The Science of Meditation
Aside from regularly doing yoga, I have been meditating daily for a few years now and I must confess the changes I have undergone since I began have been most transcendental. I will dive deeper on these in a later entry but, for now, let’s just say that I had given it a try a few years back in my mid-twenties, but somehow, at that point in time, I failed to get the gist of it. I gave up after a week or so of sitting down with eyes closed ‘to do nothing.’
Looking back, it is very easy for me to see why I wasn’t able to progress –to begin with, I was way too worried about ‘doing it right.’ But since I often hear those around me similarly struggle with ‘doing it right,’ I’ve decided to post this entry and clear some of the confusion around what meditation is, why is it good for you, and how is it done.
Meditation in a nutshell
Meditation is, arguably, one of the easiest, oldest, and most personal ways of getting a hold of the rains of your life and achieving lasting inner change.
Providing an actual definition of what meditation is ain’t easy given the rather subjective and undefinable nature of this experience; but, for argument’s sake, let’s just say that meditation is an awareness-boosting method; that practice whereby the practitioner –aka, ‘you’– places herself in a comfortable position, with or without eyes closed, and tries to concentrate her mind on nothingness, to connect to the source of her being, her ‘motherboard,’ her ‘command centre,’ to eventually get a better hold on who she really is. Pretty easy, right?!
So, what is the goal of meditation?
The goal of meditation, aside of its many positive side-effects (more on this below), is to eventually contribute to self-realization. Now, what the heck do I mean with that?
In contemporary western societies, and in the world as whole in fact, individuals living in societies are subjected to a conscious and unconscious process of cultural inscription since the day they are born. I know, this sounds wordy and complicated, but bear with me for a little.
Cultural inscription is that process whereby a person learns what are (in)adequate social behaviors for each context depending on things such as one’s gender, race, social class, educational level, height, weight, faith… The list goes on and on.
Bringing it to the bare essentials, in our day to day life, we normally struggle to reconcile all those things we have consciously and unconsciously learn to be, feel, and want –aka, the things culturally sanctioned as ‘adequate behaviors’ for a person of our gender, race, class, etc. to exhibit– with what we sometimes feel we really, truly, and deeply want for us.
Because of this lack of harmony between what is expected from us and what we really want, we often struggle to find inner balance, cannot really find peace of mind, and remain rather unhappy with the lives we have. Granted, I am generalising here, but this is true for a great deal of us. And if you ask around, the amount of people dissatisfied with their lives despite allegedly ‘having it all’ is higher than one would presume.
My belief, is that the reason for this can be partly found in our inability to connect with, and listen to, who we really are. The ability to do the latter, to actually connect to our innermost self and start living life as we feel it in our hearts, is what I would define as ‘self-realization’ and, unfortunately, there is no easy ‘dummy’s manual’ for that!
So… Why is meditation good for us?
Studies conducted by different universities around the globe are providing mounting evidence on the ability of regular meditation to lower stress and anxiety levels in practicioners of all conditions, whether healthy or not.
Still, a great deal of controversy exists with regards to whether meditation can actually alleviate stronger psychiatric disorders.
Larger studies with a longer time of observation are still necessary to fully prove the benefits of mediation, but thus far, it seems that the literature out there already demonstrates that the best results with this practice are achieved in people suffering from 'milder ailments' such as depression, pain, smoking, and other types of addictions. So, if only for that, I believe meditation can be a relevant non-pharmaceutical health enabler!
Indeed, as Swami Satyananda Saraswati notes on Meditations from the Tantras (a read we recommend) meditation requires the relaxation of both the body and the mind; it enables us to control different physiological processes (such as the mechanisms involved in higher stress levels or anxiety, for example) as well as our reactions to psychological events (say, situations that would normally trigger anger or fear).
Similarly, meditation “has a noticeable influence on blood pressure”(2012, p. 33), it permits our heart rate to decrease while our blood flow increases during its practice, and counters the overactivation and overstimulation of our adrenal glands and our sympathetic nervous system –two of the mechanisms normally activated during the fight or flight response – that are currently on overload because of our “stressful, competitive, modern way of life” (2012, p. 35).
Aside of this, my own experience as a person who regularly meditates has taught me as well that the long-held yogic belief about meditation as a practice allowing us to get rid of all those layers of (un)consciously forced cultural inscription is in fact true. These layers hinder our ability to be ourselves, and though getting rid of them is not always easy, working towards it yields incredible rewards.
And so, the regular practice of meditation can really help us ‘reconnect’ with our hearts, putting us in a position to live more genuine and fulfilling lives.
How do I go about meditating?
Here is where one’s online research can get tricky; because, to be very honest, no one can really teach you how to meditate. Yes, I know! I am aware that, as a meditation teacher, this may be a sort of counter-intuitive estatement to make! But, to be fair and square, meditation is a truly individual, personal, and subjective experience that is always better experienced, better done, and better tweaked by oneself.
This doesn’t mean that finding a talented mediation teacher cannot be of help. Indeed, perhaps at the beginning where one may struggle with the actual point of it all, or in later phases where group meditation and mantraing can help us reach deeper levels of concentration, having the guidance of someone more experienced and who has ‘already been there’ is a plus.
But if you are reading this far into the article, I guess it may be because you feel you would like to give it a go and could use a couple tips on the ‘how to’ part. So, here is my advice to you: do what feels natural; that is, follow your natural instinct. You have it in there, let it come out.
1. First of all, sit in a comfortable position in a place that you identify as a cozy spot. It can be anywhere, so forget about what everyone else tells you. Find your own spot.
2. It is best if you leave all electronic devices elsewhere and if you choose a quieter time of day (I meditate in the evenings, for example, while Jonas prefers the early morning). If you want to time yourself, use a good-old-fashioned watch or something that will not interrupt you halfway like your phone.
3. With eyes closed, as this helps screen out unwanted distractions at the beginning, try to focus your awareness on your posture and, perhaps, on your breath. There are many different techniques for meditation, so, if you want, read a bit first, try a few different methods and find the one that suits you best. Breath attention is, however, one of the easiest and most doable ways.
4. So, with your eyes closed and your attention drawn inwards, feel the air coming in and out of your nostrils, slowly, as your eyes stop looking at the world around them. Feeling the quiet and the stillness both around and within you, as you sit in your cozy spot, become aware how now it is your mind, instead of your eyes, the one looking at the world existing within yourself. Most likely, you will be seen a black canvas. So let it be black.
5. Now focus your awareness or attention on whatever you are feeling right now, this very minute, and try to let your shoulders drop. Feel the weight around your neck, head, and arms lessen as the air comes into your body and out again.
6. And for the next ten minutes or so, try to become aware of when your mind, that black canvas or Chidākāsha, gets distracted. This happens very often at first. You start meditating and then a thought comes up, carries you along with it for god knows how long, until you realize that your attention has drifted from your breath! When this happens, don’t get frustrated. It’s completely natural. Just come back to the awareness of yourself in this particular moment and your breath.
It is, in fact, this exercise of ‘going with the thought and coming back to the breath’ that meditation is all about, at least at the very beginning. This is to mediate. So, close your eyes, and try to empty your head of all those worries and stressors otherwise camping out during the most part of your waking state.
Coming back to your breath, your heartbeat, or whatever focus of awareness you have chosen to pay attention to, will make the span of time between thoughts grow progressively longer as you sit down for meditation, allowing you to experience the reality of your inner world in the moments in between. And, over time, the black canvas of your mind will be filled with other stuff. Memories that need processing; different physical sensations; smells; songs... When you get there, when you get to the point where your inner world steps in to work on one thing or another, then, you’ll be hooked! Trust me! I know!
So give it a go. All you need to do is to find those 10 to 15 minutes daily of uninterrupted “me time.” That is more than enough at the beginning. And if you feel you could use some help to get started, don’t hesitate and let us know.