When we think of taking control of our minds and finding calm in a busy and hectic world, many of us will instantly think of meditation.
Meditation is an ancient practice that is used by billions of people around the world and that has been practiced for centuries. Now scientists and researchers are starting to decode it’s many benefits but nevertheless, it’s still very understood by a great number of people.
Let’s take a closer look at meditation, how it can help us and how you should get started.
Perhaps a good place to start is to answer the question: what is meditation?
While many people think of meditation as a way to ‘achieve enlightenment’, to recreate the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, or to practice various religions; the reality is that meditation is simply a form of practicing control over your thoughts. It can be all those things, but at its most basic, meditation means try to focus your thoughts or clear your mind, which is essentially the equivalent of training your attention.
So often our thoughts are reactive. We are constantly being distracted and taken from one experience to the next – whether due to television, to music or to something else entirely. But when you meditate, you will be actively controlling your thoughts. You will become introspective and you will start to reflect on the very nature of thought itself. And as you do, you’ll learn to remain in control of your thought processes so as to prevent yourself from becoming easily distracted, stressed, angry or otherwise experiencing inappropriate or unhelpful emotions.
This is a highly valuable form of training and one that’s particularly relevant in today’s fast-paced and constantly-connected world. Meditation can help us to conquer stress, to improve concentration in a range of tasks.
Studies show that meditation can help us to improve our mood, our concentration, our focus, our creativity and more. It has both immediate benefits by providing us with a break from the stress of our internal monolog and helping us to experience ‘theta brainwaves’ but it also has long term benefits as we start to learn to better control and understand our own thoughts and emotions.
Meditation has even been shown to boost our IQ! That’s right, it can actually make you smarter. And this also correlates with more connective tissue in the brain and a greater ability to utilize different areas of the brain at once for single tasks.
Fortunately, meditation is gradually starting to make its way into the mainstream. More and more ‘productivity’ and ‘lifestyle’ coaches are recommending its benefits and it forms an integral part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – which is currently the most popular form of clinical intervention for a whole host of psychological difficulties.
Still not convinced? Then I invite you to have a listen to Tim Ferriss’ podcasts. Tim Ferriss is the author of The Four Hour Workweek and is one of the most influential writers on the net when it comes to topics like fitness, self-improvement, productivity and happiness. His most recent project – the podcast – sees him interviewing a large number of different influential figures.
Those include Matt Mullenweg (creator of WordPress), Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings), Arnold Schwarzenegger and many, many more. One of the questions he’ll often ask them is what their morning routine looks like and if they have any other habits they consider important to their success.
What does Tim Ferriss note is the one thing that nearly all his interviewees have in common? They all meditate. So if you want to be one of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs, if you want to be spiritually enlightened or if you just want to be smarter then you need to start meditating!
But while meditation has benefits across the board, it’s worth noting that some forms of meditation appear to be more effective at promoting specific physiological benefits than others (according to a study from the National University of Singapore). If you want to get the best benefits from meditation, then you need to choose the right type to get started with.
Here’s what the study found when comparing Theravada and Vajrayana meditation…
In the study from the National University of Singapore, it was found that Theravada meditation is more effective than Vajrayana (below) for promoting relaxation and calmness. Studies measured activity of the parasympathetic nervous system – the prime purpose of which is to promote calmness – while practitioners were deep in meditation.
Those using Vajrayana meanwhile were found to activate their sympathetic nervous systems, which control the fight-or-flight response. In short, this would lead to elevated heartrate, focus and arousal. This is a particularly interesting finding, as conventionally we view meditation as a means to calm ourselves and to relax.
After the participants had engaged in their meditative practices, both groups were then asked to take cognitive tests and it was found that the Vajrayana group were able to boost their performance considerably from a single session. The same boost in cognitive performance was not seen in those using Vajrayana meditation
This demonstrates the broadness of the term ‘meditation’ and shows that different types of meditation have different specific advantages. In this scenario, you might decide to use Vajrayana meditation to psych yourself up for a competition or to prepare for an interview, then use Theravada meditation to calm down afterwards or to chill out before bed.
As you can see then, the type of meditation you use is a very important factor in determining the outcome. Likewise, you will likely find that some forms of meditation are more accessible and enjoyable than others, depending on your own goals, your experience and your interests.
The question then becomes: where to start? Read on and we’ll look at some different types of meditation and some different terms. Bear in mind that you don’t have to stick rigidly to any one of these and actually you can create your own ‘kind’ of meditation by just setting your own goals. Nevertheless, any of these will provide you with a good starting point to do more of your own research and to start practicing the art of meditation.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness, also called ‘Vipassana’, is a type of meditation that comes from Buddhism. It’s also the form of meditation that’s perhaps most widely used in the Western world today – a good example being its use within CBT (this is something we’re going to come to in much more detail in subsequent chapters).
Essentially, the goal in Mindfulness is to be ‘aware’ and to be ‘present’ of your own thoughts and to reflect on them. This form of meditation doesn’t encourage you to try and empty your mind then, but rather the objective is simply to let your thoughts ‘drift by’ like clouds in the sky.
What this then allows you to do, is to become more aware of what thoughts you actually tend to have, thereby being better able to spot negative thought patterns etc. that might be causing problems. This type of meditation has also been shown to reduce anxiety, almost as effectively as anxiety-reducing drugs. Perhaps the biggest advantage of mindfulness though, is that it’s not as challenging as trying to completely empty your mind of thoughts and thus provides a great starting point for those interested in learning.
Zazen: Zazen is a term that essentially means ‘seated meditation’ and is sometimes referred to by the modern Zen tradition as ‘just sitting’. This is an incredibly minimalist sort of meditation, which once again makes it ideal for those interested in getting started by feeling a little anxious to give it a go. The only instruction here is to sit with the correct posture, meaning that there’s no pressure to get anything ‘right’. The simple act of sitting completely still is almost sure to result in a calming effect and to gradually clear your mind, thus there is no need for complex instruction beyond ‘just sitting’.
While this is the core principle behind Zazen, it will sometimes be more complex than that. Often practitioners are given a paradoxical sentence, a story, a question or an element of Buddhist scripture to ‘muse on’. This method of meditation has also been adopted by a number of other religions – whereby believers are asked to think about lines from their respective religious scripts, or to think over scenes from their literature.
For some, the lack of guidance is going to make this an approachable and enjoyable form of meditation, for others it can be frustrating and might leave you lost.
Spiritual Meditation: Another way in which meditation has been adopted by religions is through spiritual meditation. This is essentially a form of meditative prayer – and prayer has been shown to have many similar benefits to other forms of meditation.
Transcendental Meditation: Transcendental meditation comes from Vedanta, which is the meditative tradition from Hinduism. TM is once again seated (ideally in lotus or half-lotus position) and this time uses a mantra. A mantra is any word or sound of your choice, which is simply repeated over and over again. The idea behind this form of meditation is simply to ‘rise above’ any distractions or thoughts, effectively clearing your mind of all thoughts and living entirely in the moment. Alternatively, you can try focussing on your breathing in order to calm your thoughts.
The ultimate objective of transcendental meditation is transcendence. This is the meditation that is used as a path to ‘enlightenment’ which is reportedly a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the universe and perfect contentment. In reality, it’s likely that enlightenment is merely a brain state, achieved by relaxing areas of the brain and thus getting them to shut down. This is something that takes years to master though and is highly elusive, if you use transcendental meditation with the sole objective of reaching this kind of state, you a likely to be disappointed.
That said though, if you can reach this state, the effect is something similar to being on drugs or having a stroke. It’s completely mind-bending but not damaging in the same way those other examples are. You lose the ability to distinguish time and to distinguish your own body in physical space as those areas of your brain close down. If you want to have an ‘end goal’, then this is certainly something interesting to aim for.
When done correctly, transcendental meditation is ideal as a way to relax and to move your thoughts away from stress. It can be used to calm the heart rate and is a fantastic ‘coping mechanism’ if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also quite difficult though and many people give up after becoming frustrated at the inability to quiet their inner voice. The secret to success is to go easy on yourself and not to force it.
Focussed Meditation: As with transcendental/mantra meditation, focussed meditation involves the practice of trying to completely clear your thoughts by focussing on something else. Mantra meditation is one form of focussed meditation, but you could alternatively try focussing on external stimuli (like the sound of a river, or a piece of meditative music), or even on something like a candle flame.
Guided Visualisation: Guided visualisation is a form of meditation wherein the practitioner visualises a scenario or environment. The ‘guided’ part of this process involves listening to a recording, which often will describe the scene you are in. This kind of meditation is great for relaxing and for moving your thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, before you achieve the ability to block out your surroundings through other forms of meditation. If you’re feeling stressed and you want to immediately calm down, then guided visualisation is a useful tool. However, it doesn’t require the same discipline as other forms of meditation and so is not likely to help develop your ability to focus or to calm yourself in the same way.
Movement Meditation: In movement meditation, you relax your mind while focussing on your body and moving through a range of gentle movements. A great example of this is Tai Chi Chuan, which is a martial art practiced incredibly slowly involving a set of gentle movements. While it takes time to learn something like a Tai Chi set, you can practice movement meditation by using a dance routine (Solja Boy?) or even by just swaying gently from side-to-side.
Vipassana: Vipassana is ‘insight meditation’ (Vipassana is Theravada meditation, Theravada being a branch of Buddhism). This is meditation which involves ‘close attention to sensation’ with the goal being to discover ‘the nature of existence’. This form of meditation comes from Buddhism and was believed to be the type practiced by ‘Buddha himself’.
To practice this form of meditation, you sit down and then focus on your abdomen and feel the way that the breathing moves your stomach. Likewise, be aware of the other sensations throughout your body, trying to remain focussed and calm simultaneously. When interruptions come – such as sounds, other thoughts, or temperatures, you should ‘note’ those sensations and give them labels such as ‘warmth’ or ‘thinking’. Vipassana is often practiced on retreats, where participants alternate between seated and walking meditation.
Vajrayana: Vajrayana is another branch of Buddhism. Vajrayana meditation is a complicated and advanced form of meditation, which involves the goal of becoming ‘buddha’ like. There are various types of meditation within Vajrayana, such as Mahamudra. This form of meditation involves attempts to empty the mind once again, this time by simply ‘doing nothing’ to the extent where you aren’t even focussed on trying to meditate.
Both the Theravada and Vajrayana forms of meditation are advanced methods and require years of practice to perfect and an understanding of the surrounding beliefs and cultures. They are also only two examples of the many complex and varied forms of meditation that exist.