What is Meditation and Why It’s Important for Your Longterm Well-Being
Meditation is often spoken about as the ability to sit in an upright posture and clear the mind of thoughts. It is possible for this to be achieved, but it is not a requirement for the practice. In a nutshell, meditation refers to the ability to either calm the mind or to witness the thoughts occurring without getting attached to them. This occurs through non-judgment, detachment and a typical focus on the breath.
Meditation can be done sitting with legs crossed, lying down, standing, or even moving. For example, some yoga practitioners call their experiences “moving meditations”. My favorite position for meditation is lying down, supported by pillows and/or blankets. Then, observe your mind. If you can get your mind to slow down – or even to silence itself – do so. If not, witness what is occurring in your head without reacting to it. Pretend your thoughts are clouds floating by while you are lying on a bed of grass.
Mindfulness is a term used in conjunction with meditation. Mindfulness explores the mind’s capacity to be aware of all that is happening in the present moment. This includes not having regret about the past or anxiety of the future – noticing and being present in the moment that is happening right now. In essence, it is about your body and your mind being in the same place.
When I am meditating, I use what is called a “mindfulness bell”. It is a bell that plays at designated increments during the practice, and it reminds me to check in with myself to see if I have engaged in reactivity with my thoughts. If I have, the bell is a reminder to move back into the role of the observer. If I haven’t, I give myself a mental thumbs-up! I set the increments near around 5 minutes when my mind is moving slowly. When I notice that I am anxious, I set the bells to ring each minute.
Why Engage in Meditation?
People engage in mindfulness and meditation, on the whole, to gain control of their minds. Guilt, worry, and regret about past events can be debilitating. Extreme anxiety and worry about the future can also. Thus, these practices are focused on the here and now. It gives those who engage in it a sense of control. Ironically, it happens when we realize that we can release control! It also creates the opportunity for people to realize what typically gets overlooked because we spend so much time in our minds.
As a society, we are fixated on the ability to alter future events. While our actions do play a part in the outcomes we incur, worrying about them repeatedly only serves to cause us extra stress. Thoughts about the past can lead you to do actions such as apologizing or changing behavior. Thoughts about the future, similarly, can guide your planning and decision-making. However, fixation on either of these only results in mental suffering and anguish. It does nothing to move you in a positive direction, and it moves your mood and perception of reality into a negative one. This is where mindfulness and meditation come into play.
The Meaning of Zen
“Zen” is often referred to as a state of being at complete peace and calm. There are a variety of ways to reach this state, but many use meditation. In meditation, the mind is cleared – or the relationships to thoughts are changed. In this process, the state of zen is achieved. Zen living and zen gardens, further, are referred to ways of living and peaceful outdoor areas where individuals can go for peace and relaxation. There is even a sect of Buddhism by the name of “Zen Buddhism” that is practiced widely.
Suffering is often the cause of why people discover meditation and mindfulness. Individuals who engage in these practices understand that there is something occurring within the mind that is out of proportion to the outside environment. That is not to say that trauma does not occur. Conversely, it does not mean that overthinking about a “simple” event does not cause stress either. Mindfulness and meditation give the practitioner more control over mental behaviors and patterns, regardless of the outside occurrences.
These practices help people with their responses to daily events. Instead of acting from uncontrollable emotion or intense frustration, mindfulness enables people to be more aware of what is going on in their minds so that they can choose the ways they respond to life’s events. Doing this lowers stress and anxiety through calming the mind and body. The individual no longer reacts from a fight-or-flight standpoint, but from one that is more calm and relaxed.
Meditation and mindfulness can help practitioners understand what in particular is going on in the mind. When some people experience anxiety or stress, they are unsure why it is happening. With the act of observing what is happening in the mind, a person is able to separate themselves from the thoughts in the mind so that they can be addressed appropriately. This could include taking outside action about a situation or acceptance of something that cannot be changed. Both can give the meditator control over their lives as they choose the thoughts and emotions they act on.
Meditation and Mental Illness
Social anxiety can involve the mind creating statements about what could happen in social situations that are not true. Mindfulness can give the practitioner the ability to step back and observe what is going on mentally. Then, those with social anxiety might be able to alter the thoughts they are having or become aware of the fact that they are not true.
OCD can be improved with the practice of mindfulness as one becomes more aware of thoughts and patterns that happen. Some behaviors associated with OCD arise from unresolved issues in other areas of life. A person realizing this could engage in some personal work or therapeutic sessions that heal these areas of one’s life. Thus, obsessive or compulsive behaviors could subside.
Fear in general can cause compulsions, and these can range from the fear of forgetting an item at home to the fear of dying. Repeated behaviors can also happen in hopes of avoiding a negative outcome. In meditation and mindfulness, the nervous system is calmed and relaxed. Studies have even shown the amygdala shrinking with meditation. Therefore, symptoms or obsessions that persist might be able to be changed overtime.
The phrase “suffering of suffering” involves making suffering worse through self-talk. Physical pain and discomfort happen in life, and it can be considerably painful. However, it is unproductive for someone to then call themselves weak or useless afterward. The situation is already difficult, and it makes it worse to engage in put-downs. The pain will be experienced regardless, but (as much as possible) self-talk should remain positive and/or neutral during these times.
- You might want to read: 8 Meditation Exercises for Anxiety to Help Relax Your Mind
How Should I Meditate?
Well, for starters, there is no proper way to meditate. Some people like certain techniques better than others. As well, some meditation techniques work better for some than for others. My favorite type of meditation involves sitting still. Others like moving meditations because it helps them relate better to their minds. I enjoy meditating with light music and a mindfulness bell. Others meditate in silence or with a guided meditation. Again, it is not possible to do it wrong. It is called a practice because that is what we are always doing.
The best way to find out what meditation techniques work for you is to try some of them out.
- Try different positions (sitting/lying down).
- Try a pillow, blankets, or rocks.
- Outside meditation on a warm day has been a rewarding practice for me.
- I play soft nature and spa music during my practice. It helps me to stay in the present moment more than silence does, as it gives me an outside stimulus to focus on that calms me.
- Sometimes, I engage in light stretching beforehand to loosen my muscles.
After a successful meditation session, coming back to the present moment with your eyes open can be a little disorienting. During this time, it is best to wait a moment to get acclimated to the outside world again. Spending so much time in stillness makes the transition back into the busy world slightly jolting. Again, it is wise during this time to just be gentle to yourself and take each step slowly. Take gentle movements and engage in light activity for the next five minutes instead of jumping directly into a strenuous activity.
There are limitless books with guided meditations. Some of them contain steps to follow during the process, and others have affirmations and mantras that you can repeat to yourself. A friend of mine records herself reciting the guided meditations that she enjoys best. She leaves pauses in between the statements or affirmations. Then, she plays it back to herself. This allows her to meditate to content that she knows will aid in her meditation, and hearing her own voice can reinforce what is being said.
Meditating in a group is another practice that is useful! You can designate a leader to read a meditation, or you can set a time for the whole group to meditate in silence. After, you can discuss what the experience was like for each of you! This type of meditation can be done in a room with one another, or by sitting in a circle outdoors. The collective energy of group meditation is another benefit to approaching it this way. It can be encouraging to have individuals around you who are involved in the same peaceful activity.
A beginner might start with a guided meditation. Here, another person is speaking to you about what steps to take during the practice, and they are available online at no cost. The person could be talking about how to breathe or how to handle the thinking mind. Guided visualizations involve a person talking to you about a scene to imagine in the mind. It can be a spiritual scene, such as seeing yourself becoming more grounded or connected to others, or it could be a scene where you imagine yourself achieving an upcoming goal.
Meditation and mindfulness are sometimes used interchangeably. I tend to use mindfulness as the idea surrounding the focus of the present moment. This can be used throughout the day when trying to stay in the here and now. This is a practice that you can carry with you in any situation. I use meditation, on the other hand, when I carve out some time in my day to repeatedly focus on the present moment for a period of minutes or hours that I set. Since I enjoy meditating with my eyes closed, it is not something that I could consider doing at every moment of every day, although I am still trying to remain mentally in the present yet and still.
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