Nowadays, meditation is a word we are used to hear a lot. It seems that meditation became the “new opium” of our modern hectic world, dreaming of calmness right in the middle of a huge information tornado. But, despite the fact that we can notice this magical word in every average lifestyle Insta-blog, the real meaning of meditation still seems quite vague. Let’s find out what meditation actually is and what benefits it can offer to a modern citizen of concrete jungle.
Meditation: what is it (actually)?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, meditation is “the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed.” At the dawn of its existence, meditation was a significant part of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Besides the religions, traditionally connected with meditation, this mindful practice of harnessing the mind took a place even in such unexpected religions as Islam and Christianity. But, of course, only to some extent and for particular confessions.
The thing is that almost every religious practice teaches its followers to develop a mindful mindset and direct the mind towards more balanced living and clearer thinking
From a certain perspective, repetition of mantras and even mortification of the flesh by self-flagellation can be equally perceived as meditation. Why? Because both practices have the same goal – to focus on one single thing and clean the mind from the rest.
Modern cultural perspective
Humanity has been taming the mind since the first man’s brain gave birth to the first thought. We all suffer from the vortex of our restless memories, thoughts, and ideas. Even when we just sit in front of the TV with a bag of chips or drink another glass of wine, we still search for focus and silence in our heads. Of course, we can’t classify these “practices” as meditation, but the goal is practically the same.
Nowadays meditation has almost lost its mystical aura. Now even Google or Facebook employees learn how to clean the mind and be more focused. Guided meditation courses are so widespread, that you can lose yourself in the forest of offers. Mobile apps, dedicated to meditation, are multiplied exponentially and can offer dozens of ways to look into yourself. Just pick up a music track and voice of a guide and you’re there.
Western culture has adapted meditation to its needs and almost erased the mystical background of the practice
In the era of heavy productivity and searching for personal happiness in the sea of stress and anxiety, meditation became something like mental fitness. Just like with muscles, the mind requires training. Earlier people of western civilization had been training their minds with the help of indoctrination, teaching the acceptable social behavior in a certain society. Now it has changed. We need help and support, and meditation gives us a chance to find it inside ourselves. No strict rules or special behavior. No praying, no equipment. Just you and your 5 minutes of calmness and concentration. Everything we need is just to sit in a comfortable pose, concentrate on the present moment, and calm down our restless minds.
Modern meditation is just like fitness – nowadays we need to train our mind as well as muscles to be healthy. With the help of meditation, things like full relaxation or high productivity stop being the unattainable ideals
Sometimes we can even meet “fragments” of meditation practice, incorporated into psychotherapy protocols. For example, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy uses it to “re-load” patients’ perception of themselves by guided focus on the body’s physical interaction with the world. Concentration on the pressure of legs on the ground or feeling of contact between the skin and clothes helps patients to focus on these feelings and train the brain to ignore fear or anxiety.
Why do we need meditation?
The human brain is used to analyze every single thing you ever saw, smelled, heard, or did (or will do in the future). And usually, the brain reminds you of this when you are not concentrated on a particular task or feel lazy. Even the authors were thinking about side things when writing this text – after all, we’re all human. The thing is that this mechanism of endless analysis is evolutionarily predetermined. That’s how we estimate our social connections, make predictions about the future, and save ourselves from harmful experiences. But this is an ideal situation under perfect conditions.
In reality, most of the time we suffer from intrusive thoughts about situations, which happened in the past. Remember this situation, when you were thinking “If only had I chosen different words at the moment…” This is that
Unfortunately, these thoughts are almost useless to us. All they do is just overload our minds because we can’t solve something in the past (and we don’t have time machines… yet). Another example is compulsive anxiety or fear. Did you forget to close the door? Did you turn the iron off? These thoughts are very sticky. And it seems that our brains are in love with this mental “chewing gum”.
Not only this nasty “behavior” of the brain is destructive to the quality of life, but it is also extremely draining on the nervous system. We lose energy and our endurance to external incentives is getting low. Hence, we become more nervous and emotional, which leads to making hasty decisions. We hurt ourselves and others. We say wrong words and pick wrong time to do wrong things. Meditation can hush this excessive brain activity and make the mind calm and focused.
How it works
The main goal of meditation is obtaining the ability to harness the mind by guiding thoughts in a certain direction. Technically, it means that your task here is to make informational noise stop in your head and focus on one significant thing you perceive as important.
Some techniques offer to focus on the moment maximally mindfully and turn the attention to the senses or external world incentives. The others simplify the task and propose to concentrate on a single physical object such as a lighted candle. In the meantime, the third ones put forward the idea of concentration on a thought (and this is the hardest part). In fact, it doesn’t really matter, what kind of meditation practice is used. The main thing is the development of the ability to concentrate.
When we achieve a stable concentration level, we automatically become more attentive and aware. Our attention becomes sharp and we can see deeper and more complex connections between events or objects. This phenomenon is called “Mindfulness”
According to multiple research, constant meditation practice not only makes positive changes in the mind. The brain changes physically, and it correlates directly with mindful meditation practice. For instance, one study showed that brains of actively meditating participants of the research trial had increased volumes of grey matter in areas, responsible for emotional response and regulation of higher level. At the same time, another study goes further and shows that the volumes of grey matter become lower in the regions, responsible for basic “instincts” such as fear or anger. Although it may look like something unreal, this is what scientists could see in real-time mode with MRI scans. The perfect marriage of magic and science!
In accordance with research and multiple positive reviews from meditators all over the world, meditation really gives the ability to control the brain. Perhaps, it becomes possible, because meditator constantly learns how to redistribute psychic energy between “younger” and “older” areas of the brain. In other words, the practice gives the ability to become a better human being by controlling primary instincts and reactions. What does it mean in reality? Your emotions will be under your control. Your anxiety will be under your control. Even some diseases, caused by stress, will be under your control. Because the more mindful you are, the more functional your brain and body can be.
Nowadays we have the opportunity to try meditation without any restrictions
We don’t even need to visit special places or buy special equipment to practice it. Just try the required minimum. Sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. These 5 minutes are for taking care of yourself. Your journey to mindful life has begun.
- Luders, Eileen et al. “The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter.” NeuroImage vol. 45,3 (2009): 672-8. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.12.061
- Hölzel, Britta K et al. “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry research vol. 191,1 (2011): 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
- Taren AA, Creswell JD, Gianaros PJ (2013) Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLOS ONE 8(5): e64574. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064574