The benefits of meditation are well known. Used for thousands of years to manage stress and promote good health, it has now entered mainstream culture as a life skill that is both practical and enriching. Meditation techniques are taught by complementary health-care professionals for relaxation and well-being in the treatment of a wide range of health issues. Like yoga, people have woken up to the fact that meditation really works: it is a well rounded practice offering sound relaxation techniques and good, common sense philosophy that is completely in tune with contemporary psychology. Anyone can learn to meditate at any age, and the basic self-help skills are easily incorporated into day-to-day life.
What is meditation?
Broadly speaking, meditation is a relaxed, centred state of awareness and connectedness: a place of being in the here and now. During meditation, brain wave patterns slow, taking us into a pleasant, light day-dreaming state which induces an overall sense of well-being. Our muscles relax, digestion improves, heart rate lowers, breathing slows and deepens and we produce mood-enhancing endorphins.
Meditation generally entails allowing the mind to quieten, the body relax and breathing deepen. There are lots of different ways to meditate, and it’s good to find an approach which suits you as an individual. A popular method is called ‘Mindfulness’ meditation, a way of calmly observing the present moment as it passes. Others include focusing on the breath, or the use of guided imagery, mantras, positive affirmations and self-healing techniques. All are supported by a philosophy of non-judgement, acceptance and kindness. Most techniques have solid roots and are worth a try; it’s best to keep an open mind and see what works for you.
As a rule of thumb, the more traditional approaches teach meditation as a structured discipline, whereas the contemporary ones will be more open and flexible. It is not necessary to sit crossed legged and hold uncomfortable positions – sitting in a chair or lying down is fine. Nor do you have to change your belief system in order to meditate.
What are the benefits of meditation?
- Meditation is well known to be a highly effective way to manage stress. As we enter this relaxed but aware state, the every-day thinking part of our brain takes a back seat. Released from the busy chatter of our mind, we create a space in which to re-balance and re-charge.
- Meditation reinforces the relaxation response in the body’s nervous system, bringing it down from the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. This allows all of its systems to move towards balance. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisole, which if produced in too high quantities can be harmful, diminish. Sleep patterns generally improve and levels of well-being are enhanced.
- Regular practise of meditation strengthens our ability to focus. Recent clinical studies have shown that regular meditation has the power to sharpen the mind.
- Whatever our belief system, meditation also provides us with an opportunity to explore and develop the self-growth and spiritual side of things. This can be profoundly life affirming, especially if dealing with the challenges of stress and ill-health.
- Meditation lessens feelings of isolation. It enables the experience of feeling connected to a much larger community and whole.
How can meditation be used as a preventative measure for stress and other health issues?
- Meditation helps us to make positive choices in our psychological state by putting us in touch with how our thoughts directly affect our mood and general well-being. It teaches us a level of acceptance in the present and helps us to see the ‘bigger picture’. Regular meditation trains the body and mind to enter states of well-being conducive to good health: it enables us to engage with positive ways of thinking and being rather than focus on the negative aspects in our life which often compounds health issues.
- Regular practice of meditation has been shown to improve general outlook and increase well-being, positivity, optimism and self-confidence. Endorphins, which are natural pain-killers and mood enhancers produced during meditation, can stay in the system and exert a positive effect for up to twelve hours.
- Learning a self-help skill such as meditation can be hugely empowering. Knowing we have it in our survival kit allows us to become more proactive in the management of our own life, less reliant on others to fix us and less inclined to view ourselves as victim to our circumstances.
- Meditation provides a gentle means for self-development. By putting us in touch with our natural resources we are able to find balance, perspective and support within ourselves. We need these in order to function healthily – both on a personal and social level.
- Research shows that relaxation and feelings of well-being support the body’s immune function, which can become compromised in times of stress. Meditating on a regular basis may therefore help to balance and maintain a healthy immune response.
How can you learn to meditate?
- There are plenty of meditation books on the market. However, it is recommended that you find a good local class or teacher so that you can receive direct support when you are first learning. Don’t worry about being a beginner – most other people will be too. You will need to regularly practice on your own as well; like most things in life, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
How can you get started?
- Guided meditation CDs are recommended for relaxation, they can be a great introduction to meditation and are usually set to soothing background music. There are also a few audio courses available for sale on the internet.
- Local libraries, newspapers and community websites will have information on classes available. You can also try looking on the notice boards of health food shops and church halls, or enquire in any complementary health clinic.
- Ask around to find a teacher whose approach you are comfortable with: some will be secular, whilst others will be attached to a religion such as Buddhism or Christianity.
- Look at the options of ways to learn, and balance them against your particular needs. For instance, a drop-in group offers flexibility, whereas a course with a closed group provides consistency and structure. It is also well worth considering one-to-one sessions to help you to focus on you as an individual and get support at a more personal level.