Meditation: What Is It And How Does It Benefit Us?
In our general day to day lives our thinking is uncontrolled, our minds wander and thoughts come in and out. Sometimes we apply our minds to a particular problem or plan and our thinking around this is useful. However our mind can continue to produce one thought after another even when it is not necessary to be thinking and this is how the trouble starts. Our mind can be compared to a chattering monkey, wittering on in the background. Left to roam free our mind has a tendency to run to the future or dwell on the past and often the associated thoughts are negative, for instance, catastrophic or regretful thoughts; thoughts that begin with 'what if....' or 'if only I.........' We call this 'worrying'.
Thoughts create emotion within us and worrying thoughts create the emotion fear inside our body. We call this fear 'anxiety'. Those that suffer with anxiety will know that the impact is severe and debilitating ranging from feeling a pervasive sense of unease to full blown panic attacks, anxiety affects our relationships, sleep, eating habits, self-esteem and living with anxiety over the long term can lead to the onset of depression as despair sets in. Apparently the average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day and 95% of these are repeats so you can imagine the level of fear worrying thoughts can create. We often refer to ourselves as stressed when we are feeling this way, stress being mental or emotional strain.
This is unnecessary suffering when you consider that most worrying thoughts are not real, they are imaginings and beliefs, about the future or past and not facts based in the reality of this present moment. If the recurring intrusive thoughts are resulting from a traumatic experience it can be useful to get professional help such as counselling to support you in exploring the thoughts, beliefs and attendant emotions.
What Is Meditation
One of the things we can do for ourselves is rein in the mind from running amok, stem the flow of worrying thoughts, this is the purpose of meditation, to create stillness in mind and body. Meditation is the non-judgemental awareness of experience in the present moment, in other words being right here, right now. Sometimes the word mindfulness is used which is again the moment to moment awareness of immediate experience. Awareness is knowing what we are doing, while we are doing it. Being in a state of mindful awareness is sometimes referred to as 'being present'.
In order to still the mind we must give the 'chattering monkey' something to do other than ramble on incessantly and this is where focussing our attention comes in. Most commonly meditation involves focusing our attention on our breath as it travels all the way in and out of our bodies. In Buddhist teaching this practice of using the breath is called Shamatha Meditation. Shamatha means 'calm abiding'. The action of focusing our attention on the breath, stills the mind, we are staying present to the passage of our breath and not allowing external influences to control our mind. Of course, thoughts may creep in, especially in the beginning 'I must remember to get milk' 'Did I switch off the immersion!' etc. Your mind will inevitably wander, which is where the mindfulness aspect comes in. Instead of growing frustrated with your lack of focus or getting caught up in the web of your thoughts, you observe the thought or emotion with acceptance and curiosity, and each time gently bring your focus back to the breath. In the beginning you may have to bring yourself back every few seconds, that's normal and fine, you are gaining the very valuable awareness of how much uncontrolled thinking you do! Other types of meditation use other anchors to focus attention such as a Chakra point, a part of the body, a candle or nature, the essential point of focusing attention to still the mind remains the same. In Zen Buddhism meditation becomes a way of life, giving your full attention at every moment to what you are experiencing, doing only one thing at a time. Hence the Zen saying:
'Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment chop wood, carry water.'
The only difference is that following Enlightenment you are truly present to what you are doing in the now.
By focusing our attention on our immediate experience in the now we can reduce the unnecessary suffering of anxiety caused by our minds being pulled into frightening and compulsive thinking. Everyone has the capacity for mindfulness within them; it just takes consistent practice to cultivate presence.
The Science Behind Meditation
Various studies have shown how meditation actually changes the brain and not just for the period that you are meditating but afterwards too. Brain scans of regular meditators have shown reduced activity in the regions of the brain associated with anxiety and depression and that the areas associated with memory, self-awareness and goal setting are stimulated. Studies have also shown that after an 8 week meditation program the brain shape and size changed showing an increase in grey matter in the memory processing and emotional regulation regions.
When we feel threatened our fight/flight response is triggered, flooding our body with cortisol and adrenaline and causing us to feel anxiety and/or panic. Of course, this is completely essential if we are under attack, but for people suffering with anxiety the fight/flight response is constantly over stimulated so they react as if under attack all the time. The part of the brain which activates our fight/flight response is the amygdala. Using brain imaging techniques neuroscientists have been able to establish that meditation reduces the reactivity and grey matter of the amygdala, thus reducing anxiety.
Meditation has also been shown to change the frequency of our brain waves, with regular meditators exhibiting a higher level of alpha waves associated with the reduction of sadness and anger.
We hope that you have found this article interesting and informative on the topic of meditation and may feel inspired to give it a go.
Our next meditation group begins on Saturday 30th September 2017 over 10 Saturday mornings 11am-12 noon and is centrally located in Sligo Town. The cost is €70. To book a place please call 087 7014335 or contact us by email.
Meditation exercises can be found on our Counselling and Meditation Exercises page