Your parents may never have been into meditation, unless of course they went through a “hippie phase” or traveled to an ashram in some far away country to “find themselves,” at some point in their lives. Well, there is no longer any need to wander a continent away to find every day peace. Many people today are using briefer versions of meditations than those rooted in more ancient religious and cultural practices, with significant results.
Why? Because it’s very easy, very accessible and has a great deal of scientific evidence to support the many benefits of doing it.
So, what is meditation? It’s basically the act of practicing quiet contemplation; a way to train the mind to relax and remove distractions and worries. You may have also heard this called mindfulness, which is a type of meditation where full attention is paid to the moment or to an action. In doing this, there is intense observation with attention to the senses but no criticism. While more classic mindfulness is done seated with full attention to ones breath for 30-45 minutes or longer, this kind of mindfulness is also taught now for actions and for shorter time periods. For example, people can learn to take a few minutes to walk mindfully, eat mindfully, smell flowers mindfully, and so on. These kinds of exercises take into account how “on-the-go” a society we are and encourages finding ways to incorporate mindfulness into daily practices. Seated mindfulness exercises focused on breath continue to be incredibly useful but are likely more alluring in smaller doses and it seems that tools like five-minute workday grounding exercises and one minute meditations are better stress relievers that can be done in the the middle of a stressful day. These are also likely to be more useful in getting folks to try, or buy-into, the concept of mediation that can then be built upon similar to a physical exercise routine. You work up to “running a marathon,” right? Training your mind is not that different from training your body.
Again, it’s important to note that meditation and mindfulness practices vary and are rooted in numerous cultural and religious philosophies that are not to be minimized. What I am discussing here is what I am learning about personally and in my practice with my patients. What I am referring to is the incredibly accessible meditation and mindfulness tools available to people today and the growing body of research that speaks to the many benefits of using them to practice meditation. What seems clear from numerous studies and a comprehensive online review by Giovanni Dienstmann, titled 76 Scientific Benefits of Meditation, is that it can help with many mental and physical health difficulties and disorders. Here are just some of the benefits of mindfulness meditation that he outlines in his review:
-increased mood regulation in anxiety disorders
-decreased general stress and anxiety levels
-decreased symptoms of panic disorder
-increased focus, attention and ability to work under stress
-helps relieve pain
-increased overall mood and psychological well being
-decreased risk of heart disease and stroke
-decreased blood pressure
-increased quality sleep and decreased need for as much sleep
The amount of time and duration of the meditations differed greatly in these studies but the results are overwhelmingly positive even when meditation was only used for minutes a day (roughly 10-20 minutes) for a few weeks to a month. Skeptics will find it hard to believe but often in controlled studies meditation worked as well, or better than, prescription medication for some of the physical and psychological diagnoses. So, what are you waiting for? Go get your Zen on!
Your delay may be due to the fact that it can be overwhelming to know where to start when there are so many good books, magazines, websites and apps dedicated to the subject of meditation and mindfulness. You can search the topic on the internet but you are likely to get more overwhelmed. There is an enormous amount of information out there so I will share just a few personal favorites that might be helpful to you too. For general books on the topic, I recommend anything by Jon Kabat Zinn, PhD or Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for finding Peace in a Frantic World. For children, yes children, good books for learning meditation are Peaceful Piggy Meditation and Sitting Still Like a Frog (Mindfulness Exercises for Kids and their Parents). These books are particularly useful for kids of about 5-12 years of age. There are also many books focused on meditation aimed at improving specific problems or disorders that you can search for (e.g. meditation for the anxious or depressed person…).
What I have been finding most accessible (and therefore effective) in my practice have been the many free and low fee apps and links on the internet or smart phones that can teach folks to meditate in 20 minutes or less. On the internet, I often refer people to the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center site, which offers a 19-minute instructional audio and numerous 3-12 minute pre-recorded meditation exercises in English, and even some in Spanish. The Frantic World website also offers several free recorded mindfulness exercises including a “Chocolate Meditation.” This one might prove particularly useful around this time of year when there tend to be many temptations around in the way of unhealthy foods and treats.
When it comes to smartphone apps there are many and what will be best for you will be based on your personal preferences. Some come with choices of background music, some have meditations of different durations, some allow you to set a reminder where the app will keep track of your meditations and when its time to do another, some are intended to get you to a point of sleep and others just to total relaxation and awareness. The list goes on. You may have to try a few to find what is best for you and they are easy to search in your phone and sample. Again a few recommendations of good apps that have come out of my practice are Omvana, Simply Being, Headspace, and Breathe. Most of these are free but for a small fee you can add additional music and meditations to them. Try one out today and remember, there is nothing like the present moment!
Note: I am not personally promoting any of the “products” in this blog and am not receiving anything for mentioning them. They are just helpful tips that some readers might find useful. Please use them or not as you see fit.