What is meditation?
The practice of focusing our mind’s attention on one thing so that we can become absorbed in the here-and-now, instead of in a time that has passed, or in a future place that we have not yet experienced. This practice allows our minds to stop wandering and our body and bodily systems (including the Autonomic Nervous System) to rest, relax and recover from the daily stresses of our lives. The ANS controls communication between the brain, spinal cord, digestive system organ and glands, and it has two branches, one is the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of doing, acting & building – or in other words and as some of you may be familiar, the fight or flight response. The other branch of the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of relaxation, resting, recovering. Meditation helps us active this PSNS.
As I mentioned last Spring in our meditation class, according to a 2010 Harvard study, our minds wander approximately 47% of the time we are awake. Those of us who suffer from anxiety or depression have a tendency to be flooded with multiple thoughts and even more wandering minds and we struggle to figure out which of these thoughts are important and which of them should be allowed into the background. This constant rush of thoughts inundates us and we will experience such things as a racing heart, profuse perspiration, shallow breathing or perhaps even a completely shut down – i.e. the freeze response (which goes back to the reptilian part of ANS). What do we know about cortisol? It takes at least 24 hours to leave our body and it inhibits sleep, encourages weight gain and enlivens the stress response. By bringing calming practices such as meditation into our lives we encourage the PSNS response and counter-balance the effects of hormones like cortisol.
This type of one-pointed attention in meditation will allow us to slow down and to start to notice our thoughts and then to possibly recognize patterns in these thoughts, and finally to realize that these are just thoughts and not truths. By simply watching our thoughts, labeling our thought patterns—without judgment, evaluation or agenda—we begin to see that these thoughts are not solid form, but rather constantly changing and flimsy ideas. As we begin to recognize this flow, we will be able to change the trajectory of these patterned thoughts. So, the goal of mediation is not to become a good meditator but rather to see things as they are, clearly.
Another way to describe meditation is as a stability practice. Our human body craves stability – whatever stable routine we give it, it will like because it can count on that practice. For instance, if every single day our lives are totally different and we wake and sleep at different times, eat and work at different hours and have no routine whatsoever, our system will be thrown off and will likely suffer from things like indigestion, insomnia and irregular bowel movements, Our systems are always trying to find balance by constantly adjusting and readjusting to find this even state. This goes for both healthy and non-healthy stability practices. So, if I drink a pot of coffee every morning 5 minutes after I get out of bed, my bodily functions will begin to expect that and if I don’t give it to the body one day, my body will behave accordingly by feeling groggy, tired, irritable, and perhaps I will get a headache or have body aches. The same goes for any practice that becomes a regular daily routine. So, if we simply added a 10-minute meditation to our morning routine 5 minutes after getting out of bed – perhaps instead of the coffee or at least before the coffee—our body would respond in positive ways. The system could relax, stay calm and focused, instead of the opposite.
Meditation allows us to begin again. The meditation itself is less important than the recognition that our minds have traveled and that we then can bring our mind’s attention back to our point of focus.
To date there have been many studies on meditation and some of its benefits have included:
Lower blood pressure
Improved blood circulation Lower heart rate
Slower respiratory rate
Lower blood cortisol levels Less insomnia
Less depressive thought patterns
The clearest positive outcomes of meditation studies have been shown to be with treatment of anxiety and depression. I have listed some of these studies below for you to read.
Today we will start by using a sound meditation along with our breath. The reason I love this type of meditation is because our senses our portable, whether we are using ears to hear, noses to breathe or the sense of touch to feel sensations in our body, these things can go with us anywhere, so we don’t have an excuse, such as “well I don’t have my candle or meditation cushion with me.” We will use the four tools below as we sit in mediation today.
2. Awareness 3. Focus
Susan Lazar, 2005, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired- life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it- literally-changes-your-brain/
Clinical trials on meditation as therapies for acute and subacute treatment of depressive disorders.
Mindfulness, meditation-based stress reduction techniques help anxiety.
Mindful meditation improves sleep.