The popularity of meditation is increasing as more people discover its benefits. Meditation is a habitual process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts.
You can use it to increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings. Many people think of it as a way to reduce stress and develop concentration.
People also use the practice to develop other beneficial habits and feelings, such as a positive mood and outlook, self-discipline, healthy sleep patterns and even increased pain tolerance.
The practice of meditation is of prehistoric origin, and is found throughout history, especially in religious contexts.
Some of the earliest references to meditation come from the Hindu scriptures of Vedantism from around 1500 BCE.
It was around the 5th to 6th centuries that we begin to see other forms of meditation developed in Confucian, Taoist China, and Buddhist India. However, the structured practice of meditation that is more familiar to the modern method of meditation is believed to go back 5,000 years, with it developing in India.
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism also had their own forms of meditation. Jewish meditation included meditative approaches to prayer and study, such as Kabbalsitic practices, Islamic meditation included the repetition of God’s 99 names as well as breathing controls, and Eastern Christian meditation included the repetition of certain physical postures and repetition of prayers.
Although meditation precedes all world religions, religions still have traditions of meditation. But, to practice meditation is different from practicing religion. You do not need to convert to a certain meditation in order to clearly feel the benefits of meditation in your life. It is entirely dependent on your goals, purpose, and style.
Meditation, mental health and recovery
In a certain way meditation and addiction (whether it be substance misuse or behavioural afflictions) are opposites: meditation is checking in with the here and now, while addiction is checking out of the here and now. By giving you more control over your emotions and insight into yourself, meditation can be a powerful tool for you at all stages of recovery. There is plenty of evidence that meditation plays a number of remarkable roles in helping heal addictions and mental health disorders.
Meditation helps us to make different choices
Meditation teaches us how to make healthy choices. Individuals can observe their thoughts and desires without having to act on them. We learn that we are not responsible for our thoughts, but we are responsible for how we react to those thoughts. Through meditation we can acknowledge our not-so-desired thoughts without trying to push them away yet choose the path of wellness.
The mental clarity that comes from the practice of meditation makes it easier for us to make healthy choices that support us in a positive impacting way.
We may experience mood swings, described by some as an emotional rollercoaster. By training the mind to focus on one thing—a sound, word, or breath—at a time, meditation helps us maintain a degree of emotional balance.
Meditators find they can even change their temperament through mindfulness, turning, for example, aggression into assertiveness or passivity into peacefulness. Researchers believe that meditation actually changes the physiology of the brain, building up areas associated with optimism and compassion, and minimizing the strength of areas associated with fear, pessimism, and depression.
Anyone suffering from addiction or mental health disorders knows about the "urge" — the overwhelming, tunnel-vision like, super-powerful impulse to satisfy your craving (whether it be for a behaviour or a substance). It can seem like our afflictions can sometimes "do us" rather than "us doing them."
What then, is the best way to loosen the stranglehold these self-destructive impulses have over our lives? Meditation is the key to witnessing these impulses instead of being controlled by them. Meditation works not by suppression (which makes things worse) — but by allowing the mind to simply step aside from the waterfall of negatively serving thoughts. The meditative mind neutrally observes the coming and going of urges and cravings in a very unemotional and detached way.
When meditation puts you back into the driver’s seat of your mind, urges downgrade to just another thought, powerless to manipulate you in any way. People who keep in touch with themselves through daily meditation are more likely to recognize early warning signs that they may be headed for a ‘crash’. They can then use their other ‘wellness’ tools to keep destructive behaviour at bay.
Meditation Gives us a “Natural High” (getting high on your own supply)
A 2004 study published in Molecular Psychiatry (Volkow et al) found that when an addict gets their "fix", high amounts of the euphoric brain chemical "dopamine" flood certain brain regions like the "nucleus accumbens". Conversely, the study found dopamine levels to be extra low at other times (the crash) — which ultimately forces the brain into seeking more of the drug’s temporary dopamine boost, creating a vicious cycle.
The researchers postulated how important it was to find a healthy and natural dopamine-releasing activity to effectively counter addictive behaviour. A landmark 2002 study at the John F. Kennedy Institute (Kjaer et al) found that dopamine levels of participants were boosted by a whopping 65% during meditation.
Just as important, meditators dopamine levels remained at an optimally healthy range when not in meditation. In other words, no crashing. When meditation makes you feel so good, healthfully, and naturally, there are no biochemical or psychological potholes that need to be filled through addiction.
Meditation also supercharges the brain and body with endorphins, another super pleasurable natural brain chemical. The effect is so strong, in fact, that the so called "meditator's high" has shown to be stronger than the well-known "runner's high." Meditators have been happy, addiction free folks for millennia.
By training the mind to focus in one place and stay in the moment, meditation helps one relax and move forward. Meditation transforms your central nervous system and brain, shifting your body chemistry out of "fight or flight" survival mode, so that the stress that had you reaching for your once favourite self-medication (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, junk food, gambling, sex, etc.) yesterday, will no longer affect you today.
A 2005 study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (Scott et al) looked at 121 patients going through an inpatient substance abuse program. The participants were given EEG biofeedback training, which put simply, puts the brainwave patterns of the user into a more advanced state of consciousness (here they used alpha & theta waves). Incredibly, at a one year follow up, 77% of patients were completely drug free.
Meditation is the best way to train the brain into the super beneficial alpha-theta state, as numerous EEG studies show, alpha and theta brainwaves dominate during a meditative state.
(This is why here at Faith Retreats™ we include sessions with a unique light therapy machine into your programme in order to support training the brain into these beneficial alpha-theta states.)
Many of those that seek help come with a history of relationships that they have damaged or that have damaged them. Meditation makes it easier for them to forgive the past and develop healthy relationships.
What to expect
Although meditation brings us great benefits, there are often challenges that we may encounter during the practice, and it is from these challenges that we grow stronger both in our practice and personally. Sometimes physical pains and aches, boredom, increased mental activity and strong emotions may arise, and it is then that we have the opportunity to transcend these temporary sensations and feelings with our meditation practice.
Types of Meditation
At QUINTA DA FE (FAITH RETREATS™) we practice different kinds of meditations. Although the ways in which these are practiced differ, all meditations are beneficial in that they sharpen the mind and the focus, calm our thoughts and worries and bring greater awareness and thus support the process of self reflection.
Here are some examples of different meditation styles:
Focused-attention meditation: Concentrates attention on a single object, thought, sound or visualization. It emphasizes ridding your mind of attention and distraction. Meditation may focus on breathing, a mantra or a calming sound.
Open-monitoring meditation: Encourages broadened awareness of all aspects of your environment, train of thought and sense of self. It may include becoming aware of thoughts, feelings or impulses that you might normally try to suppress.
Guided meditations: listening to spoken words to invoke a certain visualization/imagination.
Dynamic meditation: This is a style of meditation in which physical action is involved. It may be an easy way to get familiar to meditating as most people find it too difficult in the beginning to sit still. If the body is allowed to move, the mind quietens more easily.
Generally, the purpose of breathing meditation is to calm the mind and develop inner peace. We can use breathing meditations alone or as a preliminary practice to reduce our distractions before engaging in other types of meditation.
The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practising a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.
The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid.
We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return our focus to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.
If we practise patiently in this way, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes lucid and clear and we should be able to experience this state of mental calm for a while.
Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions.
So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind.
Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.
Loving Kindness meditation (METTA Meditation)
METTA is a loving kindness meditation. To practice loving-kindness meditation, sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner. Take two or three deep breaths with slow, long and complete exhalations. Let go of any concerns or preoccupations. For a few minutes, feel or imagine the breath moving through the centre of your chest - in the area of your heart.
Metta is first practiced toward oneself, since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves. Sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the following or similar phrases:
May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.
While you say these phrases, allow yourself to sink into the intentions they express. Loving-kindness meditation consists primarily of connecting to the intention of wishing ourselves or others happiness. However, if feelings of warmth, friendliness, or love arise in the body or mind, connect to them, allowing them to grow as you repeat the phrases. As an aid to the meditation, you might hold an image of yourself in your mind's eye. This helps reinforce the intentions expressed in the phrases.
After a period of directing loving-kindness toward yourself, bring to mind a friend or someone in your life who has deeply cared for you. Then slowly repeat phrases of loving-kindness toward them:
May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.
As you say these phrases, again sink into their intention or heartfelt meaning. And, if any feelings of loving-kindness arise, connect the feelings with the phrases so that the feelings may become stronger as you repeat the words.
As you continue the meditation, you can bring to mind other friends, neighbours, acquaintances, strangers, animals, and finally people with whom you have difficulty. You can either use the same phrases, repeating them again and again, or make up phrases that better represent the loving-kindness you feel toward these beings. Sometimes during loving-kindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these to be signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. You can either shift to mindfulness practice or you can—with whatever patience, acceptance and kindness —direct loving-kindness toward them. Above all, remember that there is no need to judge yourself for having these feelings.
Excerpts gratefully reprinted from the book The Issue at Hand by Gil Fronsdal, guiding teacher of Insight Meditation Center.
Mindful Walking Meditation
Walking in mindfulness is a wonderful way to achieve a rested mind. Choose a relatively level walk and leave the dog at home. You don’t need too many distractions, so avoid places where there is lots of traffic. Wear loose, comfortable clothing and suitable footwear. You’ll need around 20 to 45 minutes.
Before you begin, stand still and breathe. Set your intention to focus fully on the experience. Start walking at a normal, steady pace. Not too fast or too slow.
Notice the feeling of the ground under your feet. Feel how your feet move in your shoes, the way your toes help you to balance, how your heel touches the ground. How your ankles flex.
Focus on the other parts of your body in turn in a similar way: your knees, thighs, pelvis, spine, shoulders, arms, hands, neck and head. Feel all the sensations of walking fully. Notice your breathing. Focus on emptying your lungs completely each time you exhale. This brings more oxygen into your lungs and causes you to feel alert yet relaxed.
Consciously activate your senses. Become aware of scents in the air; how they change as you travel. Feel the temperature of the air on your skin. Listen to the ambient sounds of leaves rustling, birds, distant traffic, planes, your own footsteps.
At the end of your walk, stand still, close your eyes, feel your connection to the earth and breathe in and out deeply a few times. Drop your shoulders and you should feel completely relaxed and energized. Drink water.
Meditation is something everyone can learn. If you're interested in incorporating meditation into your routine, try a few different styles and consider guided exercises to get started with one that suits you.
You can do it anywhere, without special equipment or memberships.
Alternatively, meditation courses (online) and support groups are widely available. There's a great variety of styles too, each with different strengths and benefits. Trying out a style of mediation suited to your goals is a great way to improve your quality of life, even if you only have a few minutes to do it each day.
If your regular work and home environments do not allow for consistent, quiet alone time, consider participating in a class. This can also improve your chances of success by providing a supportive community. Maybe consider setting your alarm a few minutes early to take advantage of quiet time in the morning. This may help you develop a consistent habit and allow you to start the day positively.