SCIENCE OF MEDITATION
MEDITATION comes from the Sanskrit (Ancient Indian) word “dhyana,” which translates to concentration or focus. During meditation, we concentrate or focus our attention on a particular object of attention to gain control over our thoughts. The object of attention we focus on can be our breathing, sounds, specific mantras or phrases, or imagery. Different meditation practices use different "objects" to create the meditative experience.
Meditation is a practice and a discipline that cannot merely be theorized, but must be experienced (ideally every day) for optimal psychological and physical benefits. Ideally, in a meditation practice, the practitioner is given adequate time and a comfortable space to practice repetitively bringing attention to the object of attention.
This practice creates many profound benefits for psychological and even physical well-being. The proven benefits include:
- Research has proven that when we practice a loving-kindness meditation, our positive emotions increase over a period of time. Loving-kindness meditation is also known as Metta bhavana, which derives from the buddhist tradition of developing love and compassion. It’s method includes mentally sending goodwill, love and compassion to ourselves and to others through a series of mantras. According to the American Psychological Association “...this meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.”
- Meditation has been shown to increase social connection through enhancing our emotional intelligence. Studies have shown that just a few minutes of meditation a day, increases our feelings of social connection and positivity towards individuals. Meditation can also help to diffuse social isolation, decrease social anxiety and promote positive social emotions. Researcher, neuroscientist, and pharmacologist Candance Pert (Section Chief at the National Institution of Health) discovered that meditation contributes to the release of our endorphins, our ‘feel good’ hormones, which can make us feel better about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves, we fix the very root cause of social anxiety.
- Studies show that engaging in a short program in mindfulness meditation (8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program) produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function in positive ways. Mindfulness meditation is shown to increase the number of our CD-4 cells, which are our immune system’s “helper” cells that send signals to other cells telling them to destroy an infection. Stress, negative thinking and emotional states can have a negative impact on our immune system -- therefore, training our minds and practicing mindfulness can decrease our stress response, and boost our immunity, overall health and well-being.
Through this effective mind-body practice, one can experience greater states of calmness, concentration and relaxation while reaching heightened and more clarified states of consciousness.
As mentioned above, there are many different types of meditation practices adapted from all over the world, and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to meditate. Common meditation practices include Mindfulness Meditation, Movement Meditation and Chanting and/or Mantra Meditation.
Mindfulness meditation incorporates techniques inspired by the Buddha, although it was most recently brought to the west by Jon Kabatt-Zin. During a Mindfulness meditation practice, the practitioner cultivates self-awareness of their body and thoughts. Research shows that Mindfulness meditation improves brain activity, and how our minds work and filter information (see mindfulness tab). Obtaining skills from a mindfulness practice, such as self-awareness, can serves as a foundation for overcoming dissatisfaction, stress, impatience, the experience of emotional and physical pain, and other habits that keep us from living happier lives.
A Movement Meditation practice focuses on the body in motion during any present moment. Walking meditation, yoga and tai-chi are examples of engaging in a movement meditation practice. Engaging in a movement meditation practice gives us the ability to be fully present in our bodies, and allows us to appreciate and focus on our movements.
Chanting meditation helps to clear our minds and enables us to be fully present, and focused on the different sounds and melodies of words. Similar to chanting meditation, Mantra meditation also clears the mind and allows us to be fully present, relaxed and focused. In a Mantra Meditation practice - a repetitive sound, word, or phrase is used to focus and clear the mind. “Om” is a common sound used in a mantra meditation practice.
The major key steps and mutual elements that are found in different meditation practices include:
- Choosing a quiet, safe space or location with as few distractions as possible
- Choosing a comfortable posture that best suits you (sitting on a cushion, lying down on a mat, walking - or any other position you feel is most comfortable for your body)
- Focus and bring your awareness on something specific - such as an object, a mantra, or even your breath. If you choose to focus on the breath, try to notice and focus on the sensations of it. For example, notice if you are breathing fast or slow. Notice the breath and observe how you feel.
- It is very important to keep an open mind and attitude while meditating. Allow thoughts and distractions to come and go, without trying to judge them.