What is Meditation?
Meditation is a mind-body practice that focuses on awareness and exploring the mind and heart in the present moment. This ancient practice has a rich cultural history dating back thousands of years. It has been standard practice in many major religions, including Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Meditation has been used as a means to realize spiritual enlightenment, contemplative concentration, knowledge, and liberation. For many years meditation remained on the fringe of science, but eventually, Western researchers started studying its positive psychological and mental effects. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear that meditation reduces stress and anxiety, promotes health, and cultivates well-being. Despite pop culture's trendy marketing strategies, much of the research backs these findings. Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson studied meditation for many years and found that people who meditate have lower heart rates, use less oxygen, and display increased brain waves. (1) Benson notes that he merely “put a biological explanation on techniques that people have been utilizing for thousands of years.” (2) While there are many benefits to meditation, there are equally as many misconceptions. Meditation is not a means to eliminate negative aspects of yourself, a way to empty your mind, or a step-by-step process to become a better person. Meditation is a way to come into contact with the complete whole version of us that already exists right now. It is a practice of recognizing your true nature and nurturing that recognition. (3)
There are many types of meditation, each depending on the method and aim of the practice. All meditation promotes mind and body integration, but some focus more on sensations (such as breathing, a sound, a visual image, or a mantra) while others explore awareness without judgment. Some examples include metta meditation (loving-kindness meditation), mantra-based meditation, transcendental meditation, visualization-based meditation, mindfulness meditation, vipassana meditation (from the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Tradition), chakra meditation, guided meditation, and many more. (4) Meditation can be practiced alone, in a group, or with a guide. Meditation can also be practiced anytime anywhere, with your eyes open or closed.
Benefits of Meditation
As previously mentioned, there is a flurry of research that underpins the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation. Many scientists have looked at the advantages of practicing mindfulness in meditation. The word “mindfulness” originated from the Pali word sati, which means having awareness, attention, and remembering. (5) It is the practice of moment-by-moment awareness without being attached to any particular point of view. (6) Here are 3 domains in which meditation reaps the most benefits:
Emotion Regulation and Increased Response Flexibility
Experiencing and feeling a full range of positive and negative emotions is part of the human experience and a normal part of everyday life. Encountering challenging situations or painful emotions is inevitable. However, for some, emotions can feel incredibly overwhelming and distressing. Emotion regulation is the ability to effectively manage and respond to ongoing demands with a range of emotions appropriate to the environment and stimuli. Many times, we replicate whatever we were taught in childhood about handling emotions. Some were taught that emotions are uncontrollable and to believe whatever they are saying. Others learned to resist their emotion or suppress them so consistently that they disappeared from their conscious experience, and it has now become difficult to access them at all. (7) Either response can lead to a multitude of problems. Alternatively, mindfulness meditation is an invitation to engage with feelings from an observational stance. By opening a bit of space between the emotion and ourselves, we learn to be with the emotion rather than embody the emotion. (8) In an article studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation researchers found that it promotes “metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities, and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory.” (9) Many studies have found consistent data supporting that mindfulness meditation leads to increased positive affect and decreased anxiety and negative affect. (10) One study that examined working memory capacity and emotional experience among a military group found that participating in mindfulness meditation for as little as 8 weeks can elicit positive emotions and minimize negative affect and rumination. (11) Part of learning how to regulate your emotions is altering your relationship with emotions. While they may be uncomfortable or unpleasant, these feelings are a natural expression of awareness in the present experience.
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation equips the individual with skills to be less reactive and increases their cognitive flexibility. Through practice, the person develops the skill of self-observation. Self-observation is an introspective process that draws nonjudgmentally awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Self-observation “neurologically disengages automatic pathways created from prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way.” (12) In other words, meditation activates regions of the brain that are correlated with adaptive responses to stress. It also helps the person down-regulate and return quickly to baseline after experiencing a negative situation. By increasing emotional awareness and learning to emotionally regulate individuals can choose to disengage from emotionally upsetting stimuli. (13) The person will refocus their attention on the present cognitive task which will in turn decrease emotional reactivity.
Meditation is not just a solitary practice with personal benefits. Evidence indicates that practicing mindfulness can increase your ability to respond constructively to relationship stress and act with awareness in social situations. (14) Since the person has been practicing self-observation, they are more aware of which emotions are emerging and why. This helps build the skill of identifying, naming, and communicating emotions to one’s partner. (15) Barnes et al. (2007) found that people who practice mindfulness meditation reported feeling less anxiety and anger when entering conflict discussions with their partners. (16) Another study showed that mindfulness can even decrease rejection fears. (17) There has even been a correlation between trait mindfulness (“the enactment of present, attuned, emotionally regulated responsive behavior in daily life”) and relationship satisfaction. (18) Researchers that have studied Buddhist meditative practices, and other spiritual and faith meditative traditions, have found that trait mindfulness increases the individual's capacity for empathy and compassion. (19) Ultimately this less reactive and more responsive stance deeply affects the nature of the relationship. An article published in Harvard Business Review explored how metta (“loving-kindness”) meditation can increase relational agility. (20) The author, Monique Valcour, defined relational agility as the developed skill of becoming more aware of interpersonal interactions, thoughts about the interaction, and expanding curiosity and compassion for alternative perspectives. (21) Metta meditation helps individuals recognize their thoughts and how they may be influencing behavior. (22) With increased meditation practice, the person learns to allow the thought about another to enter their mind without influencing their reaction. Valcour points out that when in high-conflict conversations, emotions like resentment, anger, and frustration can narrow our perceptions and make us more rigid. (23) Metta meditation allows for a flexible approach to conflict. It will become easier to consider the opposing view and analyze where the communication broke down. (24) Mindfulness meditation provides the ability to intentionally choose responses despite former habitual patterns of thinking and behaving.
Physical and Mental Effects
Meditation has been found to enhance physical health and mental well-being. Several studies have shown that a daily meditation practice can down-regulate our hormonal response resulting in positive physiological impacts on our bodies, including increased heart health, improved blood circulation, strengthened immune system, increased neuroplasticity and memory retention, and decreased stress, anxiety, and depression.
When we’re stressed, our body produces hormones that increase blood pressure. Meditation reduces stress hormones, like cortisol, and adrenaline, which improves breathing and blood flow to the brain. Meditation increases heart rate variability, decreases blood pressure, and slows the heart to a consistent beat. (25) An indicator of good health is a resting heart rate between 60-100 beats per minute. Meditation helps decrease this rate. Immune system functioning is also a crucial component of good health. Our immune system defends the body against infection and disease. According to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study (2003), practicing meditation regularly improved meditators’ immune system functions. (26) The study also found that meditation produced positive, lasting changes within the brain. As we get older, our brains shrink in volume, particularly in the frontal cortex, reducing overall brain function and increasing memory loss. Dr. Kris Rhoads, Director of Rehabilitation Neuropsychology and co-director of the Memory Wellness Clinic at Virginia Mason Medical Center, reported that mindfulness practices can help bolster brain function, decelerate memory loss, and improve brain connections. (27) Meditation has not only been found to support attention and memory, but also enhance mental agility and alertness. (28)
Finally, one of the most researched topics is the connection between mindfulness practices and stress reduction. Stress, anxiety, and depression are on the rise globally. In 2019 the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) partnered with the Census Bureau to measure rates of depression and anxiety. (29) The survey found that 8.1% of adults aged 18 and over had symptoms of anxiety disorder, 6.5% had symptoms of depressive disorder, and 10.8% had symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder. (30) Meditation and mindfulness practices have been widely used in the treatment of various anxiety disorders. Typically, those suffering from anxiety experience heightened arousal and hypervigilance, constantly scanning the environment for threat-related information. (31) Meditation helps these individuals nonjudgmentally observe their thoughts and physical sensations without reacting to them. This in turn calms the person’s nervous system and reduces stress hormone release. For those suffering from depression, mindfulness has been found to reduce ruminative tendencies and increase attentional control. (32) The individual learns to shift their thinking away from negative self-referent information to present moment awareness. (33) Meditation produces a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind which calms down the body, resulting in psychical and mental benefits.
How to Start Meditation
Meditation is a simple practice and user-friendly for those just starting out. The focus of meditation is to pay close attention to your thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment. Most meditation practices invite you to sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your eyes closed or at a soft gaze. Lying down is not recommended as it encourages falling asleep (unless that’s what you’re going for!). Though independent meditation is highly recommended and is an essential part of a complete practice, when first getting started sometimes it helps to have a guide lead you. It is easy for our minds to wander, so clear instructions drawing you back to the present moment may be helpful. The SunnyFit® app has countless guided meditations for you to try. They range in length of time and focus of practice. Check it out today and take your time. Everyone’s journey is different.
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[20-24] Valcour, M. (2015, April 27). A 10-Minute Meditation to Help You Solve Conflicts at Work. Harvard Business Review.
https://hbr.org/2015/04/a-10-minute-meditation-to-help-you-solve-conflicts-at-work. Accessed 29 March 2023.
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