What is Meditation?
Meditation is an ancient set of body mind practices which has been adapted for modern times. It has been extensively studied and is associated with numerous health benefits.
Originating in Eastern spiritual traditions, meditation is a mental discipline wherein the practitioner learns to focus, quiet or empty the mind. There are many types of meditation practiced today, but according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institute of Health, there are four common elements to meditation:
- quiet location without distractions
- a comfortable posture
- a focus of attention
- an open nonjudgemental attitude ("letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them". )
Types of meditation
- Concentrative meditation- The method is to cultivate a single minded focus on one thing, an object, sound, image, one's breath or even an idea. Through this exercise, one develops the capacity to willfully remain calm and stabilized. Transcendental Meditation (TM) is an example of concentrative meditation.
- Zen, Zazen, or Open Awareness Meditation- The method is to "open the mind into a state of panoramic awareness " of all that is happening, without a specific focus . Through this exercise, one develops the "capacity to be present with whatever arises".
- Mindfulness Meditation, aka Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) - This is the most popular and widely practiced method of meditation in the West. MSBR is widely adopted in the medical community and medical institutions for the care of patients. The method is a combination of concentration and open awareness. One begins by focusing on body sensations such as breath, thoughts, feelings, or sound, while maintaining an simultaneous open awareness of everything else. Through this exercise, one develops the capacity for concurrent clarity of perception and equanimity. This means one can make accurate observations from a position of calm neutrality.
- Guided Meditation- This is meditation of any type which occurs with verbal guidance. The most common form is guided imagery. In this method, the guide elicits imagery pertaining to states of wellness, peacefulness, healing, or even positive outcomes in surgery or sports.
How does meditation work?
According to Brown University researchers, fMRI studies of experienced meditators influence activity in their PCC, the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain. This allowed them to " gain enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Those brain waves help regulate how the brain processes and filters sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions."
Reference : Meditation as object of medical research
According to MIT News reporting on this research, this means the following in everyday life: Subjects become better at focusing, better at disengaging with a thought or a sensation, and better able to regulate how outside events like pain make them feel.
Reference : MIT News
Harvard Scientists spoke of " a true biological effect" and effects throughout the body, not just the brain." In one study, just "one session...was enough to enhance the expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress. ".
UCLA Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn found that 8 weeks of a 12 minute daily meditation increased telomerase activity by 43 %. This is interesting because telomerase is an enzyme believed to be crucial in deterring or reversing the effects of cell aging.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), studies on meditation and the brain indicate that it physically changes the brain. In particular, people who practices meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. "This process, called gyrification may increase the brain's ability to process information. "
Here is an inventory of all the conditions which have been shown to be improved by meditation:
- high blood pressure
- irritable bowel syndrome
- ulcerative colitis
- anxiety, depression and insomnia
- immune function
To read about the specific studies producing these results, click on this reference below.
Reference: NIH, NCCIH
How can I learn to meditate?
You are best to attend a class at a community health or fitness center. It is also reasonable to learn about meditation by reading and to begin by using DVDs from respected sources like GAIAM and the Chopra Center.