What Is Meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice that has long-been steeped in tradition, mystery, and myth. Contrary to what’s often depicted in today’s society, meditation doesn’t exclusively involve sitting in the Lotus position chanting the “Om” mantra for hours on end. Although this meditation method is still practiced by many modern meditators, it only comprises a small aspect of the many types of meditation techniques practiced today. While there are many benefits of meditation that have been proved by today’s science, you should first understand what meditation is (and what it isn’t) so you can have a better grasp of the practice and how to appropriately apply it to your life.
My definition of meditation is simply this:
The act of clearing one’s mind of all thoughts, reducing tension in muscles and emotions, and making way for the presence of the Now moment into the conscious awareness of the practitioner.
In other words, during meditation you are attempting to relax your body and mind completely, reducing tension in every single muscle and easing the flow of thought. This is done with an inner state of repose, resisting the urge to resist (sounds contradictory, right?), as, “What resists, persists.” That being said, in meditation (as well as everyday life), whenever you resist a tense muscle, thought, emotion, or situation, you are simply attracting more of it into your experience.
Why is this? Whatever we resist in life we tend to place an enormous amount of focus on, with energy and thought, thus drawing more of that particular situation into our life again and again. Meditation teaches you to let go of all thoughts, not just the ones that do not serve your highest good, in order to maintain your inner sense of peace and poise. Taking this practice out into the world allows one to think clearly, become present, and deliver the highest possible version of themselves to others.
Plus, there are many benefits of meditation in relation to human health. These include:
- Improved immune function
- Improved digestion
- Weight loss and maintenance
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved sleep
- Blood sugar regulation
Among others, these benefits of meditation are becoming increasingly apparent in the minds of many scientists and individuals all across the world. Thanks to an explosion of research into the field of mind-body medicine, more and more health organizations are responding appropriately by recommending all individuals (healthy or otherwise) to incorporate some type of meditation practice into their lives every single day.
3 Popular Types of Meditation
There are many different types of meditation you can practice, and no one method is better than the other. Each type of meditation has many of the same health benefits (see below), yet often differ in approach.
In mindfulness meditation, you start by relaxing every muscle in the body. I generally start from the top of my head and descend slowly. You could also tense each muscle, one by one, then release the tension and allowing the muscle to relax completely. After this is accomplished, many people choose to focus simply on their breathing or the sounds around them.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to release all thoughts and become aware of the NOW moment. This can be incredibly difficult, especially in a mind- and thought-dominated society. You are allowed to simply Be – that is, you become one with the moment, with the sounds and experiences around you, neither judging nor accepting any thoughts or experiencing that may come your way. You simply experience the moment in its fullness. Any thoughts that do flow into your mind (and they will at first), simply become aware of them and allow them to go on their way. Don’t analyze, judge, or accept them; simply let them float away.
Mindfulness meditation doesn’t have to always be performed during a relaxed, closed-eyed state. In fact, you can bring mindfulness into everything you do. Whether you are exercising, cooking dinner, or working, bring mindfulness into every single task. Be aware of the moment and free yourself from the constant, incessant stream of thoughts, many of which add very little value to our lives.
This is the second type of meditation I ever learned, and possibly the most difficult one for me to comprehend. It’s not that the meditation is difficult, it was just that I was so used to always being active in my mind and felt that becoming “mindful” of the moment, without thinking, was lazy or unproductive. I was always in the past or in the future, two aspects of time that are mere illusions. There is no past and there is no future. There is only the present. In this truth, we find peace.
As a matter of fact, the act of clearing your mind and becoming mindful of your body and the moment allows you the opportunity to develop your inner ear, or your intuition. It allows you to relax and connect with your true nature, your abundantly-creative self. Over time, you are able to recreate this inner state in an instant, whether in work or play. This can be incredibly helpful, allowing you to think clearly, focus on the task(s) at hand, and also will help to free your mind in order to allow the creative process to flow.
This is a somewhat easier type of meditation, and was the first type of meditation that I learned when I was around twelve years old. This generally follows the same relaxation approach in most meditation techniques. Following relaxation, words are often used by a second party, usually an audio program or therapist. Often, guided meditations are used to help provide a sense of inner exploration. Guided meditation techniques are also powerful visualization methods helpful for achieving personal goals in one’s life.
For example, one could be guided into visualizing a particular goal they are wanting to achieve. They go into a relaxed state and then slowly see themselves experiencing the end result already made manifest. Whether it’s crossing the finish line, achieving career success, or healing the body, a meditator can use their creative faculty to imagine their success. Considering that the brain can’t tell the difference between a real and an imagined event, through repetition, this type of meditation can embed the subconscious as a true memory, convincing the brain that it is possible. Guided meditation is also used during therapy, helping individuals recall information.
Remember when I mentioned the “OM” mantra in the intro? Well, this is it. A mantra meditation often involves becoming relaxed and clear minded, focusing on one particular sound, note, or saying. These are often called mantras, and are generally used to focus the mind and harmonize the spirit as well as open the chakras. Some people also use it for prayer, repeating their prayer over and over again to embed it into the subconscious.
The Health Benefits of Meditation
There are many, many benefits of meditation, not just in relation to bodily health. Nevertheless, many meditation health benefits include weight loss (as well as weight maintenance, gain; depending on needs), blood sugar control, strengthening the immune system, and cardiovascular health.
Below are just a few of the many benefits of meditation, most of which encompass the many debilitating diseases plaguing the western world today. Just by practicing meditation for five minutes a day, or any other relaxation technique, you can be sure your body will benefit, not to mention your mind and emotional body.
Blood Sugar Health
One of the most exciting benefits of mediation (at least in my mind) is the fact that it may be a helpful for controlling blood sugar levels, decreasing the risk of developing type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and disordered weight fluctuations. Blood sugar is controlled through insulin, secreted from the liver. Insulin transports glucose, a sugar derived from the breakdown of carbohydrates in the food we eat, into cells in order to release energy.
Cells prefer glucose for their energy source, and will often produce it from protein and fats in the presence of inadequate carbohydrate intake. Receptors on cells must be sensitive to insulin in order to allow in glucose. When these receptors are worn down through excessive insulin production (through excessive carbohydrate consumption, stress, certain medical disorders and medications, etc.), the risk of weight gain, type II diabetes, and even cognitive disfunction increases. Relaxation via meditation, or any other preferred method, can actually increase the sensitivity of insulin receptors, helping to keep blood sugar in the cells where they belong.
Relaxation switches the body from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is activated, through relaxation, the body begins to properly digest food, begins to work on healing wounds, and aids in restoring cells. When we are active, exercising, or generally stressed, digestion is cut off in order to expend as much energy into solving the problem at hand (the fight-and-flight response).
Meditation allows the stomach to relax and digestive enzymes to start revving up their forces. These enzymes, which are often activated both through chewing and relaxation, aren’t commonly active in many individuals today. Stress and lack of proper, thorough chewing is riddling many digestive health and weight conditions in millions of people. If you are seriously wanting to improve your digestion, meditation for only five minutes right after a meal may be a great technique you can use to accomplish this goal.
Immune System Support
Our immune system is a crucial element in our body, helping to fight off infections from invading viruses and bacteria. Chronic stress degrades the immune system, threatening the body’s ability to keep it healthy during the flu and cold season. The immune system also plays an important role in a variety of other health areas. Vitamin C, while helpful for strengthening the immune system, can only go so far. Working with effective methods to reduce stress is a powerful way for keeping the immune system strong and properly functioning. One of the best benefits of meditation, backed by science, is the fact that the practice may help keep down the flu, cold, and other illnesses.
Why I Meditate
For me, meditation is more than just a natural technique I use to improve my bodily health. Meditation allows me to center my thoughts and emotions, helping me to connect to the One-Mind, of which I believe we are all connected with. This one Source of absolute existence is our infinite supply of wisdom, peace, and creativity.
Our interconnected minds have the potential to draw forth from this abundant supply on a moment’s notice; however, this can only be accomplished through active participation in the creative process. That is, we must center our minds through meditation, prayer, or whichever technique you prefer, quiet our thoughts, and allow that presence to move through us.
Of course, I consider meditation to be a holistic-health approach and do not exclusively seek its benefits for merely spiritual reasons (if you decide to call it that). Meditation allows me to also summon peace of mind, a state that is highly conducive toward relieving anxiety, helpful for maintaining the strength of my immune system, aids in appropriate decision making and clear thinking, and allows for a clear emotional state.
Emotions are powerful things, and have the potential of dramatically affecting every aspect of our health, either in a negative or positive way. By improving our emotions through clear thought, presence, and meditation, we are one step closer to enjoying a radiant body that is sure to last for years to come.
Are you interested in learning more about meditation? I really do encourage you to check it out! I will be posting more about this topic soon, along with a few of my meditation recordings for you to listen to.
I hope everyone is enjoying this brand new year!