Meditation: What is it? Why do it?
Over the last ten years, there has been a growing interest in meditation. To some degree this curiosity stems from the increasing pressures of everyday life. Almost everyone feels that the pace of life is too fast, there is too much to do and not enough time to do it, too little time for oneself, and that our lives are out of balance. So naturally, interest in mind/body practices that provide a respite from this daily grind are on the rise. Yoga, an ancient relaxation practice, can be found everywhere these days. In my neighborhood, there are 5 yoga studios!
I became interested in these practices in the early 1970’s, before they were well known. As a young graduate student in psychology, I started studying a Japanese martial art, aikido (I am now a 2nd degree black belt in Aikido, and a 4th degree black belt in the meditation in motion component of the art), which focuses on developing a sense of calmness in action. I also studied Tai Chi, a Chinese form of meditation in motion. My future wife, Diane, had become interested in Transcendental Meditation in the late 1960’s, which was popularized by the Beatles. Interestingly, in Indian practice, the purpose of the physical poses of yoga is to prepare the student for meditation.
I have been practicing meditation since the 1970’s, on a regular basis. But what is meditation, how does one practice it, and what are its benefits?
Meditation is a method of focusing one’s mind. As we all know, our minds are uncontrollable! Our mind moves from one thought to another, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch in a large tree. In the practice of meditation, the individual learns to simply watch the workings of one’s mind without becoming attached or involved in its activities. Typically, this is accomplished by focusing one’s attention or awareness on one’s breath (there are actually several different methods of mediation, all more similar than different)—a function that occurs without our doing anything about it. Indeed, breath is something that is under both voluntary (as in holding your breath) and involuntary control.
After 5-10 minutes of the focus on breath (or a phrase or word), most individuals experience what Herbert Benson, M.D., Harvard scientist, called “the relaxation response.” One’s breathing slows down, heart rate decreases, blood pressure decreases, arms and legs feel warm, and muscles relax. This is a pleasant sensation which is restorative and restful!
So, how do I meditate? Find a chair with a straight back, sit tall with your back straight, and take several long slow deep breaths. Now, breathe normally with your eyes closed (you can keep your eyes open but it is easier to get comfortable when your eyes are shut). Simply be aware of when you breathe in and aware of when you breathe out. You can say to yourself “in” and “out” or you can simply watch yourself breathe in and out. I like to think of my breath like the ocean coming onto shore and then going out. When you notice yourself thinking, and losing track of your breath, simply go back to observing your breath. The practice of meditation is going back and forth from thinking to observing your breath. After a short time you start to feel relaxed. If you feel sleepy, open your eyes for a few moments, and then let them close again. Don’t get involved with your thoughts. Simply go back to observing your breath go in and out, like the ocean.
How long should I meditate for? Don’t get hung up in how long you meditate! Start with 5 minutes, every day if you can. Regularity is more important than length of time! Find a time and a place that is convenient for you. The goal is to develop a new habit—this takes time! If you find it enjoyable and useful, over time you will naturally increase the length and frequency.
Why is it so hard for me to sit still? My mind starts to race! Learning to sit with yourself, and allow your mind to settle can be a challenge at first. Our culture is focused on “doing” not on “being”. Meditation helps us learn how to sit quietly and simply take pleasure in being.
Do you meditate? How has it helped you? Have you tried any mediation apps? Share with our readers.