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The Meditation Handbook

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It is said that when the mind is calm and focused in the present moment it is neither reacting to memories from the past nor being preoccupied with plans for the future, These two consciousnesses can be two major sources of chronic stress known to impact health.

Goals of Meditation

Different meditative disciplines emphasize different goals -- from achievement of a higher state of consciousness, reaching greater focus, relaxation and psychological balance; obtaining creativity or self-awareness, or  to cope with one or more diseases and conditions; and for overall wellness.

All meditation techniques have one thing in common - they all focus on quietening the busy mind.
Basics of Meditation

A common thread runs through virtually all meditative techniques:

  • Quiet Mind: An important goal of meditation is to clear the mind. To clear and "quiet" the mind is to stop focusing on the stressors of your day, your life’s problems, or solving these problems. You just let that voice in your head be quiet, which is easier said than done.
  • Being In The Now:  Virtually all meditative practices involve focusing on the "now", aka  "being in the moment".. This involves experiencing each moment and letting it go, experiencing the next. 

  • Altered State of Consciousness: With the quiet mind and focus on the present comes an altered level of consciousness that isn’t a sleeping state but isn’t quite your average wakeful state, either. Meditation increases brain activity in an area of the brain associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions, and alter brain waves from beta to gamma waves, which have been associated with higher functioning and heightened awareness. Research  has shown that this altered state of consciousness can cause permanent positive changes in brain functioning. 

Two Main Categories of Meditation Techniques

There are many types of meditation techniques.
The various techniques of meditation can be classified according to their focus. There are two basic schools of focus. Some focus on the field or background perception and experience, also called  "mindfullness" while others focus on a preselected specific object, and are called "concentrative" meditation. 
All the meditation techniques can be grouped into two basic approaches:
Concentrative meditation and Mindfulness meditation.

Concentrative Meditation

Concentrative meditation focuses the attention on an image, a sound (mantra), or even your own breathing in order to calm the mind and allow a greater awareness and clarity to emerge. Concentrative meditation works by narrowing your focus to a selected field. By doing so, you start to eliminate outside interference, until the mind is clear and still and an altered state of consciousness is reached.
The simplest form of concentrative meditation is to sit quietly and focus on your own breathing. Focusing the mind on the continuous rhythm of inhalation and exhalation provides a natural object of meditation. As you focus your awareness on the breath, focusing on the repetitive rhythm of inhalation and exhalation ult, your breathing will become slower and deeper, and the mind becomes more tranquil and aware.

Mindfulness Meditation (Vipassana)

In mantra and breath meditation, you focus on a word or your breath and try to empty your mind of everything else. This mental clearing is what most people mean when they refer to meditation.But there's another kind of meditation, a practice Buddhists call vipassana or sometimes called mindfulness, or insight meditation.

Mindfulness-based meditation is actually based on Buddhist Vipassana meditation. It was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 as a method for people to cope with chronic pain. Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness meditation involves being "mindful" or aware of the continuously passing parade of sensations and feelings, images, thoughts, sounds, smells, and so forth of your immediate surroundings without becoming involved in thinking about them. Mindfulness meditation involves simply experiencing whatever thoughts goes through the mind, without reacting to them. By training your mind to observe, without reacting or thinking your mind becomes clear, and calm.

Mindfulness meditation could be said to be opposite of concentrative meditation, in that while concentrative meditation involves zooming in and focusing on an object, sound or thought, when performing mindfulness meditation instead of narrowing your sight to a selected field  you will be aware of the entire field. The intent of mindfulness meditation, besides clearing and calming the mind, is to (1) enable you to stop and appreciate life for all it has to offer and (2) to develop a skill that enables you to respond less impulsively and more effectively.

Types of Mindfulness Meditation

There are two kinds of mindful meditation - formal and informal. Yoga and Tai chi are two good examples of the formal type. In a yoga class, and during tai chi, participants focus intently on their breathing and the postures, moving slowly from one position to the next, exquisitely aware of their feelings during the process. Practitioners are taught to concentrate on their breathing and its passage through the body as they dismiss any distracting thoughts.

Informal mindfulness meditation involves incorporating mindful approaches to moments of everyday life. A person takes a simple situation and merely observes it without promoting thoughts in a particular direction.

How to Perform Mindfulness Meditation 

The practice of mindfulness meditation requires the person to be fully conscious of his or her surroundings while simply observing thoughts without making judgments about them and then moving on. The goal of mindfulness meditation is not to go into a trance, but rather to remain fully mindful and observe all of the surroundings but without acting on them. The key is to remain peacefully conscious without allowing your mind to wander or react to the thoughts. The easiest way to begin to train the mind for this type of meditation is to  concentrate on your breathing and posture.
After focusing intently on these things, you then expand your concentration to the thoughts. Do not try to repress or encourage these thoughts, just serve the thoughts and then move to the next.You can practice formal mindfulness meditation, which will also include a physical approach (concentrating on posture as well) or an informal approach where you just become mindful to moments of everyday life., simply observing  without promoting thoughts in any particular direction (remember the wide angle lens approach). Though it sounds simple, mindfulness takes practice, and the longer you practice, the easier the process becomes.  

Benefits of Mindfulness Meditations

People who regularly practice mindfulness meditation tend to develop a more positive relationship with their bodies. They change their habits to improve their health and well-being. 

Types of Meditative Techniques

There are many different ways to meditate. There are so many types of meditation techniques that have evolved over the centuries that it would take a encyclopedia to list them in. Here I will mention some basic categories of meditation techniques so you can understand some of the main options and how they differ from one another.
  • Basic Meditation Techniques: This involves sitting in a comfortable relaxed position and just clearing your mind by thinking of nothing. It involves purging the mind of racing thoughts and outside influences. It sounds easier than it is. But once mastered, it provides wonderful benefits to the mind and body.  The basic premise to clearing your thoughts is to try to put yourself in the third person, thinking of yourself as an 'observer of your thoughts.'  As an observer you may "hear" your thoughts but you do not engage in the thoughts.  As thoughts materialize in your mind, as an observer you just let them go. 
  • Focused Meditation Techniques: With focused meditation the idea is to focus on something intently, while staying detached mentally.  In other words you can focus on a sound (like the clicks a clock makes, or the sound from a table top fountain) or visually on a object (like the second hand of a clock moving around the dial), or even own breathing. ; or a simple concept, like 'unconditional compassion'. Some people find it easier to do this than to focus on nothing, but the idea is the same -- staying in the present moment, clearing the mind, and allowing yourself to slip into an altered state of consciousness.

  • Activity-Oriented Meditation Techniques: With this type of meditation, you engage in a repetitive activity, or one where you can get 'in the zone' and experience 'flow.' Again, this quiets the mind, and allows your brain to shift. Activities like walking gardening, creating artwork, or practicing yoga can all be effective forms of meditation. taking walking as an example, To do this exercise, focus the attention on each foot as it contacts the ground. When the mind wanders away from the feet or legs, or the feeling of the body walking, refocus your attention. To deepen your concentration, don't look around, but keep your gaze in front of you. Walking meditation involves intentionally attending to the experience of walking itself.
  • Mindfulness Techniques: Mindfulness can be a form of meditation that, like activity-oriented meditation, doesn't really look like meditation. It simply involved staying in the present moment rather than thinking about the future or the past. (Again, this is more difficult than it seems!) Focusing on sensations you feel in your body is one way to stay 'in the now;' focusing on emotions and where you feel them in your body (not examining why you feel them, but just experiencing them as sensations) is another.
  • Spiritual Meditating: Meditation can also be a spiritual practice. Many people experience meditation as a form of prayer -- the form where God 'speaks,' rather than just listening. That's right, many people experience 'guidance' or inner wisdom once the mind is quiet, and meditate for this purpose. You can meditate on a singular question until an answer comes (though some would say this is engaging your thinking mind too much), or meditate to clear their mind and accept whatever comes that day.

How Meditation Works

Studies have shown that meditation  can bring about a healthy state of relaxation by causing a generalized reduction in multiple physiological and biochemical markers, such as decreased heart rate, decreased respiration rate, decreased plasma cortisol (a major stress hormone), decreased pulse rate, and increased EEG (electroencephalogram) alpha, a brain wave associated with relaxation.
Research conducted by R. Keith Wallace at U.C.L.A. on Transcendental Meditation, revealed that during meditation, the body gains a state of profound rest. At the same time, the brain and mind become more alert, indicating a state of restful alertness. There are several studies that also show that after meditation a person is more alert, with reactions being faster, creativity greater, and comprehension broader.

A study carried out by Benson and Wallace at Harvard Medical School towards the end of the 1960s, revealed that meditation can have a dramatic healthy effect on the body. Their research revealed that meditation can help lower the bodys metabolic rate, which was indicated by a dramatic drop in oxygen consumption within a few minutes of starting meditation. Consumption fell by up to twenty per cent below the normal level; below that experienced even in deep sleep.
Meditators took on average two breaths less and one liter less air per minute, their heart rate was several beats less per minute, and their resulting blood pressure dropped as well, all indicating a more restful, less stressful state for the body. Additional studies were also performed where the meditators' skin resistance to an electrical current was measured. A fall in skin resistance is characteristic of anxiety and tension states; a rise indicates increased muscle relaxation.
The findings was that though meditation is primarily a mental technique, it soon brings significantly improved muscle relaxation and reduces activity in the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system; the part of the nervous system responsible for calming us. 

Benefits of Meditation

Studies also indicate that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain,that may slow down the aging-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain. An imaging study led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers showed that particular areas of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, were thicker in participants who were experienced practitioners of a type of meditation commonly practiced in the U.S. and other Western countries. The article appeared in the Nov. 15, 2008 issue of NeuroReport.

Research has shown that Meditation can contribute to an individual's psychological and physiological well-being. This is accomplished as Meditation brings the brainwave pattern into an alpha state, which is a level of consciousness that promotes the healing state.

Meditation is widely recommended as a healthy way to manage stress, and for good reason. It provides many health-enhancing benefits, like reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety, relieving chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, ulcers, irritable bowel disorders, hypertension, and insomnia; relieving physical complaints like headaches, PMS, joint pain, and even enhancing immunity to illness.

Meditation has also shown to provide the following psychological benefits:

  • Increased brain wave coherence.
  • Greater creativity, improved moral reasoning, and higher IQ.  
  • Improved learning ability and memory
  • Increased focus
  • Increased self-actualization
  • Increased feelings of vitality and rejuvenation
  • Increased happiness
  • Increased emotional stability
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Increased connections with others
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased depression
  • Decreased irritability and moodiness 
Bottom Line
Whichever meditative techniques you use, the potential benefits are clear and numerous, making it one of the more commonly recommended stress management practices. 

About the Author

Jeff Behar
Jeff Behar, MS, MBA
Jeff Behar, MS, MBA is a recognized health, fitness and nutrition expert, regularly writing about hot topics in the areas of health, fitness, disease prevention, nutrition, anti aging and alternative medicine. His work also often appears in several of the major health and fitness newsletters, health and fitness magazines, and on major health, and fitness websites. Behar is also a well sought after personal trainer, motivational speaker, and weight loss expert.



Last modified on Friday, 30 December 2011 15:26
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