Meditation – what are the benefits?

Meditation - what are the benefits?

What is meditation anyway?

I don’t usually like articles or speeches that start with, “I looked up this word (in this case meditation) in the dictionary and what it said was…”, so I was delighted when I looked the word “meditation” up on Wikipedia and found it had all sorts of origins and definitions. This makes it hard for me to start with this type of definition, but I’m going to do it anyway.

According to Wikipedia, in English the word “meditation” comes from a Latin word “meditatio”, which means to think, contemplate, devise or ponder. This is my understanding of what meditation is; it’s sitting quietly thinking about something, or maybe trying to think about nothing. In the way I’m looking at it here, this process is designed to calm the mind, help us deal with the stresses of daily life and maybe gain some health benefits too.

Several different types of modern meditation practice

There seem to be different types of meditation, and some of these are associated with religious practices. Since the 1960s modern meditation practices have become separated from religion and have been used increasingly by people in the western world as part of a health promotion regime.

I started with Transcendental Meditation

My initial first-hand experience of meditation came several (actually many) years ago when I enrolled on the Transcendental Meditation programme that is promoted world-wide as a way of reducing stress in your life and getting in touch with what they call “pure creative intelligence”. Once you enrol on the programme there is a short induction process where you are given instruction in how to meditate with follow-up sessions over the following few days where you can discuss your experiences with instructors and fellow students.

How Transcendental Meditation works

The process in Transcendental Meditation is that you are given a word, or mantra, to think about while you are meditating. Thinking about this meaningless word causes your mind to be distracted away from anything that is bothering you. This is certainly a very relaxing experience that leaves you feeling unusually calm and kind of focused. To my eternal shame, despite the meditation only taking 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, I have never managed to establish the routine of meditating every day. This seems ridiculous to me, because when I have meditated regularly, even for short periods, I have felt much better.

Guided meditations

More recently I have become interested in guided meditation as a way of getting myself to focus on things that I want to achieve. I came across this when I was learning about NLP (neuro-linguistic programming a few years ago). I suppose this could also be described as a hypnotic trance where you are listening to someone encourage you to achieve goals that are important to you. I have found that this also leaves me feeling calm and kind of focused, just like my experiences of Transcendental Meditation, but in this case I am much clearer about what it is I am focused on. There are CDs and MP3 downloads that you can listen to that induce a trance state then talk you through the information that you would like to focus your mind on. Richard Bandler and Paul McKenna are two of the people who produce this type of material.

On to Mindfulness Meditation

This brings me on to mindfulness meditation. I keep hearing about mindfulness meditation and the benefits it provides but I’m still trying to figure out how it works and how it differs from other types of meditation. I have seen documentaries about how this type of meditation practice can reduce the amount of pain experienced by people with chronic painful conditions, but I don’t understand how the meditation can actually achieve this. I have read about mindfulness meditation and watched YouTube videos on it and it seems to involve focusing on one thing, such as your breathing, and this makes all the other troubling thoughts go away.

Benefits of meditation

One factor that often comes up when the benefits of meditation are being discussed is the “relaxation response”. This is considered to be the opposite of the “stress response”, which is often referred to as the “fight or flight response”. Most people are probably more familiar with the fight or flight response than the relaxation response. The fight or flight response occurs in our bodies in response to stress, which can take the form of a real threat, an imagined threat or just day to day annoyances. We all know the symptoms; dry mouth, racing heart, trembling, even sweating if the threat is great enough.

The fight or flight response

This fight or flight response is designed to prepare our bodies to defend ourselves or run away from the threat. It is designed to be a short-term response to danger where we actually expend some energy in response to the threat. The problem comes where the fight or flight response is activated over a long period of time and we don’t expend any extra energy as a result. For example, at work our boss is very demanding and unreasonable and the stress of this situation activates our fight or flight response. Rather than being a transient thing, this stress goes on day after day and we are just sitting at our desks with our blood pressure rising and sugar and fats being deposited in our arteries (another feature of the fight or flight response). Over time this is likely to cause us problems such as insomnia, comfort eating, excess alcohol and drugs, and serious physical and health problems.

The relaxation response

We can avoid the potential harm caused by long-terms activation of the fight or flight response by activating the relaxation response. In the same way as the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response, the relaxation response is sometimes called the “rest and digest response”. This is because when the relaxation response prepares the body and mind for relaxation, eating and digestion. When the stress response is active we don’t feel relaxed, we don’t have much appetite and we often suffer with indigestion. Something else I have read about the relaxation response is that it can reduce your blood pressure and also reduce the amount of harmful cholesterol in your circulation, which in turn reduces the chances of a heart attack or stroke. But how do we turn on the relaxation response? It’s believed that one of the best ways to do this is by meditating.

Meditation – to sum up

I’m convinced that practicing meditation has real benefits. My own experience of Transcendental Meditation and guided meditation/trance is that I feel much more relaxed and focused as a result. I have read about research on the benefits of meditation and I’m convinced that it can really help us become healthier, both mentally and physically. The main thing I need to work on is developing the discipline and time management skills to do it every day.

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