Introduction to Meditation
Meditation is easy to learn, brings a vast wealth of health benefits, and is completely free. Just what is meditation all about, where did it come from, and how do you do it?
History of Meditation
Meditation has been part of many cultures since time immemorial. It is first found in documented evidence in India a full 7,000 years ago. The concept of the power of sitting quietly, simply listening to the world around us without judgement has appealed to fishermen and shepherds, to students of life and to artists.
As cultures grew and expanded, more formal organizations developed to help students learn and improve their meditation skills. By 500BC meditation was a key aspect of Buddhism and Taoism. In another few hundred years the Greeks and Romans saw its value. By the Middle Ages it had been incorporated into Jewish, Muslim, and Christian practices.
In modern times, meditation spans the globe and can be found in just about every walk of life. Elementary schools teach meditation to help students find calm. Cancer treatment centers teach meditation to help patients heal more quickly. Meditation is a practice which can help every person on their individual path.
What Is Meditation?
Simply put, meditation is the practice of training the brain to be stronger. Imagine, for example, that you choose to do arm curls every day to build up strength in your arms, so you can more easily carry things and do your daily tasks. Meditation is the same type of activity, but for your brain.
But while arm curls generally focus on that one part of your body – the arm – and what it can do, meditation activities benefit the entire body from head to toe. That is because the brain, and how it functions, impacts every single aspect of who we are and how we operate. Our brain is continually sending out signals for release of hormones, balancing of chemicals, moderation of emotions, and a thousand other aspects of how our body handles its challenges.
Just as there are different exercises for an arm, so are there different ways in which you can meditate. Each works just a bit differently. Some practitioners like to rotate through different styles of meditation, to get a variety of benefits, while other practitioners find a particular type of meditation which works wonderfully for them and stick with that.
Types of Meditation
One of the beauties of meditation is that there are a wide variety of styles to choose from. You can find one which works perfectly for you and your situation. Here are just a few ideas to get started with.
Sitting Meditation – Open Mind
This is the meditation that most people envision when they think of meditation. This traditionally involves a person sitting cross-legged on a cushion, a hand on each knee, with their eyes half-closed in soft focus. When thoughts drift in, the meditator gently acknowledges them and then lets them go. The thoughts are drifting clouds. The mind detaches from those concerns.
Sitting Meditation – Single Focus
Another style of sitting meditation involves the meditator focusing on something in particular. It could be a single flower blossom in a vase. It could be the sound of a word or phrase repeated. It could be the scent of incense. The idea is to train the brain to focus on that one thing.
Sitting Meditation – Loving Kindness
In the loving kindness meditation, the meditator sends waves of love first to the people they care about the most, then to their good friends, and so on, in ever-increasing ripples.
With a guided meditation, a mentor of some sort leads the meditator through a particular sequence. It could be gentle suggestions on moving through one of the above topics, or it could be an actual scene, like walking along a tropical beach. These can be done in person, live through a web interface, or through a recording.
For those who have challenges sitting still, a walking meditation is often a great alternative. With a walking meditation, the meditator takes a slow, attentive walk through a scene. It could be a local park, a quiet mall, or even circles around a home. The idea is to focus on each step.
There are many other styles of meditation available to sample. Each has its own qualities.
The Benefits of Meditation
Because the mind is central to every single thing a human body does, the practice of strengthening the mind ripples its benefits out to every single part of what we do in a day. This includes:
- Increased focus
- Calmer moods
- Improved memory
- Reduced stress
- Lower blood pressure
- More mindful eating and better weight maintenance
- Increased empathy
- Better relationships
- Improved sleep
- Benefits for those with depression or PTSD
- Reduced inflammation
Meditation helps, in part, to tame our ‘fight or flight’ response. This response was great in the caveman days when we had to be able to react in an instant to the sight of a cougar leaping from a rock. In modern times, those blasts of adrenaline at every new tweet or news report do little but to burn away our body’s defenses and immune system. The better we can ease those reactions, and learn to save our adrenaline for cases in which it truly helps, the better our overall health will be.
Example Sitting Meditation
Here is an example of a meditation session. There are thousands of options – both guided and unguided – available on YouTube and other websites, if you prefer an audio and/or video format.
Start by finding as quiet a spot as possible. When you build your skills you’ll be able to meditate anywhere, but to begin it’s best to give yourself a quiet space. If you can, wear clothing that is loose and comfortable.
Most people choose to sit on the floor, on a cushion to support their rear, with their legs crossed before them. If that is in any way uncomfortable for you, it’s fine to sit on a chair, a couch, or even to lie down. What matters is that your body is comfortable and not a distraction.