Most of us spend a huge amount of time learning about the world outside us: geography, calculus and how to cross the street with a good chance of making it to the other side. However, in spite of all this education, formal or otherwise, we very rarely devote as much as five minutes in really learning about our minds.
Certainly, some of us will pick up a few psychological principles as we go along and these might even be applicable to ourselves in a general sort of way. Or we might learn a few “mind hacks” to help get us through the day, but these are rarely more than band-aids applicable to a single type of situation. As Ben Martin, Psy.D used to say, “Strong spiritual faith is associated with a reduced risk of depression. Spiritual faith can be found in the context of organized religion, or in something less structured, such as meditation.”
Who Chooses to Practice Meditation?
The two most important things to realize about meditation are: (1) anyone can learn to do it, and (2) number one doesn’t mean that it is necessarily easy. Our minds are simply not used to being quiet in an attentive way. We actually practice being overwhelmed at work, where appearing to slack off is not encouraged. When we get home, the first thing to be turned on is usually the TV or computer, unless we phone someone to have a random conversation. We basically can’t stand having anything around to annoy or entertain us.
Ryan M. Niemiec Psy.D. says “Any relaxation strategy involves use of your self-regulation strength. This strength involves taking control of your breathing and creating a greater feeling of calmness in your body’s physiology.” While it’s difficult to practice silence as a lifestyle without leaving the modern world behind, a large variety of people is choosing to take a little time each day only for themselves and shut out the world for a while. For some, it’s a religious practice, based on the theory that knowing yourself better and being able to control your mind makes you happier and a better person for others to be around. While meditation is particularly associated with a few religions, numerous faiths have their own styles, while having any particular set of beliefs is not required for starting to practice.
A large number of people also practice meditation for their health, having found that it reduces blood pressure, normalizes hormones and reduces pain. While these effects can mostly be ascribed to the reduction in a person’s stress levels meditation brings about, meditation is being increasingly recognized as an effective therapeutic technique for mental illness, particularly clinical depression and anxiety disorders. In fact, research suggests that modalities such as yoga and mindfulness exercises might be just as effective as medication while costing nothing and producing no negative side effects.
Finally, an increasing number of high performers in a variety of fields – from business executives to professional poker players – are embracing meditation to reduce their stress levels, improve their focus and decision-making skills and deal better with unexpected or distressing events. The effects take only a few minutes per day to achieve and persist for hours.
Considering all of these benefits, it would be reasonable to expect the amount of effort needed to gain them to be proportional. Exercising the brain is much like exercising your muscles – the more work you put in, the easier it becomes over the long run. “Prioritizing daily self-care and making efforts to take action. Accepting that daily self-care is hard work and challenging.” Edna M. Esnil, PsyD said.
Meditation really is a form of exercise, both in terms of your mind and your willpower. Anyone can start small and shouldn’t be discouraged if it takes time to start making progress. Although there are dozens of popular meditation techniques, the basic principles are to avoid being distracted, either by external stimuli or your own wandering thoughts, while still remaining attentive. There are several routes to achieving this calm, focused state – some people prefer to focus on their bodies, such as with Hatha yoga and Tai chi, while others prefer to direct their attention to an object such as a candle flame or mantra. Another approach is to strive for stillness by simply examining your thoughts as they pass through your consciousness without thinking of them as “good” or “bad”, but simply observing them
While most forms of meditation share similar characteristics and benefits, every individual will most likely find one or another easier and may need to try out more than one before discovering what works best for them. Although some people will still prefer to discover these techniques with the help of a live teacher, numerous descriptions of simple mental exercises are available all over the internet, while there are even meditation apps available these days.