Many articles have recently been published touting the wonderful benefits of meditation and how life changing this practice can be. It may be embarrassing, thinking that “everyone” else is doing it. I will lay out some of the facts and give you an overview of why there is so much attention and excitement.
It is true that developing a habit of pressing the “pause” button on your life can change many things for you in positive ways. This article is the first in a 3 part series to explore how you can create and customize a program that perfectly fits your needs and lifestyle.
In Part 1 of this series and I will answer these questions:
- What is meditation?
- What is mindfulness and how is this same or different?
- Why pursue a practice? What are the benefits?
In Part 2, I will explore different forms of practices. Part 3 will be about more advanced benefits and potential experiences as well as how this can be linked to spirituality and healing.
What is Meditation?
There is no consensus on a single definition, so I will offer my own simple definition.
It is a state of being where your mind is simultaneously focused and expansive.
I hope you feel more relaxed in your body just reading that definition. If you do an online search, there is no “one” definition of meditation. You might have also heard the term “mindfulness”. And, just to confuse us more, some use the term “mindfulness meditation”. Oy.
Therefore, I intentionally developed a definition that will help guide you in an outcome that I hope is achievable, and encourages you without constraining you. With some practice, you can achieve this state of being.
This is all a very wide open field of practices and – the good news is – you have many options to find what can work for you so you can gain some benefits.
The “Normal” State of Mind
The definition I offered may sound like a contradiction, but consider the state of mind we are “usually” in throughout the day – a random shuffling of thoughts permeated by periods of focused attention. There is a term called “monkey mind” which describes an experience of racing thoughts, and is often experienced in the middle of the night accompanied with sleeplessness, insomnia or restlessness.
Been there? Done that? Oh yeah, me too.
Before I began practicing meditation I would usually fall asleep out of sheer exhaustion, and many nights I would get only 2-3 hours of sleep. I didn’t get a lot of work done, but I thought a lot about work and other situations. Now after learning some of these techniques one of the most appreciated benefits is that I normally fall asleep within 3 minutes of going to bed and sleep restfully through the night.
Many people try meditation and seemingly “fail”. Let’s dispel some myths and help you with your guilt. Meditation is often described as having no thoughts, to “empty” your mind. Guess what – we think. A lot. Our minds are a lot like puppies that just can’t control themselves, off chasing every interesting thing in the world.
Living in a world where multitasking is the normal does not help either. We are usually bombarded with stimuli from many sources all day long, and smart phones are one of the biggest factors that contribute to this norm. Many of us live “on demand and online”. Some clients have shared with me that they a very difficult time sitting in a room alone, with no devices or other outside stimuli.
Steve Jobs is quoted as saying: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things–that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
Try Practicing Mindfulness First
So to begin your journey, you might want to start with the concept of mindfulness which is being fully present in the moment. It is a form of meditation. It is slowing down to take in the many subtle nuances of your experience. It could be as simple as sitting quietly on a bench in a park and noticing many sensations through your senses. It can involve not just looking around, but noticing the different smells, sounds, and bodily sensations like the soft breeze upon your skin, the sun upon your face, the softness of the grass or the hardness of the bench under your legs. Notice the many colors and shades created with the light falling upon many different plants and objects. What do you notice in your body as you notice what is going on around you?
Or, practice this during a meal. Put your fork down between each bite, slow down your eating and observe how much you can notice about the food, the smells, your environment, your digestion. Prolong the experience of eating a single grape and notice how much you can experience through all of your senses in a simple act. It can open up a new world of awareness.
Another very common mediation technique is to focus on your breath for several minutes. Some suggest that you focus only on your breath by counting your breaths up to 10 and start over. If your mind wanders before the 10th breath, start again at one. Personally, I don’t think I ever made it past the count of 3.
So if you are starting out anew, keep it simple and fun to build your confidence. Try practicing simple focused attention and notice what is present for you – all around you and inside of you. There are many, many ways to practice mindfulness. Practicing this often, even for five minutes a day can start to take you off the “brain train” and into more of a full body experience. It can help create that state of being where your mind is simultaneously focused and expansive.
If you are interested in a program to teach you mindfulness, you can check out the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who has been teaching a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for many years. There are local places to learn these techniques, or check out the Palouse Mindfulness website, which has a free online 8 week version MBSR program.  Yes, free.
Benefits of These Practices
Literally every day there is a new article or research that describes many benefits of meditation.
Changes in Brain Activity
With the advent of better technology, researchers are able to track changes in brain anatomy and activity. For centuries, it was believed that our brain matter did not change and actually there is considerable evidence to support the concept of neuro-plasticity, or the ability for our brain matter to change over time. Tracking the brain scans of people who meditate over time has shown that 1) not only are the brains of experienced meditators different than novices in substantial ways, such as more neural network connections and deactivation of processing / increased focus; and 2) measurements of the brain activity of people learning to meditate has shown changes in brain wave patterns over time.  Harvard researchers at Mass General Hospital found that these effects can be seen in as little as eight weeks of practice. 
Here are some other physical conditions and systems where it is suggested that meditation can have a positive impact, and many are stress related conditions:
Heart disease, AIDS, infertility, cancer, ADD, migraines, prostate cancer, reduce high blood pressure, chronic pain, immune system, fibromyalgia, psoriasis
Emotional and Mental Benefits
In a meta-analysis review of many studies, researchers found a small to moderate effect of mindfulness in reducing emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression and stress. There was also an effect for reducing the effects of pain.  It has also been suggested that it improves our empathy for others. It is suggested that it can help with addiction, eating disorders and cognitive function.
For decades, an organization called HeartMath has been successfully teaching mindfulness/meditation techniques to help reduce stress, manage anger and increase heart centered feelings. Their techniques have people learn to focus on the area of their heart and breathing. 
Some of the suggested “mental” effects of meditation and mindfulness:
Improve memory, improve our sense of self, better decision making, generalized anxiety disorder, irritability, increased creativity, and increased mental clarity.
This is a wide open topic with many different paths and attention. In the next article, I will describe many more forms of practice you may want to try, as well as suggest some resources to assist you. In the last article I will explore the more advanced benefits of deepening a practice and how it can be related to spirituality and healing.
 As quoted in Inc Magazine http://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/how-steve-jobs-trained-his-own-brain.html
 See “The Healing Art of Meditation” by Kaitlin McLean in Yale Scientific and “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain” in Harvard Business Review Jan 8, 2015
 “The Mental Health Benefits Of Meditation: It’ll Alter Your Brain’s Grey Matter, And Improve Memory, Sense Of Self” http://www.medicaldaily.com/mental-health-benefits-meditation-itll-alter-your-brains-grey-matter-and-improve-319298
 JAMA Internal Medicine “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being” http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1809754