What is meditation
Meditation involves developing the ability to consciously train our attention and awareness.
Usually, you take a seated position with the eyes closed. Your attention is then focused inwards towards the mind and body. Thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations are usually the focal point, but anything could be used as a point of conscience awareness.
Our day to day lives are usually bound up with solving one problem after the next. We follow our thoughts and feelings without ever slowing down and taking joy in the process. This ‘autopilot’ mode can serve as a great tool to maximise the ease and efficiency of daily tasks, such as walking or driving. However, autopilot is also responsible for taking us from one thought to the next in a spiral of worrying/rumination when we are faced with an emotional problem.
Taking time to purposefully slow down and observe our own mind, can be insightful and illuminating. This observation can bring delight in the simple process of performing a task, rather than simply a fixation on completing it. Too much time spent in autopilot means we end up lacking the mental space we need to process our experiences.
Turing the attention inwards allows you to take note of thoughts and feelings as they appear. Witnessing this, and not getting involved in the sensation, can allow us to see that we can make the choice to let thoughts and feelings pass by, without getting caught up in them.
Benefits of meditation
In recent years, there has been increasing research into the effects of meditation on the physical structure of the brain. As well as the benefits of regular practice to individuals suffering with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Those with a long history of practising meditation regularly have demonstrated increased connectivity between frontal areas of the brain which are important for cognitive control, and limbic regions which are involved in emotional responding resulting in improved emotional regulation.
The default mode network (DMN) has been dubbed the ‘me centre’ of the brain, and is associated with mind wandering and that sense of being ‘lost in thought’. When the DMN is over-active, we experience anxiety, ruminating over the past and future, and a general reduction in happiness. Meditation has been shown to slow down the DMN, and give us the tools to step out of it more often.
Meditation practice has also been shown to increase levels of attention and concentration. This is unsurprising as in meditation, we are training the mind, just as we train the body. As we strengthen the mind through this training, new connections form and new pathways emerge. We increase our capacity for awareness and focused attention.
Far too little time is spent in training the mind, even though it is the filter everything we experience must go through. Cleaning and adjusting that filter, even just a little bit, can have profound effects in our lives.
Types of meditation
There are countless styles of meditation across a range of different faiths and cultures, but broadly speaking, the three listed below are the most common types.
This style of meditation is a process of calming the mind, and is often translated as “tranquillity of the mind”. This style of meditation can bring about deep states of relaxation and focus.
Usually, one focusses on the breath. This can be carried out wherever one feels the sensation of the breath the most (e.g. the tip of the nose, chest or abdomen). Complete attention is guided towards that physical sensation of the breath, until there is nothing else except the breath. When thoughts and feelings arise, one would gently guide themselves back to the breath.
Extended periods of time focusing on a single point of awareness can bring about exceptionally deep states of peace, and can heighten your moment-to-moment experience of life. Simply walking or sitting can become intensely pleasurable. You start to slow down and appreciate the subtleties of life much more.
This style of meditation involves witnessing the rise and cessation of all mental and physical phenomenon. It is translated as “insight”, and is involved in cultivating wisdom.
Vipassana method of meditation uses any mental or physical sensation that comes into consciousness, which are then simply observed non-judgmentally. The idea is that thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are each taken as a point of awareness, until they naturally pass.
This method allows you to see first-hand the transience of thoughts, and how they will disappear if not ‘fed’ by our mind. Feeling anxiety, for example in your stomach, becomes something that you, are witnessing, not something that is part of ‘you’. It can, with practice, be a sensation that is simply observed, and let go of.
Observing the mind in this way can help us gain a different perspective on our lives. This may also help alleviate some of the psychological sufferings that we face when we get caught up in day-to-day worries.
This style of meditation involves cultivating warm, loving feelings for others and oneself. A common translation of this Pali word is “loving-kindness”. It is a form of concentration meditation, similar to that of Samatha.
Usually, a few key phrases are used, aimed at an object which the individual holds in mind. At first, the object is that of somebody they love (parent, child, or close friend for example). But not someone you have, or have had, a romantic relationship with. The person’s image is held on to, as phrases such as “may you be happy”, “may you be free from suffering”, “may you be strong and confident” are repeated.
The next stage of this practice, is to switch the object to a person towards whom you have indifferent feelings. Then finally, towards a person who you dislike or towards whom you have negative feelings.
Regular practice with this method can be incredibly transformative. Meditating in this way reminds us of how much love and compassion we can feel towards another human being. It can help open up your heart and allow you to hold onto a feeling of genuine love, for extended periods of time. Similarly, it can, and should, also be aimed at yourself. As truly loving oneself is often a necessary step towards fully opening up with others.