What is meditation?

Meditation is known to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being, proving it highly effective. It is a topic under much scientific scrutiny, and research often provides insights into new and different benefits of meditation to the human body and mind. The wide variety of meditation techniques also offer other benefits.

Meditation has been scientifically proved in hundreds of studies to have natural health and life benefits. So it could be of some use to everyone around the world, even the ‘not so spiritual’. Meditation is all about training your awareness, not by stopping your thoughts but by observing them as they pass by, without any judgment whatsoever. That is the goal.

Meditation is a process where you become fully engaged at the moment. Entirely focused on what is happening right now, not focusing on the future or the past. Meditation is like any other skill; you become better and more comfortable with practice. However, nobody will ever achieve “perfect” meditation because there will always be at least one thought that you fall into. This doesn’t matter; what matters is becoming less affected by these thoughts and not letting them control you.

You may be thinking meditation is only for bald Tibetan men who don’t have a care in the world. You may assume “there can’t be any real benefits to sitting down doing nothing”, even health organisations keep warning us about sitting too much! But actually, it seems as though those level-headed monks are onto something.

The Brain

One essential purpose of meditation is training the brain to retain focus. The ability to process and ignore distracting thoughts is beneficial to those with conditions such as ADD, anxiety and depression. While you may assume that a skill like this would require lots of experience, studies have shown that just a week of practice can significantly improve cognitive abilities. It has also been shown to improve working memory, even under pressure.

Meditation is effective in helping us work on the problems we face in life. Despite the impression many get of meditation as an activity of avoidance, it is highly beneficial for dealing with stress. It can help us realise that often the circumstances that make us feel bad are beyond our control.

Meditation has even been seen to cause the brain to grow. This may sound strange or unbelievable, but meditation has been proven to reverse the thinning of the frontal cortex, which usually comes with age. This means we will have a better capacity for language and cognition for a longer part of our lives. It also thickens parts of the brain associated with attention and memory, which can improve cognitive performance.

The Body

Studies have found that meditation improves immune response. One study indicated that meditators given the flu shot had more antibodies in their blood. Benefits such as these were still present in the body months after regular practice of meditation had concluded. Furthermore, the ability of meditation to prevent stress may be the reason it aids in improving the symptoms of many medical conditions, from heart ailments to cancer and asthma, as well as for those who suffer from chronic pain. Studies have shown that meditation can reduce direct experiences of physical pain by up to fifty per cent and suggest that meditation can be used to increase the efficacy of traditional medical treatment when used alongside it.

Those who practice meditation often find that it provides them with a greater sense of energy. If you find yourself getting too tired or in need of a nap, meditation may be an appropriate alternative to provide you with extra energy and focus. Meditation can also improve your alertness.

The Spirit

The ability to lose yourself in meditation is an excellent skill for those who struggle to disconnect from the world and feel heavy pressures from the world around them. The harmonious state of flow experienced in meditation is one of the positive qualities of meditation that can improve joyfulness. I like to use the term ‘in the zone’ to explain the feeling of deep meditation. Hopefully, it is a sensation you have experienced previously in your life; it is often felt when you are doing something you enjoy, or when you feel prepared for a project, or play a competitive sport. This is what it feels like to enjoy the flow of meditation.

Another critical benefit of meditation is the ability to cultivate compassion. Through meditation, we can work to build better, stronger relationships. Loving-kindness meditation is a form of meditation that allows us to make compassion for all sentient beings. It is critical that we have compassion for ourselves and others to gain self-acceptance and so that we can forgive ourselves and others. When we stop to acknowledge why a person has acted in a certain way, we can gain empathy and understand what has motivated them to hurt us. This is beneficial for all involved.

Some spiritual traditions suggest that meditation can progress in stages with practice, providing gradually deepening insights into your being. Other traditions speak of enlightenment: a somewhat elusive concept but the idea of understanding the universe’s mysteries is something awe-inspiring to consider when using meditation. The sense of freedom that one may experience upon achieving enlightenment is something we can only imagine. Whether you believe in the concept of enlightenment or not, it can be an exciting incentive for meditating. If it raises questions you are not comfortable with, then consulting a spiritual guru may be something that would help you on your meditation journey.

Types of meditation:

There are a variety of ways to carry out the process of meditation. They all have the same goal, as mentioned above, but they sometimes produce subtly different results.

Loving-kindness meditation:

The difference here is the goal is to develop a loving attitude toward everything, even to your enemies and the people who cause you severe stress. Through deep breathing, the mind is opened up to receive love and kindness, and then it is sent out toward everything, bad or good. The key is to repeat it until it starts to feel authentic. This is a great way to improve empathy and compassion for others and would be great for someone prone to anger and resentment.

Progressive relaxation meditation:

This is a style of meditation where scanning the body to find any tension is encouraged. The goal is to locate the pressure, focus on it and then let it go. Usually starting at the feet or head and moving to the opposite end of the body, sometimes tensing and relaxing the muscles, sometimes visualizing water rising from the toes, but all working in the same way. This type is beneficial for creating a calm, relaxed feeling and is very helpful for sleep and anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation:

This is where the focus is to remain aware and present to the moment. Not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future but being totally in the now. This is often done by focusing on something in your surroundings while not judging at all. The beauty of this is that it can be done anywhere; simply shift your focus on whatever is around you at a particular time. Using every sense to feel the environment around is encouraged. The more you do this, the easier it becomes. This is the most studied type of meditation as it is common in many other forms.

Breathing meditation:

This involves being very aware of the breath, and focus is directed at the feeling of each exhalation and inhalation. I am sometimes counting, sometimes just breathing but always profound and slow breaths. Ideally, any thoughts are ignored, and focus is shifted back onto the puff. This is very helpful in feeling in control as well as reducing anxiety.

Transcendental meditation:

This is a very spiritual form of meditation. The aim is to rise above your state of being and focus entirely on a mantra, repeating a series of words over and over. This can only be done with a teacher because of the complexities involved.  Sometimes people report spiritual experiences as well as increased mindfulness with this type of meditation.

Kundalini yoga:

This is a physically active meditation. It involves deep breathing, poses, and mantras. You can do the poses at home or with a teacher, either way, it improves strength, reduces anxiety and increases focus. One study was also where a subject with lower-back pain was reduced significantly through this type of meditation.

Self-inquiry meditation:

This is a very ego focused form of meditation, where you begin to question who you are. As you continue to meditate, the idea is to find your true self behind your ego so you can live a happier, more authentic life. This type of meditation is very good at bringing about inner peace. However, it is pretty hard to follow for someone new.

Zen meditation:

This is a form of meditation that is closely linked to Buddhism. It is necessary to study this type with a teacher because many steps and postures need to be mastered to have a good effect. The aim is to sit comfortably, focus on your breath and observe your thoughts. Just watch them like watching the sky; sometimes it is cloudy, sometimes it is more apparent. You don’t judge the ideas. Just focus on protecting them from a different perspective.

The benefits of meditation

Extensive research has been done on meditation over the years, with most conclusions being very positive. It has been shown to reduce negative emotions, improve focus, improve memory, and improve relationship satisfaction. People often report less fear of loneliness, less depression, increased resilience against pain, better cognitive abilities and creative thinking.

There has also been a link between better health and meditation; it improves the immune system, improves blood pressure, lessens inflammation and even prevents arthritis. This list goes on and on; the evidence seems to be stacking up favouring meditation being much more than a spiritual gimmick.

When it comes to clearing our minds of unwanted thoughts, I have learnt that it is best to take a multi-faceted approach. I have compiled my best advice in clearing the mind of negative thoughts and patterns of unhelpful thinking. I have paired each anecdotal piece of advice with the latest neuroscientific research.

Which of our treatments can best help you clear your mind?

The science and treatment of unwanted thoughts

Neuroscientists at Brown University have suggested that the key to ‘optimal inattention’ lies in preoccupying the mind. With the ability to concentrate our attention on something specific, we engage in the opposite act of ignoring other things. In their 2015 study, the researchers at Brown identified how the brain achieved ‘optimal inattention’ by changing the synchronisation of brainwaves between different brain regions. Their study consisted of telling participants that they would feel a tap on the left middle finger or big toe and ignore the other side. The results showed that humans could direct attention to one side but not both, suggesting that distraction is an effective method of avoiding rumination.

A 2012 Cambridge University study on brain imaging showed that adverse events and trauma are often dealt with using memory control. Roland Benoit, the lead author of the study, explained that there were two precise suppression methods, ‘by shutting down the remembering system… the other by facilitating the remembering system to occupy awareness with a substitute memory’. Understanding these brain functions will help scientists better understand how traumatic memories are dealt with and how this can improve treatments for those with mental illnesses hinged on traumatic experiences.

Substitution is the process of imagining or reworking our experience to pretend we are in a different situation, much like rose-tinted glasses. Cambridge researchers found that the substitution method engaged the caudal prefrontal cortex and the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Their research shows that the mind can be cleared through various techniques which activate several different neural pathways.

Meditation is one method of clearing the mind that demonstrates effective changes in brain behaviour to reduce the pain of those with unwanted thoughts. Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.D, explains that her experiences in yoga and meditation classes as a student had a significant impact on her understanding of health. Her studies at Wake Forest Baptist Health have demonstrated positive trends in the brain areas associated with introspection and thought. Her studies have also shown that meditation can work towards decreased neural activity in the regions associated with pain and increased neural activity related to controlling emotion.

Neuroscientist Catherine Kerr’s team have found that it is possible to manipulate your alpha rhythms to switch attentional focus through mindfulness training. Their research expands on the understanding of how mindfulness can help people ignore depressive thoughts. Kerr said, ‘We’re linking different ways of looking at the brain that doesn’t usually come into dialogue with one another.’ Furthermore, Lund University, Sweden, have found that mindfulness treatment can be as effective as individual cognitive behavioural therapy in patients with depression and anxiety. One way to practice mindfulness is to engage in guided meditation, which is known to aid in coping abilities and allow the mind to be clear to be contemplative.

These five methods of coping with unwanted thoughts should aid us in understanding how to clear our minds. If you find that a particular technique does not work, try the next.

Why guided meditation?

Meditation is a powerful tool in improving your health, relationships, and lifestyle, but it can be hard to make it into a habit; sometimes, people new to it get turned off because they don’t see immediate results. It can also be uncomfortable initially as it involves sitting with many negative thoughts and feelings that you may have been living with for years. People often struggle to open their minds up past this resistance. Guided meditation involves meditating while being in the presence of a trained practitioner or teacher. This can be done via written text, recorded audio or audiovisual media. This process is beneficial if you are new to meditation as it allows for results in the fastest way.

This is where guided meditation comes in. This involves some sort of outside help to push you in the right direction. Like a driving instructor teaching his student to drive, it’s the same thing. A teacher can show you the mistakes you are making and get you results much faster. They will understand the techniques and signs of what you are going through and help you develop your new skill.

After a while, once you have got past the initial uncomfortable phase of meditation, you will start to look forward to it; you will want that 20 minutes to relax, observe your thoughts and become more aware. Guided meditation can get you there much faster with a lot less frustration.

The average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are harmful, and 95% are the same repetitive thoughts as before. Of these repeated thoughts, 80% are negative.

Discover the powerful concept of clarity and end these negative thoughts.

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