“When there are thoughts, it is distraction: when there are no thoughts, it is meditation.” -Ramana Maharshi
Meditation extends life, balances chemicals in the brain, improves health, increases intelligence, protects the nerves, and promotes happiness.
Pretty big statements, but they’re all true. Not only do saints, yogis, and Buddhists meditate, but also Christians, celebrities, athletes, world renown scientists, and yes, even your grandparents! Most people meditate to some degree, and they don’t even know it!
There are plenty of definitions for meditation, but there shouldn’t be. To do it, you don’t need to sit in a certain position, close your eyes, or even necessarily be silent. The simplest way to describe it:
Meditation is the act of shutting off thoughts while remaining aware of your body, surroundings, and everything else. Deepak Chopra says:
People think meditation is a huge undertaking. Don’t think of it like that.
To achieve the scientific benefits of meditation, all you need to do is develop the skill of quieting unnecessary thoughts. For most people, this is easier said than done. But it’s really that simple.
It takes practice, because most of us are still learning and mentally adapting every single day, and a high-charged world of television, games, school, socializing, caffeine, anxiety, traffic, and planning keep our brains and bodies constantly on edge, as if we were cavemen exploring a jungle.
In short, to learn how to meditate, we need to learn to control our minds and let these things go once or twice a day, for 5 minutes or 10 minutes – or even better, 30 minutes.
And everyone has experienced or seen meditation in practice. When you were a child, you meditated. At some point during summer break or school, you got bored with recycled actions and information and stopped thinking. You probably counted something on the ceiling, or went vacant-minded and “dazed off.” At that point, your mind was more rested than it is during sleep, and your brain grew and adapted more during that time.
If you’re especially good at doing something, you might notice yourself “zoning out” or going “into the zone,” where you don’t actively think – you just do. But obviously you’re still aware. For example, a retired chef might cook a familiar dish without even needing to think about it, but he’s not mindless. This could be called a very mild form of meditation.
Most people consider dogs one of the smarter animals. “Dog staring” is a type of meditation. Have you ever seen a dog staring listlessly at nothing in particular, seemingly without a thought, responding vaguely to sounds and people? It’s boredom, sure, but not just that; dogs are animals that meditate, and experiments have been done on this! And it’s no wonder dogs are some of our best stress-relievers – they can literally suck anxiety and depression right out of us.
“At the end of the day, I can end up just totally wacky, because I’ve made mountains out of molehills. With meditation, I can keep them as molehills.” -Ringo Star
Meditation helps us to realize that our problems are smaller than they appear, sometimes insignificant. Imagine the relief you get when you think you have a huge a problem, only to get good news and find out you don’t. That same relief can be achieved every time you meditate, if you practice! The feelings of being trapped, required, pulled in a hundred directions – when you meditate right, they diminish. Those are the exact types of feelings that put a halt to brain and nerve development and cause neurological and psychological diseases, which can then lead to other problems in the body.
Heart disease and cancer are considered top killers by epidemiologists. But every disease has its roots in some sort of stress, and an overstimulated, overactive, task-oriented mind has been shown to cause chemical, metabolic, oxidative stress everywhere in the body. Stress alone can cause heart disease, and free radical and chemical stress is proven to contribute to risk of cancer. Meditation helps to uproot the cause of these types of stress everywhere in the body, not just in the brain.
Dennis Quaid says:
Jesus himself talked about prayer and meditation. Anything that brings you closer to the Lord, what’s wrong with that?
People from all religions can meditate; it’s a practice of health that improves clarity of mind, and thus it’s been used by religious and spiritual people to rid their minds of distractions.
You DO NOT need to be religious to meditate.
First and foremost, meditation is a health practice. The ability to do it is inherent to all thinking organisms. At the very earliest time meditation was mentioned, it was being used for health-related purposes. In the past, mental health and spiritual practices went hand-in-hand, and couldn’t be separated. Thus meditation today is thought of as new-agey, spiritual, or religious – because of misunderstandings of that relationship between meditation and religion in the past. This is not the case; meditation is firstly a health practice.
“Inner peace… inner peace…” -Master Shifu meditating, Kung Fu Panda
Now that I’ve explained more or less what it is, here’s how you can do it:
Beginners who are having trouble slowing their racing thoughts should try imagining calming, comforting, natural things. Imagine a still lake, a mountainside, a dancing fire, a full moon, or anything similar. If you focus enough on seeing the image, you’ll start to notice that your thoughts are quieter. (Note: if you’re religious, maybe try imagining something related to that.)
Sitting comfortably and closing the eyes are sometimes helpful, but not required. Instead of imagining things, more religious people of the past would repeat prayers, names, or words to help clear the mind and focus on one particular thing. Today, some people do this with goals or positive statements, repeating in their head phrases like, “Tonight I’ll get restful sleep.” And speaking of sleep, don’t accidentally doze off while practicing! (We call these people Medi-Taters, because they’re the couch potatoes of meditators.)
Intermediate-level meditators should try to go without creating any mental action at all, allowing stimuli (like sounds) to be felt, but not thinking about it. In other words, the goal is to stop thinking and simply be aware of what’s going on. If you make it to this level, you’ll find that you can easily sense problems in your body, which can help you to identify and correct them. Without meditating, for example, a pre-diabetic might not realize how dietary sugar is affecting them. But when they meditate, they become aware of the negative effects, because they’re not distracted by spontaneous thoughts.
Advanced meditators don’t need instruction at all. They easily and frequently quiet their mind, even during regular activities. Because they’re not distracted, they can be fully aware of what’s happening, and respond quickly and efficiently to life’s challenges. These people are difficult to catch off guard. If you know someone that responds to shocking and surprising situations calmly, who’s especially intelligent, optimistic, intuitive, empathic, and down-to-earth, chances are the person’s a talented meditator. I see this a lot with nature enthusiasts, like old fishermen and mountain climbers.
That’s all there is to it. The only way to figure out how to meditate is to keep trying. In a single blog entry, it’s impossible to describe how important meditation is for us today, and how many disease conditions can be improved by it. So… I’ll end with another quote instead!
“The affairs of the world will go on forever. Do not delay the practice of meditation.” -Milarepa
-Biologic Effects of Mindfulness Meditation: Growing Insights Into Neurobiologic Aspects of the Prevention of Depression (Simon N. Young, PhD; J Psychiatry Neurosci.; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
-Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres (Epel E., Daubenmier J., Moskowitz J.T., Folkman S., and Blackburn E.; Ann N. Y. Acad. Sci.; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
-Meditation Experience Is Associated With Increased Cortical Thickness (Sara W. Lazar, Catherine E. Kerr, Rachel H. Wasserman, Jeremy R. Gray, Douglas N. Greve, Michael T. Treadway, Metta McGarvey, Brain T. Quinn, Jeffery A. Dusek, Herbert Benson, Scott L. Rauch, Christopher I. Moore, and Bruce Fischl; Neuroreport; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
-Christian Meditation (allaboutgod.com)
-Meditation: History (iml.jou.ufl.edu)
-Immediate and Long-Term Effects of Meditation On Acute Stress Reactivity, Cognitive Functions, and Intelligence (Singh Y., Sharma R., and Talwar A.; Altern. Ther. Health Med.; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
-Fluid Intelligence and Brain Functional Organization in Aging Yoga and Meditation Practitioners (Time Gard, Maxime Taquet, Rohan Dixit, Britta K. Holzel, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, Narayan Brach, David H. Salat, Bradford C. Dickerson, Jeremy R. Gray, and Sara W. Lazar; Front Aging Neurosci.; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)