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  • Tom Goldstein

What is Meditation, and Why Should You Care?

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Meditation is a mental exercise that involves relaxation, focus, and awareness. It's practised in various cultures today and has been practiced for many thousands of years in different forms.


The practice is often used to clear the mind and ease many health concerns, such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.


In meditation, we generally focus our attention on something specific. This focus helps to reduce or eliminate the constant stream of thoughts that run through our mind all day (and night when we’re dreaming). Meditation can be as simple as focusing on our breathing but can be a complex set of rituals and guidance from trained practitioners, or teachers. The word Guru simply means teacher.


Meditation has become popular in some businesses as a way to benefit individuals and teams. A recent article explored 5 key benefits of meditation for businesses:


  1. Meditation is increasingly recognised in the business sector for improving leadership and team performance.

  2. It helps reduce stress, enhance focus, and increase emotional intelligence and creativity.

  3. Meditation supports the development of crucial leadership skills like clarity in thinking and objective decision-making.

  4. Its benefits extend to teams, fostering better collaboration, communication, and resilience.

  5. Incorporating meditation into business practices can be straightforward and enhances the overall positivity and effectiveness of the workplace.


The benefits of meditation really are wide-ranging. They include reducing stress, improving concentration, encouraging a healthy lifestyle, and increasing self-awareness and happiness. Meditation is also used to develop other beneficial habits and feelings, such as a positive mood and outlook, self-discipline, healthy sleep patterns, inner peace, and even increased pain tolerance. At the deepest levels, meditation is also a pathway to what ancient wisdom traditions have called enlightenment, awakening or self-realisation.


Historical Context 

Meditation's journey begins in the ancient civilizations of India and China, permeating through various cultures and religions. It has been a cornerstone in Tantric, Buddhist, Taoist, Shamanic, and Hindu practices. Over the centuries it has evolved over to suit different spiritual, and lifestyle needs across the world. Today’s mindfulness, yoga and Sophrology is very much based on these ancient teachings and practices.


Defining Meditation

At its core, meditation is a practice of focused attention and heightened awareness. I often describe meditation as finding the “perfect balance” or integration between alertness and relaxation. The state we are working towards is an alert relaxation, a state where the mind is quiet, we feel deeply at peace, but we are complete alert to everything that is going on.


There are several forms of meditation, drawing from various traditions. Some practices involve focusing on a single point, which could be following the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, or listening to a repetitive sound. Another form involves mindfulness, which encourages the broad awareness of one's environment, train of thought, and sense of self. It's about living in the moment and awakening to experience.


In some traditions, meditation is about transforming the mind. These practices involve techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things. By engaging with a particular meditation practice, you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new, more positive ways of being.


Physical practices, which include postures and movements, are also a form of meditation. These aim to achieve physical alignment, stamina, and flexibility, and are often integrated with breathing techniques.


Contemplative practices are another form. These involve concentrated focus on a thought or topic, often a philosophical or spiritual concept, to delve deep into its meanings or implications.


My favourite approach is to simply notice, multiple times a day, that everything I am thinking and experiencing is arising within my consciousness (or awareness); and that I am, at my deepest level, simply that consciousness that is aware of what is arising. However, this might not be your go to beginner technique. It’s taken me more than a decade of silent retreats and practice to be able to make use of this simple practice.


The variety in meditation practices is vast, each offering different pathways to self-awareness and tranquillity. While their origins and methods may differ, the essence remains the same: a deep and abiding presence within the moment and an increased awareness of one’s existence.


The Science Behind Meditation 

Scientific studies highlight meditation's profound impact on mental health, stress reduction, and neurological health. Research demonstrates how regular practice alters brain waves and improves areas responsible for memory, empathy, and stress regulation.

The science behind meditation reveals a fascinating interaction between the brain and the practice. Research suggests that meditation can lead to changes in brain function and structure, which may be responsible for the various benefits associated with the practice. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies show that meditation can lead to an increase in brain activity in areas associated with learning, memory, and emotion regulation.


Perhaps most notably, consistent meditation has been linked to alterations in the amygdala, a region connected to emotion, resulting in reduced stress responses and a greater ability to remain clam in challenging environments. This is one of the reasons why special forces, in militaries around the world, have been learning to meditate. Don’t believe me, check out this NY Times article.


Moreover, meditation has been shown to enhance the density of grey matter in the brain, particularly in regions linked to self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. This structural change is believed to contribute to the practitioner’s capacity to better manage emotions and thoughts.


Additionally, meditation positively impacts the autonomic nervous system, which controls processes like blood pressure and breathing. By reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, meditation promotes relaxation and reduces stress. There's also evidence suggesting that meditation can improve the immune system, enhance concentration, and lead to better overall well-being.


Practical Aspects of Meditation 

For beginners, meditation can start with just a few minutes of focused breathing. Establishing a quiet, comfortable space and using apps or guided audio can also help. Regular practice, even in short sessions, is key.


There are however many different approaches to meditating. These include:

  • Focusing on the breath (either when still, or in movement such as Yoga)

  • Staring at a blank wall or open sky

  • Scanning through the body to notice the sensations

  • Focusing on the internal felt experience of different parts of the body

  • Focusing on the sensations of the soles of the feet while walking slowly

  • Letting go and placing your awareness on the sound in a soundbath

  • Simply noticing what is going on, without “thinking” about it


Challenges and Misconceptions 

Common misconceptions include the idea that meditation requires emptying the mind completely, or that it's a religious practice. Challenges like restlessness or wandering thoughts are normal and can be addressed through consistent practice, patience and the guidance of a good teacher.


A quick read through Quora or Reddit will reveal a host of meditation success stories and pointers for starting or developing your practice. There are also apps like Headspace, Calm, Healthy Minds and Smiling Mind. Here is an article that looks at some of the pros and cons of these.


Conclusion 

Meditation is more than just a practice; it's a journey towards self-discovery and inner peace. Its adaptability across different lifestyles and benefits for mental and physical health make it a valuable tool for everyone, from yogis to athletes to CEOs.


Further Reading 

For those interested in delving deeper, a wealth of resources, including scientific research, books, and online materials, are available to explore the rich world of meditation. Here are some that I would recommend:


·        “Why we meditate” by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Daniel Goleman

·        “Zen mind beginner mind” by Shunryū Suzuki

·        “The Fearless Heart” by Pema Choedroen

·        “A Fearless Heart” by Thupten Jinpa

·        “Sky above, Earth below: Spiritual Practice in Nature” by John P. Milton

·        “Tantra Illuminated” by Christopher D. Wallis

·        “Stages of Meditation” by H.H. the Dalai Lama

·        “Living Untethered” by Michael A. Singer

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