What is Meditation and How It Works

What is Meditation and How It Works - sitting in sunset

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It seems everyone is talking about meditation these days so I figured it was time to learn ‘what is meditation and how it works’.

Meditation has been around for centuries and often practiced within the spiritual realms of religion (Buddhists and Hinduism). In more recent times it has been practiced by business leaders around the globe to enhance their own lives.

Is it something I should start doing in my own life? I am always looking for ways to improve my physical, mental, and spiritual health and just generally improve my life in all areas.

So, what are the benefits of meditation?

Is meditation really good for us or is it just a bunch of hype?

Is it difficult? This is important because if it is difficult to learn to do I may not have the desire to invest a lot of time in practice to be able to effectively meditate.

I have heard so much chatter about meditation that I made the decision it was worth investigating to see if perhaps it is for me.

Let’s discover together what all the hype is about…

What is Meditation

What is Meditation and How It Works - meditating on the beach

Meditation is the habitual process of training our minds to focus and redirect our thoughts to the direction we wish to go in life.

Meditation may be used to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, and increasing peace, perception, self-concept, and well-being

Meditation is often thought of as a stress reducer and concentration builder.

Just as the body can be trained through various exercises, the mind can be trained through meditation.

There are different ways to meditate and some very popular choices are:

  • focused meditation (mindful meditation) is where you focus on one thing (usually your breath). The point is to focus on this one thing and when your mind wanders bring it back to this focal point
  • open-monitoring meditation is where you actively notice everything around you without reacting to it

Both of these methods are frequently studied in scientific research.

How does meditation affect the brain

Scientists have used MRI scans to gain a more thorough understanding of what happens inside our brains when we meditate.

It is interesting that when we practice meditation our brains stop processing the information as actively as previously. After just 20 minutes of meditation, we begin to show a decrease in beta waves.

This image shows the dramatic reduction in the beta waves (illustrated in bright colors on left)  during meditation (on the right).
what is meditation and how it works - meditation brain waves

When we meditate, the activity in the parietal lobe slows down. This area of the brain is the gatekeeper of the senses and focuses your attention by funnelling sensory data deeper into the brain which stops other signals effectively reducing the flow of incoming data to a trickle.

Different parts of the brain respond uniquely during meditation:

The Frontal lobe – This part is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotion and self-conscious awareness. When we meditate the frontal lobe (cortex) tends to go on vacation (or offline).

The Parietal lobe – this is where the brain processes time and space information. This part of the brain slows down during meditation.

The Thalamus – this controls your senses sending some information deeper into the brain while stopping other signals. The thalamus also reduces the flow of incoming information during meditation.

Reticular formation – acts as the brain’s sentry (or guard) receiving incoming stimuli and placing the brain on alert ready to respond as necessary. Meditation seems to reduce the arousal signal.

Benefits of Meditation

What is Meditation and How It Works - woman meditating with child

I like to think of meditation as a brain exercise. We can use meditation to strengthen areas of our brain and can even rewire it to enhance traits like focus and decision making while also diminishing less desirable traits such as fear and stress.

The most important thing to consider is that there is a possibility to make positive brain changes in an effective and long-lasting way.

  1. Improve Empathy – by practicing compassion or loving-kindness meditation our brain fires neural connections to the parts of the brain regulating empathy and kindness. Meditation induces a deep state of flow that can build social connections and make us more affectionate and amicable as a person.
  2. Several researchers agree that daily meditation practice is an excellent way for professionals to increase their likelihood of success. Studies have shown that meditation improves the brain’s problem solving and decision-making traits which can create a desirable shift in our professional life.
  3. Is a natural stress reliever – the body’s natural response to unforeseen adversities is stress. When we face immediate threats our levels of cortisol increase which activates the autonomic nervous system which controls our fight-or-flight responses. Brain studies of regular meditators have shown they have much lower cortisol levels. This can explain why they are more resilient and insightful.
  4. Promotes emotional health – studies have shown that meditation can improve our sense of self-image and self-worth. Meditation gives us clarity of our mind making us fully aware of the thoughts that are driving our emotions and actions in that given moment. Some forms of meditation also promote positive thinking which can significantly decrease the likelihood of developing depression and other mood-related disorders. This could vastly improve our overall emotional health.
  5. Increases attention – mindful awareness comes naturally when we meditate and we reach what is called a flow state where our mind is in complete harmony with itself. There was a study that followed the effects of an eight-week mindful meditation course which found people who regularly meditate had heightened attention and concentration abilities. Those who meditated only for short durations showed more focus than those who didn’t meditate at all.

Health Benefits of Meditation

What is Meditation and How It Works - sitting in sunsetBecause meditation has a calming effect on the brain there are several health benefits worth mentioning:

    • Increased fitness – It seems that physical exercise may not be enough to achieve our ultimate fitness levels. Many nutritionists, scientists and researchers of allied health sciences believe the path to fitness includes a holistic lifestyle which includes nutritious food, physical workout, yoga and regular meditation. Psychologists tend to agree that the main goal of fitness is to have the mind and body function equally well. It makes sense that if our minds are cluttered with stressful and negative thoughts then we are not likely to fully benefit from any workout. Meditation helps clear the limiting self-beliefs and provides the necessary motivation to keep the brain and body going.
    • Increased Focus – some studies on meditation revealed how the alpha waves in the brain control our sense organs and thus our ability to respond to external stimulations. As a result of today’s fast-paced, media-driven world the distractions are everywhere and excessive. An eight-week mindful meditation program determined that participants who completed the retreat were more sensitive to visual, auditory and tactile stimulation making them better able to cope in today’s world than those who don’t meditate at all.
    • Increased immunity –  there have been studies on whether meditation could lower the risk of developing cancer. The studies suggest that meditation can boost the lymphocyte count helping create a natural shield for fighting the toxic cells that create cancer.

The study was rather controversial yet the findings provided enough substantial evidence to indicate meditation can help increase our immunity to painful infections and illness.

    • Reduced risk of age-related memory loss – meditation helps the mind feel younger by helping improve both memory and focus. Certain meditation practices such as Kirtan Kriya involve reciting a mantra in conjunctions with specific finger movements to help improve concentration and can help improve memory in dementia patients.

In addition to relieving stress, these meditation exercises were also shown to support-related memory loss and memory retention problems. Scientists state that encouraging the elderly to practice even just two minutes per day of meditation can make a significant difference in their ability to fight and cope with memory dysfunctions.

  • Helps overcome addiction – regardless of age, overcoming substance abuse requires self-control and discipline. Research shows that by implementing meditation as a part of rehabilitation programs patients are better able to cope with and control impulses and may even reduce withdrawal symptoms. Substance abusers who use regular meditation have shown less aggression and cravings than those who don’t use meditation. It is still being studied as to whether meditation directly contributes to addiction control but the fact remains meditation creates a positive mental shift which is undeniable and is universally accepted.

Mental Health Benefits of Meditation

There are also several mental health benefits worth listing which include:

  • Reduces depression
  • helps overcome postpartum blues
  • regulates anxiety and mood disorders
  • reduces stress
  • increases pain tolerance
  • aids in dealing with ADHD

How to Meditate

What is Meditation and How It Works - woman meditating

Simple Beginners Meditation is an excellent technique to get started with.

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position. Some people may want to invest in a meditation chair or cushion.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Breathe naturally, making no effort to control the breath.
  4. Focus your attention on your breath and how your body moves with each breath. Notice how your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and belly feel and move with each inhalation and exhalation. Just observe the breath and the feel of your body moving with each breath without controlling the pace or depth of each breath. When your mind wanders simply return your focus to your breath as soon as you have noticed your mind wandered. Maintain this meditation practice for two to three minutes, to begin with, gradually increasing the length of time.

How long does it take to see results

As you begin your meditation journey you may be wondering how long it takes to see any results from meditation. It is important to realize that meditation is not a quick fix for anything. Try meditation for a full month before deciding whether it is a fit for your life or not.

Some positive effects may become evident after just a few weeks. You may notice that you feel calmer and have a more stable mind. Meditation trains your mind to focus on something (your breath) and this exercise gently trains you how to be more focused in general. Eventually, you will reach a point of achieving an uncluttered mind, and finding yourself less distracted by wayward thoughts. Clarity, calmness and improved focus are benefits that we may notice fairly quickly.

The main goal of meditation is accepting ourselves and our abilities without judgement.

Most often the benefits of meditation sneak in the back door without us realizing.

Eventually, we may notice our mood is lighter, and we don’t react negatively quite so often.

Our close friends or family may notice the improvements and wonder what you have been doing.

Once this happens we realize that the benefits of meditation are becoming a part of our psyche.

Longer-term benefits of meditation can include improved communication skills, enhanced memory and cognition and you may be more motivated.

According to neuroscientists, meditation rewires the brain by increasing the density of those regions that are responsible for concentration, self -awareness, compassion and memory while simultaneously reducing the density of the parts of the brain responsible for anxiety and stress.

Conclusion

Meditation is a practice that has been around for centuries.

Without a doubt, meditation is an effective tool which when used regularly can calm our minds and increase our awareness.

It can give us permanent access to happiness, mental peace, life energy and can open the true power of the mind.

The physical and mental health benefits make meditation worth taking the time to effectively learn how to implement it in our daily lives.

The fact that it can combat depression, reduce anxiety and stress are three main reasons why meditation should be more widely taught and used.

We all know that stress kills and there is no doubt recent events (global COVID lockdown) have added significant stress into all of our lives so it makes sense to make use of any tools that can help reduce that stress.

I intend to make meditation a part of my daily routine and I highly recommend you incorporate it into your life as well.

If you have personal experience with meditation I’ love to hear how it has benefited you anyway, please share below.


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