new techniques to accept, understand, and move through the feelings you are experiencing in a calmer, kinder way.
At IIN, you’ll find that meditative practice is encouraged as part of one of our core concepts – primary food. Primary food – the things that nourish you off the plate – is equally important to food in sustaining and fueling us. Meditation can fulfill our spiritual and emotional needs, nurturing our spirit and contributing to a holistic health mind-set.
If you want to learn more about becoming a Health Coach so that can create positive health outcomes in your community and beyond, click here to learn more about our Health Coach Training Program.