Or, How “paying attention” can make the difference between living your best life or missing it
What if there was a way to sustainably improve your mood, increase peace of mind and emotional intelligence, reduce stress, anxiety and loneliness, boost your immune system, and fight chronic disease and inflammation – with almost immediate results, in 8 weeks?
What if it was also free, drugless, backed by hard science, extremely easy to do, requiring no ongoing instruction, and you could start doing it immediately, investing only 10-20 minutes a day?
Would you try it?
There is such a thing. It’s called meditation. And if you’re willing to take a few minutes, I’m going to tell you how to do it. BTW – if you tried before and “it didn’t work” – try it again this way, all you need to do is be consistent and nonjudgmental.
What is meditation?
If the last newsletter was about healthy sleep, this one is about awakening. Being “awake” means being conscious – i.e., present in the present.
Meditation and mindfulness are not exactly synonyms, but for our purposes we can consider them such. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation, a way of paying attention and being present in a particular way that is non-judgmental and leads to awareness and wellbeing.
Knowing what you are doing while you are doing it is the essence of mindfulness practice, and it is not limited to meditation sessions, even if that’s when we learn it. That’s important, because our whole life consists of present moments, and we don’t want to miss them.
According to a famous prophecy by Padmasambhava from the 8th century, when the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the teachings of Buddhism are destined to travel through the world and reach other cultures. That has already happened. But you do not have to be a Buddhist to profit from its techniques.
Since mindfulness is about self-enquiry and self-understanding, it is areligious, anyone can do it and it does not have to be limited to Asian or Buddhist cultures and experience.
Effects and benefits of meditation
Since you are reading this you likely know or have heard that regularly practicing meditation can be very beneficial for mental and physical health.
In fact, numerous clinical studies have documented that mindfulness meditation can improve your mood and peace of mind, increase emotional intelligence, reduce stress, anxiety and loneliness, boost your immune system, and as a compliment to conventional medical treatments, effectively fight chronic disease and inflammation.
Not only that, long term practice has been documented to alter the structure of the brain with positive effects, developing the frontal cortex and making you more capable of effective stress management and sustainably maintaining an optimistic outlook on life.
These benefits have been solidly researched and documented by conventional medicine. An example is the invention of MBSR by Jon Kabat-Zinn. For decades, the “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program has been used at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to treat patients suffering from chronic disease and depression.
Kabat-Zinn’s book on MBSR outlines its principles and is noted in the literature at the end of this text. MBSR has created a whole new branch of medicine and has also contributed to the development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
The positive changes that mediation causes in the structure of the brain and our behavior are significant. Our attitude determines our possibilities, the actions we take, what we can achieve and the reality that we create. While we may not be able to control what happens around us, we can control our own choices – which can make all the difference in terms of what circumstances mean for us.
Thus, practicing meditation in the form of mindfulness not only helps you achieve goals, but also helps you to set them, motivating you to formulate your own vision and take control of your life.
In terms of its effect on physical and mental health, mindfulness can also be called “participatory medicine” because
1) it can be effective as a complementary treatment to conventional medicine, especially when the latter has been ineffective in treating chronic illness, and
2) because no one else can do it for you (you need to heal yourself!).
However, note that mindfulness is valuable for everyone and anyone – whether you are ill or not – in fact it is extremely effective as a prophylactic and has been documented to support the immune system.
The bottom line is that meditation cultivates our sense of ownership for our lives and our health, and our sense of self-compassion – which is essential for a fulfilled life, compassion for and meaningful relationships with others, and living in harmony with the rest of the world.
By paying attention, you will become more awake and present.
Who is meditation for
Everybody. Really. No matter what your age, your health, your cultural origins or your current context and circumstances. One of the wonderful things about meditation – and the reason why Padmasambhava’s prophecy has been fulfilled – is that meditation is agnostic and independent of any ideology. It is simply a technique to free the mind from the distractions that cause suffering and the stress of both daily life and great catastrophes.
A key point here is that we don’t need any special reason to practice it – and we shouldn’t wait for one. Especially in today’s society, almost no matter who you are or where you are in the world, there are constantly countless stressors and it can sometimes be a challenge to just get through the day, not to mention simultaneously maintaining the energy to consistently enjoy life, be optimistic and thrive, become conscious of and achieve your dreams.
However, the main thing about meditation is not about reaching long term goals – though it can help with that. The main thing is that life consists of moments.
If we are distracted by whatever difficulty is currently facing us and forget who we are, forget that our challenges are not us, forget to enjoy and appreciate the moment – then we risk missing out on living a fulfilled life.
If our thoughts are pessimistic, they shape our reality, making it ever more negative. This can make us blind to what is good and truly important – with the result that we may not allow those other options into our lives. People tend to focus on the negative and forget to appreciate the positive things. But we should do the opposite.
To quote Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Relief, if you are still breathing, then things are overwhelmingly right with you, no matter how serious the issues are that face you. Mediation can help to achieve a positive focus and mindset.
What kinds of meditation are there
There are many different kinds of meditation, and there is no one “right” way. All of them are about becoming conscious of being in the present, practicing objectivity and focus, and becoming aware of what we are thinking. You can try several to see what works best. All forms of meditation can manage stress and anxiety.
Meditation can promote longevity and is clinically proven to maintain our telomeres which protect the terminal regions of our chromosomal DNA. It has been documented to prevent the shortening which otherwise occurs in them as we age.
- Mindfulness meditation was originally most often practiced in Buddhism but is universal and has become mainstream. Mindfulness is about being aware of the present by observing the moment without judgment.
Technique: Observe your thoughts without judging or getting involved in them. You can focus on your breath and or a mantra while doing that. Let your thoughts come and go. When new thoughts come, gently bring your focus back to your breath or the mantra.
- The practice uses awareness and concentration.
- Focused meditation can use a number of techniques to achieve focus – a mantra (repeated silently or chanting out loud), your breath, listening to a repeated sound like a gong, focussing on an image or an object (e.g. a rose or a flame), or on an activity such as slowly eating three raisins and consciously seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting them one by one.
- Movement meditation is about the mind-body connection and developing an awareness of your body and being in it. Yoga is an excellent technique to practice it, but other forms of movement can be used as well, including aerobic forms that involve steady, repeated, gentle movements and motion, such as jogging, gardening, hiking, walking, Tai chi, Qi Gong, Capoeira, even the kind of repeated twirling dance that sufis do (not recommended for beginners). When practicing, pay attention to what feeling the movement causes in your body. Be deliberately with that feeling, without judgment. If a yoga stretch is strenuous, accept that. Don’t push it too far, but do not judge the tension, just feel and accept it when you hold a yoga pose (asana).
- Mantra meditation is actually a kind of focused meditation. You concentrate on a word or phrase and repeat it continuously (silently or aloud). The classical mantra is “Om” which in the Indian tradition is the primal sound from which everything is considered to arise. If Om is repeated slowly and deeply with exhaling breath, a vibrational resonance is achieved in the body to which relaxation, focus, and peacefulness is attributed. It also trains the breath to be longer, slower, and deeper, which can fight stress and create a calming effect that supports an objective perspective. Instead of Om, a phrase can be used. It is often synchronized with the breath and should have an equanimous or positive meaning such as “I am one with the universe”, or “I am filled with love”. Transcendental meditation belongs to this category. The beneficial effect of the “Om” mantra can be intensified by covering your ears with your hands while humming it and feeling the vibrations.
- Progressive relaxation is a body awareness meditation technique. You move your focus through the body, scanning it in its entirety, and progressively tense and relax your muscles, to develop both awareness of where tension exists and to willfully release it. This can be difficult for beginners because they tend to fall asleep. If you can maintain alertness and wakeful awareness, it can be very effective.
- Loving-kindness meditation (Metta meditation) practices developing feelings of love and compassion, first to oneself, then to one’s friends and family, then to all living creatures, including people you may be in conflict with. It is done by projecting a feeling of love and acceptance to oneself and to others. It is practiced by silently repeating kind phrases to oneself and then to others. It develops positive emotions, objectivity, appreciation, and increased energy. You can say phrases like, “I am at peace, I am well, I am healthy, I am full of love”; “May you be happy and fulfilled”, etc. Repeat the phrase and observe your feelings. Do not judge or try to force them, but if you have negative emotions, try repeating the phrase and see if your negative feelings become positive instead.
Phrases should express positive intent and be formulated in the present and without using negative constructions. Example: If you are a smoker and want to quit, say “I am well and I am healthy”. Do not say “I am well and I do not smoke”. Our subconscious does not understand the words “no” and “not”, so you must formulate positively. Remember that what you focus on, you will get. That is why when people focus on what they don’t want, they get more of it.
This meditation resolves anger, resentment, frustration, self-criticism, and can help to heal from trauma and to promote healthy social relationships.
- Visualization meditation can be used for two (interrelated) things: To increase positivity/wellbeing, and to support the achievement of goals/wishes.
In the first instance, you visualize yourself in a positive situation, such as spending a wonderful day with someone you love. In the second instance, you see yourself having achieved your desired goal, such as e.g. completing a marathon. This technique is also called Mental Training and it is proven to bring results to professional sportspeople. As before, only visualize positive outcomes.
When you visualize, the most important thing is to feel all the associated positive emotions around your content, and to visualize as concretely as possible, using all 5 senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste).
Even if what you visualize hasn’t yet happened, you should see and experience it in your mind’s eye as if it had already taken place, like a memory. The reason is that our mind does not distinguish between the effect of a real memory and an imagined experience such as this if you attach real emotions to it.
That is in fact easy to do – just think about how strongly books, movies, theater can affect us, even if the story is constructed. We can do the same with our imagination, and in fact we do that regularly – just think of your nighttime dreams.
We do it in our waking hours too – often unconsciously, when we ruminate about things that worry us – which is usually destructive and drains our energy. It’s time to turn things around and start consciously and deliberately using this technique to empower ourselves and achieve what we want – instead of what we don’t.
How to meditate
Of course you can do any number or combination of the above meditation techniques, and when you are used to meditating and have made a regular habit of it, it makes sense to do that. However, before then, it’s better to establish the habit and see the results of one technique first. That way you can see that it works and understand its value for you. I’d like to suggest a simple technique for you to start with.
Mindfulness can easily be practiced without a teacher. It mostly depends on you doing it regularly. And let me break a myth – meditation is NOT about freeing your mind of all thoughts. If you think so and it didn’t work for you before, that’s probably why.
Mediation is about learning to be conscious of WHAT you are thinking, instead of consumed by it. That is because we can only change and be empowered to choose our thoughts, emotions and actions when we become aware of them. Otherwise, our unconscious emotions will control and determine us.
Meditation is about being here in this moment, right now, instead of missing it because you are dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. When we can do that, we gain peace of mind and can plan our future, achieve our goals, and make peace with the past.
When starting to practice meditation, you need to keep two things in mind:
1) Don’t judge the practice – i.e.in spite of all the benefits attributed to it, don’t go into it with any concrete expectations. Although it can support goals, don’t have this expectation when you start. If you get frustrated or impatient with yourself, it will break your concentration and demotivate you.
2) You need to do it daily, but don’t be disappointed or get frustrated if it doesn’t work for you immediately. Also, don’t formulate any opinion about the practice or discuss it with anyone until you’ve done it for at least two months. I recommend that you make a written contract with yourself in which you promise this.
To meditate, go somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. You can sit outside in a garden or park, or in a quiet room. There shouldn’t be distractions like loud noise and people claiming your attention.
In the first week, set your alarm for 10 minutes daily. Thereafter, do 20 minutes or more daily. It is best to do it 6-7 days a week, and most effective if you set aside a dedicated time. My experience is that it is best in the morning after sports, when you are physically awake and aware.
Sit up in a comfortable and relaxed position with a straight spine. Don’t try to sit so straight that you tense up. It’s best to keep your eyes open, because we go through waking life with open eyes too.
Concentrate on your breathing – just observe it, don’t try to influence it. Repeat silently to yourself, “I am filled with love”.
While you do this, observe things around you without judging or forming opinions of them. Be conscious that they are there, but do not think about them. You will notice that thoughts arise, which is normal and no reason for distress. Simply let them go and pass by, gently bringing your attention back to your breath and the mantra.
That’s all there is to it. Watch your thoughts to step back from and let go of them, and you will become conscious of what you are thinking. Meditation is really about paying attention.
Patience is a kind of wisdom. Be patient with and trust yourself and the practice. Don’t worry if it does not work immediately.
Let go of perfection, and if you get distracted, gently and equanimously return your focus. This does not mean that you don’t have goals. But when you practice, focus on the present – otherwise you are focusing on the lack. Recall that we get what we focus on.
There are seven attitudinal factors for effectively practicing meditation. They are: Non-judging; Patience; Cultivating the objectivity of a beginner’s mind; Having Trust; Non-striving; Acceptance; Letting go.
Integrate meditation into your life
Once you have been meditating regularly for a while – starting from the second week, start to practice paying attention (being present) even when you’re NOT meditating. Whenever you feel stressed or negative, STOP, take a few deep breaths and realize that you feel this way, become conscious of your thoughts.
Remember that you are here in the now. Know that everything will be resolved in the best possible way, and it is not your concern to stress about it in the present moment. Know that in general, there is no sense in stressing about what you can’t change, and what you can change, you need to apply yourself to with determination but without stress.
Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson – Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
Goleman coined the term “EQ” – Emotional Intelligence based on his practice of meditation and documented its pivotal value for leadership, professional and personal success and fulfillment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn – Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
Kabat-Zinn is the founder of MBSR – Meditation-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center – in operation since 1979.
Elizabeth Blackburn – The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer
Doctor Blackburn is a Nobel Prize laureate who documented that meditation can protect telomeres and DNA, preventing aging and chronic illness.