Practicing meditation is a very simple way to help you manage your life and health. Despite what you read or hear, there is really no right or wrong way to meditate. In fact, one of the simplest meditations is to just sit quietly and listen to your breathing. Meditation can be as complicated or as simple as you like. You can keep experimenting to find a way that works for you. Meditation is not about perfection or force. While one of the goals is to calm and quiet the mind, most of us find it difficult to completely shut off our thoughts during meditation. Just like when we are training for a new activity or developing a special skill, it is something that must be practiced and over time it gets easier.
Meditation can be time for your mind to have more space to filter out the useless chatter and allow thoughts, feelings, fears, ideas, memories, etc. to surface and be addressed if needed. You can use it to focus on your physical body to promote change and healing. Also, it can be used to encourage mental and spiritual growth or to help you cope with a difficult time or situation in your life. Above all, meditation is something you do for yourself; time carved out of your busy schedule away from distraction and external stimuli. You can start with 5-minute meditations and when you feel open to it, allow yourself to sit for longer periods of time (20-30 minutes seems to work for many).
The longer you sit in stillness, the deeper you will go into your self and the “meditative state” (often described as the state between sleep and wakefulness).
When you first begin to meditate, understand that it may not feel easy to you. By using things like guided audio meditations, visualizations, music, or specific meditation methods learned from books and magazines, you eventually find you can train yourself to enter the meditative state. But remember, that at its core, meditation is simply awareness. By encouraging awareness, we live healthier, fuller, more balanced lives. Awareness of our selves or “self-knowledge” is one of the differences between thriving and simply surviving in life.
Recent research is starting to give us insight into the many ways meditation can help us. In fact, The Huffington Post recently wrote of the January 2011 study in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagingwhich found that mindfulness meditation made changes in the gray matter of the brain in spots that, among other things, help with learning and memory processes, as well as the regulation of emotions. They also explain in another article that sustained meditation leads to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain’s ability to change, structurally, and functionally; in other words, meditation can change your brain! Meditation has been shown to help patients cope with rheumatoid arthritis, reduce pain levels, lower blood pressure (long term), and reduce the hormones related to stress. Still not convinced? Another study looked at the activity of telomerase, an enzyme responsible for building telomeres (protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes; long telomeres are associated with longer life and slower aging signs). People who meditated had significantly higher telomerase activity than non-meditators. In short, it may slow the process of aging. Meditation has even shown to help slow the progression of HIV.
Any time we meditate, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation, digestion, sleep, and repair/healing. When we are under stress, the other side of the nervous system (known as “fight or flight” or sympathetic) is dominant. When the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, it diverts blood flow away from the “rest and digest” organs (including the digestive system and the reproductive system). Simply taking the time to learn how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system through meditation can promote healing and help your body cope during times of increased stress.