Meditation can work on two levels. For many people, it is simply a way to gain distance from the stresses and strains of daily life and gain a better perspective on the problems they are facing. It relaxes them, lowers their stress levels and can leave them feeling refreshed and reinvigorated. However, others use it as a means through which they can communicate more freely with their subconscious selves. In achieving a trance-like state, they reach a point, much like the state between sleeping and waking, where the subconscious is the more dominant party. Through this, many believe that they are able to communicate with their higher selves, asking it to increase their latent psychic abilities, such as intuition, clairvoyance and telepathy. The belief is that, in communicating with the subconscious, it is given free reign to answer back, through images, sounds and feelings.
The Science of Meditation
The benefits of meditation are supported by science. Neuroscientists have discovered that those who meditate can actually ‘shift’ their brain activity to different areas of the cortex. During meditation, brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex, resulting in feelings of calm and serenity. A study carried out by Professor Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts recorded the brain activity of a number of employees from a high-tech firm in Madison, Wisconsin. These employees were selected for the levels of pressure they reported experiencing in their jobs, all of which were high.
The respondents were split into two groups, one of which was taught meditation over a two-month period and the others were left alone, being used as a ‘control group.’ At the end of that time, the brain waves of each group were compared. The control group used their right frontal cortexes, just as before, whilst those who had used meditation were observed to be more active on the left frontal cortex; they were happier and calmer than the control group.
Tips for better Meditation
Whatever your reasons for meditating, there are a number of steps you can follow to ensure that you get the most from your time.
● Be mindful of your posture. The Alexander Technique purports that many of our physical ailments and even our mental health can be affected by the way we sit, stand or lie. Meditation is a fusion of the physical body and the subconscious self, so it makes sense that each is able to complement the other. Whether you choose to meditate in a chair or sitting cross-legged on the floor, ensure that you are sitting upright, that your spine is straight and that your head is facing directly ahead. If you slump, not only will you experience back pain, but your mind will drift. In meditating, you are attempting to clear your mind and focus on nothing.
● Keep your eyes open. Many people think of meditation as something you do with your eyes shut. However, it can be more productive to keep them open. Although you are relaxing and trying to create some distance from the physical world, keeping your eyes open can help you feel more ‘present.’ Closing your eyes, again, can encourage your mind to drift. In learning meditation, many Zen Buddhists focus on an object, helping them to achieve a state in which they are both alert and calm.
● Listen to your body. The inhalation and exhalation of breath can serve as a perfect focus for all the senses. It is rhythmic, cyclical and natural and something that is easy to embrace.
● Counting your breath. If you are having difficulty in relaxing, counting your breaths can be a great way to distract yourself. Relaxation can be surprisingly hard work, if you’re not used to it! Make your first inhalation ‘one,’ your first exhalation ‘two’ and repeat to the number four, before returning to one again. This can also help you to achieve better focus.
● Monitor your thoughts. Although you are trying to clear your mind, rogue thoughts will wander in, now and again. Rather than trying to stop them, allow them to form and then encourage them to fade away. Trying to keep a lid on your thoughts will only increase your levels of anxiety, so treat them as you would uninvited guests - entertain them briefly and then gently show them to the door.
● Monitor your emotions. Feelings tend to come hand in hand with thoughts. You may experience anger or jealousy or other emotions. Rather than dwelling on the reasons behind those feelings, tune into the physical effects and register them. If you are angry, note the increased heart rate and boiling sensation in your stomach. By stepping away from the reasons and focussing on the physical results, you will be able to return yourself to a state of calm far quicker and not get embroiled in problems that you are trying to leave behind.
● Be silent. Although there are many CDs and tapes available for meditation, it is better to be able to hear the chatter in your mind. That way, you can identify just where your problems are coming from and deal with them. Silence will also highlight when you are achieving moments of true peace. Music or ambient sounds will simply drown out the parts of your mind that you need to allow to release themselves.
● Quality not quantity. Many Buddhist monks are able to mediate for hours on end. However, this is not always practical in the modern world. 10 minutes is a good time to aim for to begin with. Once you have achieved a good state in that allotted time, you can start to extend your periods of meditation. However, always work in a timeframe that is good for you. Five productive minutes are better than 10 stressful ones.
● Make a space. It can be helpful to create a space or environment that is conducive to meditation. You might want to fill it with meaningful mementos or simply have a single statuette present, on which to focus. Candles, ambient lighting, incense and relaxing materials can all help your body and mind to relax and come together.