After 15 years of serious commitment to personal and spiritual growth, I credit meditation as one of the single most transformative practices that changed my life. Twelve years ago I was struggling with anxiety and panic disorder and following the advice of a doctor, elected to take prescription medication. The doctor said I would likely never be able to manage life without drugs. I got serious about meditation. Twenty minutes a day and two years later, I stopped taking the meds and never looked back. Fast forward to today, I maintain a daily practice and have rarely experienced similar symptoms. What was at first a step to take responsibility for my mind and mental health has now become the source of infinite consciousness, awareness, and joy.
Meditation has many well-documented benefits including increasing brain mass of the medial prefrontal cortex, which leads to higher concentration and attention. Research also points to a reduction in the mass of the amygdala, part of our primal base brain responsible for fight or flight. In essence, over time, our lower, primal stress responses are supplanted with more conscious ones, which originate from the higher functions of our brain. In addition to stress reduction, meditation is used to treat a variety of conditions ranging from anxiety and depression, chronic pain, addiction, and tinnitus. Some evidence suggests it can expedite recovery from cancer.
People often tell me they want to begin meditating but don’t have the time or don’t know how to start. View your practice as an investment, not a sacrifice. Meditation slows down time and provides a baseline of calm and self-awareness that lasts throughout the day; the time you dedicate will pay dividends.
Interestingly, I’ve consistently heard friends say they “aren’t good at it.” The initial objective of meditation is not to remain in a constant state of attunement or bliss, but to train our minds by practicing returning to attunement once we realize our attachment to thought. If we are distracted 100 times in a 10-minute meditation, that is 100 opportunities to practice returning to our center.
There are many forms of meditation including, guided, silent and chanting. All have many benefits although, for this post, I will concentrate on silent, mindful meditation, which includes forms such as Transcendental Meditation and Centering Prayer. Guided meditation is an excellent way for a beginner to establish a practice, although a primary goal of meditation is to learn to let go and disengage with the mind and its incessant thoughts, which is difficult when focused on a speaking guide. I have found the most simple form to share with beginners is Centering Prayer, which is identical to Transcendental Meditation, except it suggests a self-chosen word to return to attunement, versus a mantra provided by a guru.
Simple Meditation Steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position with a straight spine
- Pick a word, two-syllables or less with a peaceful or loving meaning
- Sit in silence with eyes closed, breath into your low belly, your attention focused between your eye-brows
- Observe thoughts that arise, let them pass like a log floating down a river
- When you realize you are attached to a thought, lovingly and calmly say (eventually think) the word and return to attunement
A few suggestions that may help your practice:
- Move and stretch for a few minutes before you sit
- Meditate in the AM so you may return to the peaceful state throughout the day
- Consistency is key: 5-10 min/daily can be more rewarding than 20 min 2-3 times/week
- If you miss a day or two, be gentle with yourself, simply recommit to your practice
- 20 min a day is recommended, a second 20 min sit can be transformative
One of the most helpful bits of advice I garnered from a meditation course taught by the late Father Thomas Keating was, “when you realize you are attached to a thought, speak the chosen word as if a feather were landing on a pillow”. The practice of being gentle with ourselves is contrary to the response of frustration we may initially feel as we learn to accept that thoughts have limited meaning and are often based on fear, from deep in the subconscious mind. Over time, attunement will shift from focus between eyebrows to a state of observing your thoughts and feeling connected to your whole being and nervous system, often without awareness of the body; this is the state of bliss and the beginning of a relationship with our self.
Meditation is not a religion although I consider it a form of deep prayer. At the very least if you are more emotionally balanced and in tune with yourself, you will be more peaceful in your relationships and community. Regardless what your faith is, meditation puts us consistently in a state of communion with ourselves and to the part of us that recognizes our connection to the whole. Rumi so eloquently said “Everything in the universe is inside you. Ask all of yourself.”