Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is a term that covers many different practices. There is a common denominator that can be used to define the term, and this is the focus on the breathing. Every meditation style will encourage the practitioner to focus the awareness on the breath. What happens next can be seen as a stylistic preference, and the practitioner will naturally have specific needs or interests that determine the meditation style they will choose. Some people find it helpful to count the breaths, for example. Other practitioners will simply observe the breath as they inhale and exhale. Some meditation styles emphasize the role of the teacher, and others emphasize the importance of direct personal experience before any additional instructions are given.

Basic Concepts of Meditation

Meditation practices always highlight the awareness on the breath. Simply observing your breath as it moves in and out of your respiratory system can help you to calm the mind. Once the mind becomes calm, the body moves out of the fight, flight or freeze mode. This allows your body to experience the internal conditions that encourage the self-healing process, which also takes place when you are asleep.

A Simple Meditation for Beginners

Try a simple exercise to help you understand the basics of meditation practice. The power of meditation is in the ability to change the mental state that you are experiencing. The best way to develop this skill is to practice it in a simplified manner. For example, when you are upset, angry or frustrated, this is a great time to test your skill.

First, write down the number that best represents your level of frustration or anger on a scale of one to 10. Next, observe the qualities of your breath. Write down a few words to describe it. For example, is the breath agitated, short or tense? Is it rapid, unsettled or uncomfortable? Once you have the number and a few descriptive words written down on paper, you have a snapshot of your condition before the meditation. Compare this to the number and the words you write down after the meditation.

Finally, bring your awareness from the intense emotion, and simply focus your awareness on the breathing. If your concentration is not very developed, it may help you to count the breaths. With each inhalation, allow the breath to become longer and smoother than the last breath. As you exhale, allow the sensation of calmness to be present in the area around your lungs. As your mind follows the breath, your mind begins to relax and become calm. Once you feel a change in your mind, you can write down a new number on the paper. Observe your breath once again, and write down a few words that describe the breathing at this new moment in time. Compare the numbers and the words. This will show you how meditation can help you to take the edge off intense emotions and release tension, which is often held in the mind.

If the above exercise seems too detailed, that’s okay – start simple. Take a deep breath in through your nose, filling your belly with air. It is important to utilize your diaphragm for this type of breathing, rather than your chest. This diaphragmatic breathing is also commonly referred to as belly breathing. This type of breathing encourages full oxygen exchange. On your out-breath, push the air out through your mouth, emptying your belly. Continue to focus your attention on the in an out flow of your breath for about 5 to 10 minutes. Make sure to stop if you start to feel light-headed. If any thoughts or distractions arise, take a moment to acknowledge them and tell yourself you can put them aside for later.

Brief History of Meditation

Many historians agree that the first traces of organized meditation practice started around 5,000 years ago. This date means that it is older than any physical evidence of what is now widely understood to be civilization. Since the practice of meditation literally pre-dates civilization as it is currently defined, it should be understood in those terms. Meditation is a personal experience, and there are many ways to practice. Beginners should always practice the method that makes the most sense to their personal situation. For example, classic meditation postures are seated and cross-legged. However, other meditation styles use movement to focus the mind on the breath.

Meditation is widely recognized as having originated in the subcontinent that is now called India. The historical Buddha became enlightened by practicing under a Bodhi tree, but he was never understood to be the only Buddha. The name Buddha simply means an awakened being. Sakyamuni is called the historical Buddha because he enabled the practice to travel throughout the world; however, his own words indicate that there were many Buddhas before him, and many schools of Buddhist thought recognize the potential for many Buddhas after him. Buddhists traveled to China, Japan and Korea teaching people how to meditate. When it arrived in China, the Indian meditation styles were mixed with the existing Taoist philosophies. In Japan, Buddhism mixed with the existing Shinto religion, which is indigenous to the islanders. Similar adaptations occurred when meditation was introduced to people who practiced Judaism and even Christianity.

Oral Traditions and Meditation

It is significant that meditation practices and techniques remained in the Asian continents until the middle of the 20th century. The relatively recent awareness in the western hemisphere means that there is still a gap in the understanding that only comes from generations of people practicing consistently. Every generation of meditation practitioners will pass on insights and information to the next, and this is the reason that meditation has survived even in the modern age where technology is the dominant cultural influence. In reality, technology has increased the stress of the workforce, and people naturally seek remedies for the fatigue, stress and injuries associated with modern lifestyles.

Unlike written traditions, meditation was passed down through the generations by various oral traditions that emphasize personal experience and practice over memorization as a learning style. The general trend was the same, regardless of the meditation style. For example, the teacher would be a person who was capable of breaking through barriers that others would encounter. The methods or techniques used to accomplish this would be passed on to the students. One example of a technique is the internal circulation of energy through the main meridian, or energy channel, which bisects the body into left and right sides. This central meridian became the focal point in certain meditation styles.

How To Understand Different Schools of Meditation

There are many styles of meditation, and beginners are often confused about which style might be the most appropriate for their situation. In reality, there are many ways to approach the subject of meditation practice. Use the basic definition of meditation as a practice that can lead to a higher state of consciousness. This framework is helpful to the beginner because it allows the person to select the meditation style that resonates on a personal level.

The basic assumption of meditation is that a higher consciousness is possible and that it can be attained within any circumstances. Some schools of meditation even consider every human experience as an opportunity to experience this higher consciousness. The practice of meditation can be applied to any possible situation, according to this particular school of thought. However, some popular meditation traditions tend to focus beginners on specific techniques instead of overall philosophical ideas, which might come later in their practice.

Common Types of Meditation

  1. Zen Sitting Meditation: Zen meditation is practiced in a seated position called zazen. The practitioner can experience reality directly in this tradition. This means a direct insight into the nature of all things, which are temporary. Attachments to ideas that do not reflect reality are discarded. Zen meditation teachers often talk about the direct apprehension as the highest form of confirmation that the meditation was done correctly. However, they also observe the student’s application of these insights in daily life to see how deep the experience was at the time of the insight, or satori.
  2. Taoist Movement Meditation: After meditation came to China, it mixed with the philosophies that were already being practiced. The blend of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, and existing meditations created new forms of rigorous training that students can practice to awaken their primal energy. Once this happens, the student is transformed by the practice.
  3. Taoist Qigong Meditation: Qigong is a unique type of meditation that is taught in a way that helps the practitioner to regulate the breathing. As a result of this practice, the mind becomes regulated and clam. This mental calmness allows the body to regulate the flow of energy naturally, which is experienced as healing and rejuvenation.
  4. Chakra Meditation: Chakra is a Sanskrit word that translates to “wheel” and or “cycle”. Chakras are the energy centers of the body (there are seven in total). An open and balanced chakra maintains health and well-being.
  5. Transcendental Meditation: This is a meditation that does not overtly encourage concentrating on the breath, which could possibly be more effective in relaxing the muscles around the lungs. Instead, the meditation allows the mind to relax and go into a state of profound rejuvenation. This meditation has a reputation for being easy and accessible to anyone, including people who have various impairments or limitations on their concentration. This meditation uses a mantra or series of Sanskrit words to help the practitioner focus during meditation, in lieu of just following the breath.
  6. Guided Meditation: Guided meditation allows a person or a group of people to follow imagery and guidance by an experienced practitioner. The guidance might follow a specific type of imagery. For example, imagining relaxing by the ocean is a common theme in guided meditations. The guide might also suggest an area of focus. For example, guides often encourage people to relax their toes, knees, spine, shoulders and neck joints while breathing deeply and calmly. This encourages the flow of energy to restore the body’s tissue, which are often affected by stress.
  7. Mindfulness Meditation: This type of meditation originates from Buddhist teachings and is widely practiced in the West. During this meditation, the practitioner observes their thoughts and allows them to pass through their mind without judgment.
  8. Loving Kindness (or Metta) Meditation: Metta is a Pali word that translates to “kindness, goodwill and empathy”. This meditation helps develop empathy, kindness and compassion to the practitioner and to others and also helps reduce rumination.
  9. Walking Meditation: This meditation involves walking while meditating. As the practitioner walks, they use slow, deliberate steps while noticing the sensations they feel in their body. Walking meditation can be even more beneficial when combined with Loving Kindness (or Metta) Meditation.

There are also many other derivative forms of meditation. Some of these have a relaxed and flexible approach, and others are more systematic. For example, a simple meditation that can be done any time during the day is to simply observe the breath as it moves through your lungs. As you observe the inhalation, your mind follows the breath. As you exhale, you relax slightly. After a few breaths with this kind of awareness, you can begin to observe subtle changes in your frame of mind. The mind becomes slightly calmer and can be beneficial both physiologically and psychologically. Practicing this basic meditation for only a few minutes every day can improve your quality of life in a subtle way.

Benefits of Meditation

After meditation was introduced into western countries like the United States, the benefits of these practices has been widely reported. Some medical researchers became curious about the effects of meditation on the condition of their patients. The earliest researchers were delving into unfamiliar territory, and they had to justify their methodology. As a result, there is now a body of medical literature that prioritizes the effects of meditation on the physical and emotional health of the practitioners.

The benefits of these practices are widely recognized by people who practice all types of meditation styles. The ability to calm the mind and focus the concentration is widely cited by people who practice meditation. These benefits can be experienced with only a few minutes of daily practice. Like any other skill, the practitioner may develop various additional skills as they become more experienced. Similarly, some beginners may experience frustration in the initial stages because there is often some physical discomfort involved. The skill of breathing through the discomfort and staying calm and aware is also a thread that runs through all the different meditation styles.

Meditation has been studied in clinical settings in order to produce a body of literature that can be cited as evidence that meditation practice is beneficial in specific ways. For example, a study performed at the University of Pennsylvania tested the effects of meditation on the ability of the practitioner to concentrate. Here is a summary of the most commonly cited benefits of meditation:

  1. Improved Concentration: Practicing only for a few minutes per day will have benefits if sustained over time. Regular practice is the key to improving concentration through meditation practice. The University of Pennsylvania study focused on highlighting the correlation between regular practice and the improvements in concentration, which can be measured and documented.
  2. Health Benefits: According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, meditation is a reliable method for reducing stress, which contributes to any existing diseases in the body. The skills that are developed through meditation can also help patients to manage their conditions with a more calm and centered focus.
  3. Mental Well-Being: Mental stress can affect anyone, regardless of their type of work or social position in life. Regular practice can provide you with the mental clarity you need to take on new challenges solve problems and recover from a hard day of work. Additional mental benefits include improved imagination, creativity, awareness and focus. These attributes can then be applied to a variety of circumstances in daily life. As you practice applying the skills earned through regular meditation practice, your life becomes more manageable.
  4. Calmness and Relaxation: Calmness and relaxation are difficult to experience in the modern lifestyle. This is why regular meditation practice is important for anyone who lives in a stressful environment. It can help you to develop a sense of focused, calm awareness. This can then be applied to different situations in your daily life.

Meditation for Beginners

There are many ways to practice meditation, and there are many schools of thought, so meditation for beginners can seem overly complicated. Beginners should start with a meditation practice that is interesting and relevant to their personal life situation. After you figure out what style of meditation you want to practice, the next thing to do is create a space for this practice. Most people prefer a quiet and peaceful environment for meditation practice. However, it is also beneficial to adapt the practice when you are in a public place that is crowded or noisy.

Summary of Meditation Practices

Meditation is an ancient practice that is still widely used by people from different countries and walks of life for a variety of reasons. Most people understand meditation practice in terms of focusing the mind on the breathing. There might be a sitting posture that can be corrected by an experienced teacher, for example. Other meditation styles are designed to coordinate the breath with movements. Guided meditations are also widely used in clinical settings. This is possible because of the research done on meditation as a form of therapy. The benefits of meditation are widely recognized, and people practice different forms depending on their needs and their interests.

Meditation can be understood as a set of traditions that develops the consciousness of the human being through consistent, daily practice. This can be done through seated or moving postures. The skills that come with meditation practice can be applied to daily life. However, there are many options available for people who need to use meditation for managing medical conditions. This is also a practice that can be used in the rehabilitation setting as well. Meditation can be used with other therapies that help patients to improve their coordination as well as manage their stress. Regardless of the type of mediation practice you select, it should be appropriate for your needs. Some styles of meditation can be intense, but others focus on relaxing the mind and body.