Today’s post comes to you from onboard a train to London – normal service should resume next week on my return home to Melbourne.
I realised recently that I’ve spent a lot of time in my posts talking about the importance of meditation, including how good for you it is, and even suggesting that everyone should be doing it. I occurs to me, however, that I haven’t spent any time on the why or the how. So today, I’m going to talk about what it is, why it’s worth doing, and how to meditate effectively.
Let’s start with the simple stuff: what is meditation? Sadly, when many people hear the word, they are immediately put off by the imagined ‘woowoo’ associated with meditation and meditative practice. Because of its strong religious associations, many people assume that it is a spiritual practice. In fact, whilst it’s true that many religions encourage meditation, there is nothing particularly mysterious about meditating. Put simply, meditation is taking time to focus on one thing, without attending to the usual internal chatter that we engage in during our regular lives. This can involve sitting in a special room with incense and chanting, or it can be something as simple as going for a walk – the meditation part is the focus of one’s attention.
But what’s the big deal? After all, it seems somewhat incongruous that simply sitting and breathing can provide any benefit. It turns out, however, that meditation is one of the best things we can be doing for ourselves (along with regular exercise) to encourage psychological and emotional health and wellbeing. In fact, over the last 15 years, coinciding with the growth of cognitive neuroscience, we’ve learnt not only that meditation is good for us, but started to learn what exactly it does, and why it’s of benefit.
Through the study of experienced mediators we’ve established that, during meditation, we get specific activation of several brain centres that are important for healthy psychological functioning. Interestingly, access to these experienced meditators has come from the scientific interest of the Dalai Lama. As meditation is a major part of Buddhist practice, with the assistance of the Dalai Lama, neuroscientists have been able to work closely with extremely experienced meditators, including being able to scan their brains during deep meditation. One area of the brain that is activated especially during meditation is the prefrontal cortex, the brain centre associated with higher human functioning (including logical reasoning, planning, and imagination), especially the left prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we feel complex emotions like empathy and compassion. Interestingly, when this part of the brain is active, we’re primed to feel more compassionate, and less likely to have activation of the fear centres in the limbic system. Vice versa, when the limbic system is active, we experience decreased left prefrontal activation and, consequentially, are less able to feel compassion for others or to act compassionately.
Consequently, experienced meditators are often substantially more compassionate in their thoughts and actions both towards themselves and to others. Although it can take some time and commitment to achieve this sort of response, pretty much everyone can benefit from more immediate effects of regular meditation, such as a reduced stress response, including lowered blood pressure and reduced circulating cortisol. Mediation can also result in elevated levels of neurotransmitters associated with stable or elevated moods, including serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. Consequently, meditators tend to report greater mental stability, more stable affect, and greater resilience in the face of stress. They also tend to ‘inoculate’ themselves against potential psychological dysregulations such as depression and anxiety.
Recently, neuroscientists have identified a brain structure known as the ‘default mode network‘ that encompasses the medial prefrontal cortex (which appears to process a lot of the information regarding self concept (see theory of mind), and the posterior cingulate cortex (which helps the prefrontal cortex communicate with the limbic system). The default mode network appears to be active when we’re not actively engaged in processing tasks or dealing with external stimuli. Instead, its chief function seems to be introspective thought, and its activation is highly correlated with creative output. Interestingly, it’s extremely active during meditation.
Benefits from meditation don’t stop there; it seems that meditators can learn to control their immune systems and enhance recovery from injury. In a fascinating series of studies, Professor John Gruzelier (a pioneer in the study of neurofeedback) taught people to regulate their brain waves in ways that occur during meditation. Simply by visualising a more effective immune response during these altered brain states, a majority of participants were able to demonstrate remarkable effects, including the reduction of symptoms in medication resistant herpes and HIV, and the reduction of wound healing time following surgery.
Want more benefits? Regular meditators are more productive at work and feel substantially more satisfied in their workplace than nonmeditators. Google now have a company-wide program that teaches and encourages meditation as a mainstream work practice. In fact, I often recommend a book called ‘Search Inside Yourself‘ written by Google’s meditation guru Chade-Meng Tan to my clients. I could go on, but I think you get the point: meditation is really good for you.
Enough of the sell; at this point, some of you might actually want to learn how to meditate. As I mentioned earlier, there’s nothing particularly complex or mystical about meditation. All you need to start is about 10 minutes of time at least three days a week, and somewhere to sit. Although there are literally thousands of different ways one can meditate, an easy way to learn is to use your breathing as a point of reference, while you learn to train your mind to focus on one thing (in this case your breath), and to return your attention to that thing whenever you notice yourself wandering.
Try the following:
1) Schedule out some time, preferably at a time during the day when you’re not exhausted and are likely to fall asleep. I say schedule, because intentions are lovely and all, but unless you actually plan out some time and remind yourself to do it, it’s just not going to happen.
2) Find a comfy spot to sit. I have some cushions set up in the corner of my office. Ideally, try to pick a spot where you’re not likely to be interrupted.
3) Set a countdown timer. There are a heap of apps you can download for this purpose, or you could just use your phone. This way you can relax and not have to worry about looking at the clock. I suggest starting with 10 minutes and gradually increasing by 2-3 minutes a week until you reach about 30 minutes.
4) Now sit comfortably in whatever position you like. Upright is good, but you can also lie down (just be aware that you’re more likely to fall asleep). I like cross-legged, but that’s just a preference from my yoga practice.
5) Close your eyes (there are eyes-open meditations, but it’s easier with eyes closed) and concentrate on your breathing. Try to breathe in and out through your nose (makes for more measured, relaxed breathing and activates a parasympathetic response).
6) Now focus on each breath, following it into your lungs and out again. If it helps, imagine an image associated with the movement of your breath – this could be imagining the flow of breath as a colour moving in and out of your body, or you could pair your breath with a repetitive image, like a curtain fluttering in and out of a window. Concentrate only on your breath.
7) Inevitably, your mind will wander, or you’ll start daydreaming, or get distracted by a noise, or feel an itch, or get a twitch in your back, or any of the many other things your body and mind will do to distract you. This is completely normal. Your job is to notice when your attention wanders, and then (without comment or judgement) to return your attention back to your breath. That’s it. A lot of the time, the distractions will be very tempting. Instead of trying to force yourself to ignore them, notice them briefly, and then redirect your attention back to your breath. This is the essence of mindfulness training (see here for a revision on mindfulness).
8) That’s it. If you can practise at least three times a week for at least 10 minutes, you will start to notice some changes relatively quickly (within a few weeks) – you’ll be a little calmer, more focused, and less irritable. Over time, you’ll start to feel more centred and stable, and many of things that used to really shit you will have their volume turned down – you’ll be more able to be more you and less affected by the annoying things around you.
9) One more thing: meditation is a learned skill like any other – it does take some time to master, and chances are if you’re getting frustrated with it you need more practise (it also means you need meditation!). Like any regular practice regularity is the key. It’ll be very easy for you to skip days when you’re feeling time-pressured, or tired, or stressed. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that it’s at these times that meditation is most useful, so it’s important not to just do it when everything is going well. There’s a great Zen saying that’s worth remembering: “You should sit in meditation for 30 minutes every day unless you don’t have time. Then you should sit for an hour…”
As I mentioned, there are many different types of meditation – including compassionate meditation. If you’re interested in adding a compassionate element to your meditation practice, have a read of this. Also, if you’re the type of person who finds it easier to practice something in a group or with training or supervision, I’d suggest enrolling in a local yoga or meditation class (Google is your friend for this).
Good luck, and if any of you want some tips, or have any specific questions about the benefits or practise suggestions I’ve written about – submit a comment below or email me directly.