If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you that meditation is good for you. Everyone from Silicon Valley to Trappist monks are telling us that! A 2017 NHIS study showed increases in adults and children practicing meditation between 2012 and 2017. The NHIS also found meditation to be helpful in areas such as pain, inflammation, high blood pressure, IBS, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and smoking cessation.
Meditation is not just helpful for managing mood, stress, and chronic illness. It also increases self-control, emotional regulation, and positive emotions. Meditation changes the structure of our brains in positive ways such as increasing grey matter and cortical thickness (areas of the brain associated with memory, intelligence, and information-processing). These changes in our brain’s structure make us more likely to develop our ability to be empathetic and compassionate.
This begs the question: If we all know how healthy meditation is, why are we so resistant to doing it? It isn’t as if it is difficult to sit down for five minutes and not think!
If it were easy….
Except it is. Meditation may be simple, but it is not easy. If it were easy, everyone really would be doing it!
Our brains are made for thinking. They are not so great at doing the things that give our lives meaning: emotional intelligence, creative expression, profound awe and gratitude, to name a few. Like a computer, our brains are very good at processing and synthesizing information. They allow us to react appropriately when we are under threat. The goal of meditation is not to “not think”. Rather, through meditation we harness the ability to use our brain properly as a tool instead of being at its effect.
Like yoga, meditation is a spiritual practice. However, not everyone practices it for its spiritual components. The great thing is, they don’t have to! It doesn’t matter what our spiritual beliefs are. When it comes to meditation, we will benefit from it no matter why we practice. All that is required is that we actually do it.
Meditation from a yogic perspective.
There is a lot of confusion around what the word meditation means. People define meditation differently depending on what tradition they come from. From a yogic perspective, meditation, or dhyana, in Sanskrit, is a state of being where the meditator is focused on the object of concentration for an extended period of time. In this state, the meditator has transcended the thinking brain and ego-oriented self and rests in effortless awareness.
We may not reach dhyana the first time we attempt to practice meditation. That is okay! At first, it takes effort to become effortless. Pantanjali, the sage who compiled the Yoga Sutras, described the meditation process through the eight limbs of yoga. Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means “sense withdrawal”. In this phase of the meditation process, we withdraw our focus from the outside world and turn our attention inward. Closing our eyes and sitting in a quiet room can help us practice pratyahara.
Each “limb” of yoga prepares us for the next. Dharana follows pratyahara. It means concentration. After we withdraw our senses from external distractions and turn our attention inward, we must focus. Our breath, heartbeat, a mantra, or the name of a deity are great objects of meditation.
Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga. If we practice the eight limbs of yoga, we have put in the effort and done the work to reach the state of meditation. We cannot make meditation happen. However, we can cultivate an environment within ourselves where it is more likely to occur.
In order to optimally experience our humanity, we must learn to tap in to the part of us that is divine. To the thinking brain, this is quite an unnatural process. It requires that we quiet our thoughts so that we can experience the stillness beneath them. Meditation is one technique that teaches us how to do that.