It’s 8 AM, my coffee drips through the filter and I’m preparing my lunch for the afternoon. I’m feeling a bit stressed and excited. The feeling most of us experience before an important event. Today my final aviation exam, from 14 written ones, is about to start. Because it is my second to last chance I’m slightly more nervous than usual. Luckily I have 10 minutes left to meditate, I make myself comfortable and close my eyes…
Meditation, the old tradition of Buddhism has become more popular in the West in recent years. Research even shows that 1 in 10 people in the US practice some kind of meditation. An unfortunate effect is that some see meditation as another hype. Others will prejudge it as nonsense, something only for the spiritual.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is scientifically proven by dozens of studies that meditation provides cognitive as well as psychological benefits. A recent study on a mindfulness meditation found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness. Participants even reported reductions in stress and anxiety.
Backing this up with my own experiences I want to share some of my insights about the practice of meditation. My exam that day went better than expected and that wasn’t the only time it helped me through important events.
In this article I will describe a meditation technique that gets you started as well as other advanced techniques. I will also give background information so you can gain a better understanding about what meditation conveys.
The origin of Meditation
According to archaeologists, approximately 5000 years ago meditation originated. They found wall art that appeared to be figures of people that sat on the ground with crossed legs and hands that were resting on their knees. Later, descriptions were found of ancient Indian meditation techniques, dating back around 3000 years ago. Buddha, one of history’s major proponents of meditation, and a leading meditation icon, first made his mark around 500 B.C.
His meditation techniques were spread wide across the Asian continent. Each country and culture adopted the word ‘meditation’ slightly different so that each developed their own unique way of practicing it.
Thousands of years after meditation was adopted in the east, translations of the ancient teachings began to travel to the West. It was in the 60’s that meditation finally started to gain some familiarity and from then it received only more popularity.
If you’re new to meditation it can come across vague or even intimidating. I can imagine that some may ask their selves: what is mediation exactly and what happens in our brain?
The practice of meditation is a technique of transforming the mind. It is taking responsibility for our own emotional state – and change them for the better.
Many techniques, especially Buddhist- and Hindu-based Easter-style meditation, encourages and develops concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things.
Furthermore, it brings peace and tranquility to our brains because we stop processing so much information. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information. This was found in a study when a group of Harvard neuroscientists came together to study the benefits of meditation on the brain. The image below shows how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).
How to get started
My meditation session gave me the focus and strength to pass my aviation exam. It prepared me mentally and calmed me down, despite the fact it only took 10 minutes. This might makes you wonder in which timeframe you should think and what kind of technique you should use in order to establish these meditation skills.
To put it straightforward:
“What is a good meditator? The one who meditates” – Allan Lokos
It may sound obvious, but meditation is a skill that needs to be developed. You need to be disciplined and do it regularly, preferably on a daily basis. As with anything that takes discipline it’s not necessarily an easy process to get started. It’s when meditation becomes a habit; you will reap all the benefits.
The take 10 technique is a great way to quickly ‘reset’ yourself as well as to get started with meditation. You will find a quick starting guide below.
The session is divided into 4 parts:
- Find or create a calm place for yourself, sit down on a chair with a straight back and relax.
- Make sure you do not get disturbed while meditating. (Put your phone in flight mode).
- Set a timer on 10 min.
2. Checking in
- Inhale and exhale 5 times. Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Then close your eyes.
- Focus on the physical sensation of sitting on the chair with your feet on the floor.
- Walk along all of your body parts and try to relax them. Notice which parts feel tense and which feel relaxed already.
- Now, notice how you feel. What mood are you in?
- Focus on your breathing and try to find out where you feel your breathing the most.
- Give every breath its personal attention and try to identify if it is deep, short, what kind of rhythm it has and if they are evenly.
- While doing this, count every breath you take. 1 for inhaling and 2 for exhaling. Continue until you reach number 10.
- Continue this phase for as long you prefer or until you have set the time.
- Let go of your focus. Thoughts may run through your head.
- Come down the sensation of sitting in your chair with your feet on the ground and your back against the railing.
- Open your eyes and stand up whenever your feel ready.
This method is taken from the book Get Some Headspace: How mindfulness can change your life in ten minutes a day, written by Andy Puddicombe. It’s extremely helpful in the way it makes meditation simple to integrate in a busy lifestyle. There will be days it’s easy to focus and you will feel completely relaxed after the session. There will also be days you cannot concentrate and you will (still) feel restless afterwards. It’s important to keep in mind that practice makes perfect. While the above meditation takes 10 minutes, it can easily be extended to longer periods of 20 – 30 minutes.
Techniques to enhance your meditation
Although there exist dozens of different meditation techniques, I want to give you an overview of the general meditation types.
Focused attention meditation
Focused attention mediation is focusing your attention on a single object the whole session. This object may be your breath, parts of your body, a sound or an object itself. When you advance in the ability to keep the flow of attention at the chosen object, it will get stronger which leads to a decrease of sensitiveness to distractions.
Examples of these are: Samatha (Buddhist meditation), some forms of Zazen, Loving Kindness Meditation, Chakra Meditation, Kundalini Meditation, Sound Meditation, Mantra Meditation, Pranayama, some forms of Qigong, and many others.
Open monitoring meditations
Instead of focusing on one single object our mind is now exposed and open to all thoughts, noises, and feelings without judgments or attachment. All of these perceptions are recognized and seen for what they are. If you get distracted, try to be aware of the thought instead of being inside the thought. It is the process of non-reactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment, without going into them.
Examples are: Mindfulness meditation, and Vipassana as well as some types of Taoist Meditation.
Choiceless awareness is actually the true purpose behind all kind of meditation. It’s the state where the attention is not focused on anything in particular, but responses on itself – peaceful, empty, stable, and introverted. Practicing this will eventually bring deeper states of consciousness. Even though this state may be the goal for a lot of us to reach in meditation, it is something that required a lot of training in order to get to this point.
Examples are: the Self-Enquiry (“I am” meditation) of Ramana Maharishi, Dzogchen, Mahamudra, some forms of Taoist Meditation and some advanced forms of Raja Yoga.
To wrap it all up – meditation will keep you healthy; it will help to prevent diseases, makes you a happier person and improves your mental performance. I have seen cases where meditation helped to overcome anxieties and depression, improved decision-making and creativity.
To list all the long term benefits in detail would be excessive for this article – believe me they are significant.
So if you’re not meditating yet I hope you’re encouraged enough to give it a try. A final tip is to keep track of your experiences along the way in a journal. It makes it easier to evaluate the progress you will be making!