Meditation – The Benefits and Where to Begin

by | Apr 15, 2020 | Anxiety, Meditation, Stress

Is Meditation good for us? YES! Life is becoming increasingly difficult. It feels like there are added pressures appearing from all sides. So we need to find something that can help us to relax, because sometimes we forget how to. We all have a chattering voice in our head, our thoughts constantly bombard us all day long. In fact, did you know we have somewhere in the region of 60,000+ thoughts per day? That’s so many we couldn’t voice them all out loud if we tried. If you work on the assumption that someone sleeps for 8 hours that leaves 16 hours of listening to those thoughts. That works out to 62.5 thoughts per minute! Wouldn’t it be great to give our brains a break even for just a short time? Meditation gives us that break. 

 

Are our thoughts real? 

 

One of the things that our thoughts can do is make us anxious, and they frequently do. When we are worrying about something we can trigger our fight or flight mode – the mechanism that keeps us safe. In other words, the body gets ready for action; to run, freeze or to fight the danger.  And we can put ourselves in this mode just by using our imagination. This is our body’s stress reaction.

Try this experiment 

You can check this out for yourself with this quick experiment. 

Close your eyes for a moment and think about something that mildly annoys you. Now, focus on the physiological changes in the body whilst you have that thought.  Maybe your breathing has changed slightly or perhaps you feel more tension in your shoulders or across the chest. Or maybe even your hands are clenched slightly. Now, still with your eyes closed, do the same again and think about someone or something that really makes you smile or happy. Focus on how that feels in the body. You should feel more relaxed and maybe even a smile has crept onto your face. 

This demonstrates the power that our thoughts have to affect us physically. In real terms both of the two things you were thinking about were imaginary. I mean this in that they are not happening to you right now. They may be remembered or they may be a future imagining. The emotion from our thoughts can be so strong that our brains can confuse reality and imagination. However, our brains always err on the side of caution as it’s job is to protect us first and foremost. This means it will make the body react to the emotion as it if were it real. 

 

The benefits of meditation 

 

Over the years I have sometimes meditated more consistently than others. When I wasn’t meditating on a daily basis, I found that I would react negatively to situations easier than when I had been meditating regularly. In later years I found out why. The reason relates to the amygdala – the ‘security officer’ in our brain that scans our environment to keep us safe. Consistent meditation actually shrinks down the size of the amygdala and this in turn lets us react more appropriately and calmly to situations. 

There is a great TED TALK video link here that explains how meditation can change your brain. 

 

You are already meditating every day

 

You could be forgiven for thinking that meditating has to mean sitting in a lotus position chanting ‘ohm’ for hours on end. (That looks very uncomfortable, and as I’m about as supple as a house brick that certainly wouldn’t work for me!) However, in truth, meditation is just focusing on one thing. And the great thing is, it really doesn’t matter what it is that you choose to focus on. 

Let’s take work for example. When you are at work focusing on the job in hand, then life is good. This is unless you are not totally focused on what you’re supposed to be doing. If you’re not, you’re probably listening to the chattering voice in your head and it may be telling you that things are not ok. However, if you are totally focused on your work in that moment then you are in a meditative state. You are focused on one thing.

 

Meditating to stay in the present moment

 

So let me ask you this. In this moment right here right now, what problems do you have? Right here, right now? None! Unless something is happening to you in this present moment (in which case you wouldn’t be reading this blog) then life is ok…unless our thoughts are telling us it’s not. 

It should be noted at this point that this doesn’t apply to traumatic memories. These behave very differently and our thoughts will be involuntarily triggered, putting us into a state of fight or flight. 

The two types of thoughts

We spend a large part of our lives listening to the chattering voice in our heads. And if you actually analyse these thoughts you soon realise that they fall into two categories: 

The first one is thinking or worrying about a future event. When we worry about an event that hasn’t happened yet, we are trying to foretell the future. The event may never happen and even if it does happen it’s unlikely to be exactly as we envisioned. Therefore by definition it is not real. 

The second category is thinking about the past. What someone did or didn’t do. A memory or what someone said or shouldn’t have said. Worrying about what we ourselves should or shouldn’t have done or said. This is the past, it cannot be changed. But by constantly thinking about it, we keep it alive in our minds. It never really has a chance to become the past because we carry it around in the present with us. 

So if you think about it, the present moment is all there ever is. Our life only truly unfolds on a second to second basis in front of our very eyes. So by meditating we are actually giving ourselves quite a gift. We give ourselves a chance to break away from the constant rubbish that we think about.

 

Setting up a meditation ritual 

 

Some people like a routine. For me to meditate on a regular basis I like to do it at the same time of day, if possible. You don’t need to be too rigid about it. If you can’t do it one day at the usual time just be relaxed and fit it in when you can. If you have read some of our other blogs about the brain and about patterns you will understand why it can help to have a ritual before you meditate, in order to get ready. 

The ritual for me is around 9 o’clock I turn my phone onto silent and go into the office. I draw the blinds, turn off the main lights, switch the table lamp on and sit in my chair. My brain knows by now that when I am performing these actions in this order then I am about to sit down, be still and meditate. Therefore my brain is primed to proceed and this already calms my mind before I even start. But it will take a few repetitions of your ritual before the brain learns that this is your pattern for meditating. 

 

How to meditate

 

There are countless ways to meditate, so it’s really all about trying different ones and seeing what’s best for you. Bear in mind that the meditations we start off liking can always change as you become a more confident meditator. Here are three simple ways you might start with. 

Guided meditations

These are very popular, especially with beginners. With a guided meditation you can listen to someone guiding you to or through a particular space or a landscape. YouTube is good for free meditations and there are lots to choose from.

Breathing Meditation 

Breathing is always good to focus on since it is always available to us. To meditate on the breath, just sit comfortably and as you breathe, focus your attention on that breath. Experience what it’s like to breathe. Don’t make judgements on how you’re breathing. Your mind may wander off and you may start thinking about something random. If this happens then just gently bring yourself back to focusing on the breath. Don’t get annoyed with yourself if you lose focus, just bring your attention back to your breath. And remember it takes practice. If you were to take up martial arts, you wouldn’t be Bruce Lee after a few lessons! I promise you it gets easier. 

Focusing on an object 

You could pick an object in the room, and focus on it with your eyes open. Stare at the object with no thought about it. Look with a soft gaze, blinking slowly when you need to. You may find your mind will want to label it – the colour, the shape, the size, the texture, the condition and so on. But all of these labels (or thoughts) are not relevant to experiencing the object for what it is. And it is thoughts that you are practising turning away from, and not attaching yourself to. Just stare at the object and let your mind empty of thought. 

 

I can’t do it!

 

When you sit down and start, your thoughts may be all over the place. You might find yourself thinking things like, “This is rubbish, I can’t do it”. “This isn’t working at all.” “I’m hungry.” “My back / bottom / legs ache.“ ”The chair / the light / the noise outside isn’t right.” 

The list is endless. There will be infinite reasons why you can’t just sit still right now in this present moment and meditate. But you know, these are all just thoughts. Thoughts that are designed to keep you out of the present moment. You can check this out for yourself just by watching your own mind. You’ll soon realise that you are either thinking about the future or the past. And these are just thoughts. But you are not your thoughts – just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s real.

 

How long should I meditate for?

 

This is entirely up to you. Some people’s minds are busier than others. If you have a mind that feels like it’s moving fast, with thoughts jumping from one topic to another and you feel like you can’t control them, then at first it will take a little practice for the mind to be still. If you can I would meditate for at least 20 minutes a day, but you may want to start with less time and build up to this.

 

What have you got to lose? 

 

Meditation is a highly beneficial tool for calming and balancing our minds. Don’t build it up too much. There’s no pressure to get something right, or to get to a particular state. Why not just give it a try, viewing it as a useful life skill that will improve with some practice and patience.  Good luck, and have fun! 

Sending you my best wishes, 

Russ 

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