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Meditation 101: How to do it and why it makes us feel better

11/17/2020

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What if I told you that if you commit to meditate 5-10 minutes a day on most days you’ll feel calmer, more focused and happier? Can I guarantee it? No. Almost, though. For the vast majority of people who try it, the practice of meditation works. Meditation requires no equipment and it’s free to all. 

But what is it? Think of it like fitness training, but for the mind. Just as there are many different sports we can use to train our bodies, there are also multiple styles of meditation. Try one for a couple of weeks and you’ll likely experience what Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard researcher in the 1970s, identified as the relaxation response, which he said is an “opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”

When the relaxation response is triggered, people notice short-term benefits, including improved circulation, less anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure and blood cortisol levels, increased feelings of well-being and we might even perspire less. People also report feeling peace and order, serenity, gratitude and even bliss! 

You can learn to meditate on your own, download a meditation app such as Calm or Headspace, or find guided meditations online at sites such as YouTube.  

The easiest thing to do is to find a comfortable spot and give it a try.

According to Psychology Today: “archaeologists discovered evidence of meditation in wall art in the Indus Valley, now Pakistan and India, dating from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. The images depict people sitting in what many of us would recognize as meditation postures. In other words, the figures sat on the ground with crossed legs, hands resting on their knees, and their eyes slightly narrowed but not completely closed. There are also descriptions of meditation techniques found in Indian scriptures dating back around 3,000 years ago.”

There are many types of meditation. Here are a few to try:

Moving Meditation uses rhythmic physical movements to focus and calm the mind. This could be walking, yoga, running or even folding laundry or vacuuming. Also called Daily Life Practice Meditation, this is a great way to start a meditation practice.

Concentration meditation. You know on TV or in the movies when you see a character meditating and they are repeating a word or phrase over and over, maybe ‘Om’? That’s concentration meditation.  

For this style, you focus on a single point, which could be the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame or counting beads on a mala. A mala is a string of beads, often numbering 108, used for keeping count during meditation. There will be one larger bead, which you hold. Then you slip the smaller beads between your fingers, repeating your mantra, until you come back to the large bead. Refocus your awareness each time you notice your mind wandering. Instead of following random thoughts, let them go. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it and the more you’ll be able to focus.

Meditation for the cultivation of compassion. There is a famous quote by the Dalai Lama that says “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 

For this meditation, you begin with yourself because you can’t extend compassion to others until you can be compassionate with your own mind. It’s like putting your own oxygen mask on first, before you help others with theirs. In subsequent steps, you will send compassion to loved ones, strangers, and even people you dislike. You will wish something called Loving-Kindness on each person, including yourself.

Say each phrase in your mind and imagine breathing warmth and compassion into your heart, then exhaling warmth and compassion toward yourself. Imagine the compassion reaching every part of your body.

Here’s the most widely used script to say or think as you do this:

  • May I be happy.
  • May I be peaceful.
  • May I be free from suffering.

Now that you have wrapped yourself in Loving-Kindness, send it toward a friend or loved one:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you be peaceful.
  • May you be free from suffering.

This time picture your loved one and send all your love and warmth to that person. 

Next, think of someone you don’t know very well. Someone you feel pretty neutral about. Send all your wishes for well-being to that person, repeating your script while breathing warmth and compassion.

Now that you’re all warmed up, it’s time to direct Loving-Kindness toward someone you are in conflict with or whom you dislike. Your wish is that they might also be filled with Loving-Kindness. 

Another simple meditation for beginners is this one, as taught by Dharma Master Hwansan Sunim. This technique is called Breath Counting Meditation. It’s an ancient practice, initially used by monks to increase their powers of concentration. 

  1. Sit or lie comfortably. If you feel you might doze off, start seated.
  2. Keep your eyes open softly and look straight ahead, but don't stare at any object or pattern in the floor. Just keep your eyes relaxed. 
  3. Very slowly inhale through your nose and gently push out your abdomen like it's a balloon filling up with the air that you're inhaling. 
  4. When your belly feels about 80% full, pause for about 3 seconds.  
  5. Then, even more slowly exhale through your nose and gently pull in your lower belly as if you're squeezing out the air.  
  6. Inhalation should be roughly 3 seconds, the pause 3 seconds, and the longer exhalation about 4 seconds.

If your mind wanders, and it definitely will, don’t worry. Just return your focus back to your breath. Just calmly notice what it is you were thinking about or what was distracting you, take a moment and let go of whatever it was you were thinking about. Then gently return your awareness to the breath, being present for each inhalation and exhalation. Try this meditation for two or three minutes to start, and then try it for longer. 

 

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