When one thinks of meditation some will think of someone sitting cross-legged on the floor, with fingers in a funny position, repeating a simple word or sound such as “ooommm”. However, meditation is much deeper and richer a practice than just the one practice encompassing many forms.
This fourth article in the mindfulness, prayer, and meditation series examines meditation, the many forms it can take and its benefits to mental and physical health.
The word “meditate” originally meant to think deeply about something but today in western civilization it has morphed not an exercise focusing attention rather than deep thinking or reflection.
Meditation is not about becoming a different person but is focused on training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective on one’s life. In meditation you are not training to turn off your emotions or feelings, rather you are learning to observe them without judgment so that you might begin to understand them better.
Meditation is a family of mental practices that are designed to align a person’s mental processes by using three modes. These three modes include:
Awareness allows awareness to remain present and undistracted while disengaging from the world around you.
Concentration focuses attention on a single internal or external object.
Observation allows one to pay attention to whatever is predominant in the mind and remaining in the present moment without allowing too much attention being paid to one particular thing.
Research on the Mental Health Benefits of Meditation
Whether you have a mental health condition or not, meditation can enhance and help regulate your emotions and how you respond to the world around you. To accomplish this, meditation has many benefits including but not limited to the following three.
1. Meditation Improves Sleep.
Many people who have mental health issues (and many who do not) suffer from amnesia caused by racing thoughts. These folks have a challenging time falling and remaining asleep. The results are tragic as the side-effects of insomnia include:
• Daytime sleepiness
• Mood swings
Another side-effect of insomnia is a general feeling of being unwell both physically and mentally so if you suffer from a mental or physical illness the symptoms can become more pronounced.
Meditation can help with racing thoughts that lead to insomnia by helping to gain a sense of inner peace resulting in falling asleep faster and remaining that way for longer periods of time.
2. Meditation Enhances Self-Awareness.
Meditation can help practitioners to “know” themselves better and this is a great starting point for making positive changes that spur personal growth. With meditation, one can gain a greater understanding of themselves and how they relate to the people and the world around them.
Some forms of meditation teach you to recognize harmful thoughts that are self-defeating as you gain a greater awareness of how your thought habits steer you toward either healthy or unhealthy patterns in both mental and physical health.
For example, breast cancer robs women of not only their breasts but can be extremely detrimental to their emotional well-being. A study conducted by Mustian et. al. (2005) of 21 women breast cancer survivors found that after they had completed twelve weeks of tai chi chuan (a form of meditation) had significantly increased self-esteem and health-related quality of life than those who did not.1
3. Meditation Promotes Emotional Health
Some forms of meditation improve the symptoms of depression and create a more positive outlook on life for anyone living with a mental health condition. In fact, research shows a correlation that an ongoing habit of meditation can help one maintain these benefits for a long time. Meditation does this by improving the overall self-image and decreasing the chemicals that cause inflammation in the brain and body.
Meditation helps with inflammation by limiting or decreasing inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines that are released upon exposure to stress. These chemicals can lead to altered moods and can lead to depression. One study conducted by Kasala et. al. (2013) found that meditation reverses the effects of cytokine and stress and thus depression is accomplished by practicing different meditation techniques.2
The Different Types of Meditation
So far we have seen that meditation is correlated with helping with insomnia and many other mental and physical health conditions. However, the ancient tradition of meditation, although tied to many religious teachings, is less about faith and more about altering consciousness to achieve peace of mind.
There are at least three popular types of meditation practices that are exercised in modern culture today:
• Spiritual meditation
• Focused meditation
• Movement meditation
Not all forms of meditation are right for everyone and the way to tell what is correct for your circumstances is to ask a simple question, “What feels right and comfortable for you?”
Spiritual meditation is practiced by many religions including Hinduism, Daoism, and Christianity as a time of silence while contemplating one’s higher power and one’s connection with the universe.
No matter what the religious practice involved, spiritual meditation has similar components to each including being direct with your higher power and doing the following:
• Getting quiet
• Greeting and offering praise and gratitude
• Speaking one’s inner truth by acknowledging one’s interior truth at the moment
• Allowing oneself to feel connected to the higher power
• Making requests
• Letting go of negative emotions and feelings and giving them to the higher power
• Immersing oneself in the sacred before ending the meditation
If this sounds like a prayer, that is because it is a form of prayer only anyone can practice it whether they believe in a god or not. By getting quiet inside and attaching oneself to a higher power, stress and tension melt away and it gives the practitioner the ability to be one with themselves and their surroundings.
Focused meditation involves staying in the present moment and turning off one’s internal dialogue by focusing intently on something external such as a sound, taste, smells, or anything involving the five senses.
Many find focused meditation the easiest of all the meditation techniques as it allows one to focus their attention on an object of attention rather than attempting to achieve a clear mind without a focal point. The best positive of focused meditation is that one does not need an instructor or teacher and it is accessible anywhere one finds a few moments to be quiet.
There are five steps to focused meditation including the following:
Step One: Choose a target to focus upon. One can pick any sense, the sound of something in the room, the smell of incense or the feeling of your own breathing to focus on.
Step Two: Get comfortable and relax your body. Loosen your shoulders and breathe with your abdomen and allow yourself to relax without falling asleep.
Step Three: Turn your attention to the target you have chosen. Don’t think about the sight, smell, or sound you chose, only experience it and become fully present in the moment.
Step Four: Calm the inner voices speaking inside you. If your inner monologue starts to analyze what you are doing or to rehash a stressful situation you have recently experienced, gently turn your attention back to the focus point. The goal is to maintain a quiet mind.
Step Five: Don’t worry if you realize you haven’t been fully present with your chosen target. Do not allow the inner perfectionist inside you berate you for doing it wrong. Instead, congratulate yourself and return to the present moment.
Most people think of movement meditation as something like tai chi or some other eastern meditation involving structured movements of the body. However, that is not always the case. Movement meditation can also involve walking in the woods, gardening, walking on the beach, and other gentle meditations where the movement is the focus instead of only one of the five senses.
Movement meditation is good for those who feel extremely stressed at the thought of sitting still while focusing their thoughts.
Few will deny that it is wonderful to meander through nature while contemplating one’s place in the world. The sounds of the birds and the wind in the tree branches have a settling effect on most humans.
Society Must Not Ignore the Importance of Meditation
Depression and other mental health disorders are on the rise and in a world of fast-paced changes, many for the negative, it is folly for society to ignore the importance of the practice of meditation.
Even the scientific community is becoming more and more aware of how meditation can lower humanity’s stress levels and increase mental and physical health. In fact, the book Meditation and Positive Psychology (2016)3 states that the potential for healing and development of meditation and mindfulness have been largely ignored by the scientific community but that a small and growing number of scientists are exploring the beneficial effects of the practice has on people.
The research papers that do exist outlining the benefits of meditation offer hope that these practices can promote positive growth and increased health of both mind and body.
“The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts or emotions. The goal is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.” ~ Dr. P. Goldin
“Go within every day and find the inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle out.” ~ Katherine Dunham
- Mustian, K. M., Katula, J. A., Gill, D. L., Roscoe, J. A., Lang, D., & Murphy, K. (2004). Tai Chi Chuan, health-related quality of life and self-esteem: a randomized trial with breast cancer survivors. Supportive Care in Cancer, 12(12), 871-876.
- Kasala, E. R., Bodduluru, L. N., Maneti, Y., & Thipparaboina, R. (2014). Effect of meditation on neurophysiological changes in stress-mediated depression. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 20(1), 74-80.
- Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E., & Santerre, C. (2002). Meditation and positive psychology. Handbook of positive psychology, 2, 632-645.