Preface: Please note that my meditation training occurred formally during my yoga teacher training with an ashram in Atlanta, GA (I am an RYT 500). I also practice meditation regularly so my understanding of the practice is both objective and personal.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a mind/body tool intending to enhance mindfulness, or presence, in the moment. You can’t change the past or control the future (outside of some basic planning, of course). The present moment is all that we have, and by uniting mind with the body in the moment, relaxation and stress reduction are promoted.
Meditation has ancient ties to mystical practices and religions including Hinduism and Buddhism. Some even say Christ himself meditated (ex. https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/meditation-and-jesus-what-was-their-relationship/) . Meditation does not, however, have to be a spiritual or religious practice, though it may turn into a spiritual practice over time.
Evidence suggests mediation can be useful for a variety of medical conditions and complaints such as anxiety, depression, pain, ulcerative colitis, inflammation, symptoms of menopause, even improving the Quality of Life in people with cancer. Meditation can change the structure and activity of the brain. The scientific interest in meditation is staggering: a PubMed search produced 4926 articles.
Meditation can be performed anywhere during various activities, sitting, on your back, walking/running/swimming, eyes opened or closed. Until you are more experienced with the practice, I would recommend trying meditation sitting, moving if necessary to maintain comfort, though some ascetic practices would rather the practitioner remain uncomfortable. As a healthcare practitioner, pain is a warning signal and I usually recommend those I am coaching avoid physical pain in meditation. Practicing mindfulness while resting on your back early in your practice might encourage sleep, and moving meditations such as walking require a bit more practice to maintain presence.
In general, meditation is best facilitated with focus on the breath – the sensation and the movements of the body. However, some practitioners chose to utilize a mantra (essentially a sacred saying) to focus on, a mudra (a sacred hand gesture meant to mobilize energy), a mandala (a bracelet or necklace of beads for counting), pranayama (more intense breath practice) or even soft focus on an object, such as the flame of a candle. Words or phrases can serve as a focus of meditation: “Words held in contemplative awareness offer us a horizon toward which we can expand. If we give them the time they require to unfold their inherent magic, we grow by reaching out to their larger meanings” (Zajonc, pg 126). Guided meditations and meditative music, such as nature sounds or drumming, are great options as well.
The intention of meditation is not to have a silent mind, but a witness mind. Notice, or witness, thoughts as they arise, practice non-judgement, and allow them to pass. The work is to not allow thoughts to carry you away during your practice. For example, in meditation you might think of your grocery list, which reminds you that you have to go to the store, you think about the last time you were at the store and ran in to a neighbor, that you need gas for your car, and might as well get a car wash too – this sounds like the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie book……..5 minutes later, you recognize you are no longer present in your body or in the moment. The witness mind would have allowed the thought about the grocery list and released it, avoiding the mental drama play.
Journaling following a meditation session can be helpful. Noting the topics that arose, feelings, sensations, images that were produced, etc can be assist the practitioner in self-exploration and inquiry.
My recommendation for the novice: try a class or meet one on one with an instructor (these can include specific medical professionals trained in mindfulness or yoga instructors for example). Meditation apps are also available for your devices. If a particular format or teacher does not fit you well, try another. Outside of nonjudgement and witness-mind, there is no firm “right” or “wrong” way to meditate. From personal experience, for example, I cannot drop in to guided meditations. I find talking incredibly distracting and prefer silence, drumming, or even running meditations. If I had given up on meditating after my distaste for guided meditations, I am not sure I would be the regular meditator that I am today.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT)
RYT 500, reiki master
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Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love by Arthur Zajonc