Practice of the Week
"Dedicating some time to meditation is a meaningful expression of caring for yourself that can help you move through the mire of feeling unworthy of recovery. As your mind grows quieter and more spacious, you can begin to see self-defeating thought patterns for what they are, and open up to other, more positive options." -Sharon Salzberg
Why to Meditate
From: "Benefits of Meditation," artofliving.org (original: HERE)
Physical Benefits of Meditation
With meditation, the physiology undergoes a change and every cell in the body is filled with more prana (energy). This results in joy, peace, enthusiasm as the level of prana in the body increases.
On a physical level, meditation:
- Lowers high blood pressure
- Lowers the levels of blood lactate, reducing anxiety attacks
- Decreases any tension-related pain, such as, tension headaches, ulcers, insomnia, muscle and joint problems
- Increases serotonin production that improves mood and behavior
- Improves the immune system
- Increases the energy level, as you gain an inner source of energy
Meditation brings the brainwave pattern into an Alpha state that promotes healing. The mind becomes fresh, delicate and beautiful. With regular practice of meditation:
- Anxiety decreases
- Emotional stability improves
- Creativity increases
- Happiness increases
- Intuition develops
- Gain clarity and peace of mind
- Problems become smaller
- Meditation sharpens the mind by gaining focus and expands through relaxation
- A sharp mind without expansion causes tension, anger and frustration
- An expanded consciousness without sharpness can lead to lack of action/progress
- The balance of a sharp mind and an expanded consciousness brings perfection
Other Benefits of Meditation
- Emotional steadiness and harmony. It cleanses and nourishes you from within and calms you, whenever you feel overwhelmed, unstable, or emotionally shut down.
- Meditation brings harmony in creation. When you meditate, you are in the space of vastness, calmness and joy and this is what you emit into the environment, bringing harmony to the Creation/planet.
- Personal Transformation. Meditation can bring about a true personal transformation. As you learn more about yourself, you’ll naturally start discovering more about yourself
To experience the benefits of meditation, regular practice is necessary. It takes only a few minutes every day. Once imbibed into the daily routine, meditation becomes the best part of your day!
Meditation is like a seed. When you cultivate a seed with love, the more it blossoms.
Busy people from all backgrounds are grateful to pause and enjoy a refreshing few minutes of meditation each day. Dive deep into yourself and enrich your life.
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Adapted from: Belle Beth Cooper, "What Happens to the Brain When You Meditate (And How It Benefits You)," Lifehacker.com (full original: HERE.)
I’ve found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what huge benefit it can have for my day to day happiness.
As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minutes per day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even thought two minutes won’t make much difference, that’s where I started.
What is Meditation?
There are different ways to meditate. Scientific research tends to focus on two:
Focused-attention, or mindful meditation, which is where you focus on one specific thing—it could be your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you. The point of this type of meditation is to focus strongly on one point and continually bring your attention back to that focal point when it wanders.
The other type of meditation that’s often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. This is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you—you simply notice everything without reacting.
What Happens in Your Brain When You Meditate
This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session if we’ve never tried it before.
In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).
What happens in each part of the brain during meditation:
- Frontal lobe. This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.
- Parietal lobe. This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.
- Thalamus. The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.
- Reticular formation. As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.
Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health.
- Better Focus. Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.
- Less Anxiety. This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we're actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not. What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack. When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.
- More Creativity. As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.
- More Compassion. Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images. Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people. Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.
- Better Memory. One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.
- Less Stress. Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.
- More Gray Matter. Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and heightened focus during daily life. Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.
How to Meditate
There's the "body" part and the "mind" part.
Find a posture that will allow you to stay still for the duration of your meditation period -- ideally up to 25 minutes without needing to squirm, wriggle, or adjust your position. You may need to experiment with the different posture options to find one that will allow your body to experience extended stillness.
In the Burmese, the legs are crossed and both feet rest flat on the floor. The knees should also rest on the floor, though sometimes it takes a bit of stretching for the legs to drop that far. After awhile the muscles will loosen up and the knees will begin to drop. To help that happen, sit on the front third of the cushion, shifting your body forward a little bit. By imagining the top of your head pushing upward to the ceiling and by stretching your body that way, get your spine straight—then just let the muscles go soft and relax. With the buttocks up on the cushion and your stomach pushing out a little, there may be a slight curve in the lower region of the back. In this position, it takes very little effort to keep the body upright.
Half Lotus Position
In the half lotus, the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight. People who use this position should make a habit of alternating which leg they bring up.
Full Lotus Position
The full lotus is the most stable of all the positions. Each foot is placed up on the opposite thigh. This is symmetrical and very solid. Stability and efficiency are the important reasons sitting cross-legged on the floor works so well. There is no esoteric significance to the different positions. What is most important is what you do with your mind. What you do with your feet or legs is merely to allow you to be stable and still.
You can sit seiza (kneeling) without a pillow, kneeling, with the buttocks resting on the upturned feet which form an anatomical cushion. Or you can use a pillow to keep the weight off your ankles. A third way of sitting seiza is to use the seiza bench. It keeps all the weight off your feet and helps to keep your spine straight.
When sitting on a chair, ground the body by keeping your feet flat on the floor, about 8" apart, with shins perfectly vertical. You can use a cushion the same way you would use it on the floor—placing it beneath you on the chair and sitting on the forward third of it. Some people like to place a cushion between their back and the back of the chair, to keep the spine straight and vertical.
All of the aspects of the posture that are important when seated on the floor or in seiza are just as important when sitting in a chair.
Photos of positions taken from, and descriptions of positions adapted from, Zen Mountain Monastery:
In any position:
- Sit up straight. Sit on the front edge of your chair or cushion. Extend your back, lifting the top of your head as high as it will go.
- Let your shoulders and arms completely relax. With your hands resting in your lap, cup one hand inside the other with the tips of the thumbs just barely touching.
- Almost, but not quite, close your eyes. Leave them open a slit, with your gaze directed downward 45 degrees.
There are various types of meditation. Here's one excellent method, especially suitable for just starting out on a meditation practice.
Bring attention to your breathing and count each exhale to yourself. Count up to 10, then start back again at 1. Repeat counting 1 to 10 throughout the silent period.
When your mind wanders, make a note of what it wandered off doing (e.g., planning, remembering, fantasizing), then gently bring yourself back to this moment and start again at 1.
The objective is not to suppress all thought, but to notice when thoughts arise -- then return to the breath. In this way, your body-mind begins to learn that what you are is not your thoughts. Your thoughts are just something that happens to you in the same way that the weather, or intestinal gas, are things that happen to you.
Use a Timer
Decide whether you're going to meditate for 2 minutes or 10 minutes or 25 minutes or whatever. Set the timer and let the timer take care of telling you when you're done. This avoids distracting glances at a clock.
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Previous Practice of the Week: "Have Compassion for Yourself"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"