An Introduction to Meditation
Doug McClosky, LMFT
Meditation is often called “mindfulness”, though technically mindfulness is just one of many types of meditation. Most of the types of meditation in use today have literally been around for thousands of years. Here in the United States and in Europe there has been a resurgence of interest in eastern meditation techniques that were brought to the west in the 60s and 70s. If you associate meditation with shaving your head, putting on colorful robes, burning incense and playing new age music and if this thought horrifies you; relax, you don’t have to do that. Meditation techniques are frequently used without any religious, philosophical, or cultural trappings. On the other hand, if you like singing bowls and incense; respectfully go for it.
What is meditation? It refers to a number of mental and physical practices involving intentionally focused attention. This takes a variety of different forms with dozens of techniques:
1. One of the most popular forms is concentration on the physical act of breathing. In these practices an individual may: count breaths, pay attention to when they are breathing in and breathing out, attempt to lengthen each breath in and out, focus on the minute detail of the sequence of breathing in and out, and/or utilize some form of visualization along with the act of breathing. In a similar fashion some forms of meditation concentrate on walking. 2.In another form of meditation the person meditating attempts to concentrate on one object to the exclusion of all other thoughts or objects of attention. It is a myth to believe that one can entirely clear their conscious mind of all thoughts. This may happen in some parts of sleep or when a person is otherwise unconscious, but if we are awake we are always thinking or paying attention to something. While attempting to focus on one thing, other thoughts and feelings will naturally enter into one’s mind. This is okay and expected. In fact you could say that it is part of the reason why we meditate. In this form of meditation when a feeling or thought arises we note it and let it go; refocusing on the object that we’ve chosen as the focus of our attention. This practice is done for a set period of time ranging from one minute to an hour (or longer). Most people do not practice meditation for more than 5 to 30 minutes. 3. In another variation an individual focuses their attention on an idea. This idea may be a goal that they have set, a value, a manner of behavior that they wish to reach, or even a simple mental image. The process is similar. While focusing on the idea; other feelings and thoughts interfere. The object is to note the thought or feeling, let it go, and refocus on the chosen goal, image or idea. 4.In mindfulness, which is a form of meditation, the individual focuses on current sensations, physical states, sounds, emotions, and physical feelings. The object is to focus one’s attention on the here and now versus getting lost in reviewing the past, forecasting the future or imagining things that are not present. Ultimately the goal of mindfulness lies beyond focused attention. It is to make attentive real-time choices in accordance with one’s personal goals and cumulative wisdom. 5.Another form of meditation is guided visualization. For example, an individual assumes a relaxed posture, and then imagines being in a different place. Frequently this other place is carefully chosen as one in which the individual feels relaxed, positive, at peace, and otherwise untroubled. The visualization involves not only picturing the place but remembering or imagining sounds, light, physical sensations, and smells that a person would have if they were actually in this other place. There are numerous relaxation recordings available online that involve relaxing music and the recorded voice of a person describing scenes and feelings that are intended to help people relax. These recordings are also intended to encourage individuals to meet personal challenges. 6.Another form of meditation is called progressive relaxation. This is a process in which an individual selectively relaxes different parts of their body. In one variation you intentionally tense one muscle set after another and then relax them while focusing on the difference between the tense feeling and the relaxed feeling.
It is common to begin a meditation routine by focusing attention on breath or current physical sensations until a focused state of mind is reached. Once the focused state of mind is achieved, the individual reflects on the thoughts and feelings that arose while trying to focus. The intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations inform us about what is most on our mind and heightens our self-awareness.
So why meditate?
The most immediate benefit of meditation is the creation of a period of calm amid very busy lives. In time, and with practice, an individual who meditates can return to a calm state no matter what is going on around them. Being able to reach a calm state during unsettling situations improves our ability to make rational choices and avoid self-defeating behaviors. Another important benefit of meditation is increased self-awareness. The thoughts and feelings that are noted and let go during meditation become a part of our awareness of ourselves. A person who meditates regularly will be able to monitor their thoughts and feelings in real time. Once again, this yields an increased ability to choose how to act and feel as we go through our daily lives. The practice of meditation has been found to decrease emotional reactivity. Frequently the experience that we have of emotions is that they come out of nowhere. We have a feeling, we don’t know what triggered it, we didn’t choose the feeling, and we have little control over its strength. Meditation helps an individual identify triggers to specific feelings. It also increases the person’s ability to predict how they might feel in certain situations and to catch their emotional response quickly. In some situations it enables an individual to predict the trigger and typical emotional response and to choose a different response. In addition, the practice of letting intrusive thoughts go in order to focus on a chosen object can be helpful when dealing with daily anxieties. Letting go of some thoughts is harder than it sounds. In order to influence our seemingly automatic feelings we have to be aware of our feelings, know their typical triggers, reinterpret events, and question our own thinking about reality. These are lifelong challenges. The practice of meditation gives a person a systematic approach that increases their ability to meet these challenges. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for individuals to report positive change after practicing meditation for only 10 minutes a day for a week or two.
Where to start?
An internet search on the terms “meditation”, “mindfulness”, “relaxation,” “stress relief,” “guided imagery” or “progressive relaxation” will yield hundreds of recordings, videos, and books. General articles can be found on the Mayo Clinic site, Web MD, and many others. Phone apps such as “Mindfulness” and “Headspace” provide free SHORT introductory guided meditations that people new to meditation can experience by just sitting down and listening. This is an easy, fast way to try out meditation.The web site “getsomeheadspace.com” does a great job of listing the benefits of meditation supported by science. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center has free guided meditations available online. In addition, the Buddhist website Shambhala Sun has a very useful section, “How to meditate,” which is quite approachable for everyone. “Letting Go of Stress.” by Emmett Miller and Steve Halpern is a great example of a “relaxation” recording. (Dr. Miller’s website has dozens of products that I have not sampled.) If you are considering the purchase of a professional recording, be certain to sample it online first. This ensures a good match between your musical tastes and a good experience once you have made your purchase.
Start by experimenting with a few different 10 to 20 minute meditations. Find one that you like and decide on a time and place that you can practice daily. Practice for a couple of weeks and then evaluate. Though it is easier to have a quiet setting, closing your eyes and using headphones can even transform a bus ride into a renewing experience. It does not require a large investment of time or money, and the rewards can be significant!