The whole of meditation practice can be essentialized into these 3 crucial points: Bring your mind home. Release. And relax! - Sogyal Rinpoche
Sometimes it is easy to forget that meditation is an ancient art that has been practiced for thousands of years.
The concept has been rebranded in a number of ways over recent years, but ultimately the practice and its benefits has remained the same.
Since the days of Rumi in ancient India, the swami’s have waxed lyrical about the vast benefits of this art.
What we call it, may change from decade, but whether discussing metaphysics, mindfulness or meditation, the effects for individuals and more importantly, individual’s brains, have remained the same.
It has been widely reported that brain training can increase working memory.
Recent studies now seem to indicate that meditating daily can be equally advantageous in increasing brain function.
Yet, newcomers to the practice can find it difficult to access.
Where do you start? What type of meditation is best for me? Am I doing it correctly?
This article aims to break down the various styles and discuss the practical benefits you can reap from meditating regularly.
The basics of the art are as follows. Forget the myths about sitting in uncomfortable positions, legs crossed, hands cupped to the sky.
Remember, the importance is to be able to fully relax, so for beginners and experts alike, the lotus position does not have to be used.
It is advisable not to lie down in bed as this can lead to sleep, which is a little more relaxed than you are aiming for!
An easy way to start, is to sit up in bed or sit on a comfy chair as you normally would.
Keep your back straight and your head level.
Transcendental Meditation teachers will advise that twenty minutes is an optimum time, once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
If time does not permit, do it as often as you can, you brain will reap the benefits and you will thank yourself for making the time.
One of the easiest places to start is with guided meditation.
It is quite common, especially for novices as you will be led through a session by someone who knows what they are doing.
This type of meditation is very easy to find online and is a great starting point because you are told step by step, throughout the meditation, how to do it.
All of your fears will be allayed, regarding your wandering mind and so on and over time if you try a few out, you can find the type of sounds, voice etc. that suit you and accentuate the experience personally.
Guided meditation teaches the brain to focus, always drawing you back to the center point, the voice of the narrator.
Hopefully, the benefits are clear already.
The human brain flits about from thought to thought normally, which is perfectly natural.
With guided meditation, the brain is trained on one thing, allowing it to relax and refocus
Another simpler method is focused meditation.
Rather than have a voice guiding you, this is one which you can do on your own.
Again, get into a relaxed, sitting position and focus on the physical parts of your body.
Start with your feet, then lower legs and so on, ensuring you relax each part systematically.
Once complete, focus on something in the mind that causes you a sense of wellbeing and relaxation.
Perhaps this may be a candle in a dark room or a sky light looking out onto a beautiful, blue sky.
It doesn’t really matter; you could focus on your local football’s team stadium as long as it allows you to feel a strong sense of calm!
As time progresses, you will probably feel thoughts creep in which affect your brain’s focus.
Gently let the thoughts go and bring your attention back to the center.
Over time, you can train the mind to stay focused for longer. However, don’t beat yourself up about this.
The mind is a problem-solving mechanism, so it is only natural for it to drift away to other things.
The trick is to slowly and gently bring your mind back to the single focus.
Another excellent way to practice focused meditation is to use a mantra.
This is the key to Transcendental Meditation, where students are taught their own, personal mantra, designed just for them.
You can however, just create your own.
Again, this can follow the same principle of what you are visualizing, a phrase that makes you feel relaxed.
Experienced believer in New Age practices, Deepak Chopra suggest using ‘so hum’ as a mantra. The ‘so’ on the in breath and the ‘hum’ as you breather out.
This is not to be said out loud, but internally, to keep the mind focused and relaxed.
Results for the brain
Once you have mastered the basics and you are meditating regularly, you should be feeling the benefits.
The mind will feel calmer, yet more energized. You should also feel more energy and more alert.
Non-meditators sometimes question how something that is designed to make you feel relaxed can give you more energy, but the answer is fairly logical.
If you imagine the brain as a muscle, just like any other in your body, it needs exercise and rest.
The problem with the human condition is that we exercise the mind regularly: work, thinking, over-thinking, devising the shopping list, working out the quickest way to pick up the kids. The list goes on. It is a common misbelief that the brain ‘rests’ while we sleep; often it does not.
When we sleep lightly and indeed dream, the brain is active and still at work.
When we fall into R.E.M. sleep (no, not the famous rock band – rapid-eye movement), the brain can be at rest. However, this does not happen often for the average sleeper.
So, in honesty, in a deep state of meditation, is when the brain is fully at rest.
Are you seeing the benefits of giving yourself that twenty minutes a day yet?
If we analyze how much exercise we give our physical body, it is amazing how human beings can neglect how we treat and look after our most important assets, our minds.
If the guided and focused types of practice seem a bit passive, then the standing meditation could be for you.
It is advisable to ensure you are in a safe, potentially soft room when practicing, as it is possible to become a little disorientated.
The principles of meditation remain the same always.
Eyes shut, relax the muscles and bring your focus inward into the body.
The difference here is to stay in a standing, upright position when you do it.
This can create a slightly different sensation, one where the body feels very light.
The standing meditations are in the same family as Tai Chi and it is believed that doing this regularly can improve blood flow, posture and strengthen the heart not to mention, all the mental benefits you get with the meditation you are doing!
If you are feeling very brave and fancy something different then advancing into walking meditation would be a logical next step.
Again, setting is important and indeed space as you may well have your eyes closed! So, a large outdoor space, would be ideal.
The principles are the same as standing meditation, however after you’re in a relaxed and inwardly-focused mental state, start walking in a mindful, meditative way.
Natural, small steps are advised, especially to begin with.
The motion of the body creates a subtle difference, as walking is the focus activity.
As such it helps us become more in tune with our body, relax the mind and relieve stress.
Links between meditation and brain training
For many who try out this ancient practice, the results are clear to see.
Many feel more energized, mentally and physically. In the busy modern era, people feel they may not have time to meditate. Ironically, you actually will be more productive with your time if you are able to meditate regularly.
Recent research has regularly shown the impact of meditation on the brain. Scholars report that it can reverse brain aging and increase brain function.
Studies at Harvard go even further and claim that just eight weeks of regular meditation can change the structure of the brain.
In addition, meditation is said to have powerful positive impacts on those diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and acute obsessive compulsive disorder.
The results are there for all to see. Meditation improves general well-being and provides the participant with a more productive and positive outlook.
It is though, the effects on the brain where it appears regular practice can provide miracles.
In the same way that brain training can decrease mental aging and keep the brain active, meditation seems to have the same effect.
Brain function being improved, is really just the tip of the iceberg.
As discussed, you will notice more energy, greater alertness not to mention the many health benefits.
In a 2012 heath study a group of 201 participants with coronary heart disease were offered a health and diet course, or a course in Transcendental Meditation.
When the results were followed up five years later, 48% of those who took the meditation course, found a reduction in their risk of heart attack, stroke and death.
So, what are you waiting for? A happier, healthier, more productive life is just twenty minutes away.
About the author
Now working as a writer, Jackie started her career in finance and banking, but after becoming a mom refocused and decided to spend more time with her family. When she's not writing, she volunteers for a number of local mental health charities and also has a menagerie of pets to look after.