Meditation is normal; it is not a mystical experience. We can all enter a “meditative state” by simply being absorbed in what we are doing and becoming completely present in the moment. Most people believe that the purpose of meditation is to get rid of stress and tune out. While it is true that meditation helps one to diminish and even eliminate stress, the real purpose of meditation is to tune in to the deeper levels of our mind. It is useful in reducing stress levels, but also will help us in becoming more present and focused. Most consistent meditators say the practice helps them to cultivate a feeling of peace – the peace that many spiritual traditions refer to as the peace that surpasses all understanding. Who doesn’t want some of that?
Beyond the substantial benefits meditation creates for the mind-body physiology, the greatest gift of meditation is the sense of calm and inner peace it brings into your daily life. When you meditate, you go beyond the mind’s noisy chatter into an entirely different way of being: the silence of a mind that s not imprisoned by the past or the future. Have you heard the saying ” All humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”? This was originally said by a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal….in the 1600’s! So, our problem with mind chatter is not just an issue in our modern age of technology but is the human tendency to over-think and mentally obsess. Our ability to soften the mind chatter is the “birthplace” of true happiness.
During most of our waking lives, our minds are engaged in a continuous internal dialogue in which the associations of one thought trigger the next. All day long our mind spins stories about our work, our health, our finances, our friends and family, or a funny look our neighbour gave us. Often we are not even aware of the internal soundtrack rolling in our mind and yet it is the greatest source of stress in our lives. The mind is capable of creating positive thoughts and life-affirming stories, but it has what neuroscientists call a negativity bias, a tendency to pay more attention to negative experiences than to positive ones. The negativity bias saved many a life millions of years ago – paying such astute attention to potential threats kept our ancestors from being vulnerable to attack by a predator. The ones that stopped to admire a beautiful sunset may not have lived to tell the tale….thus, those that survived passed on their genes that paid a lot of attention to perceived danger. The legacy of this is a brain that is primed to focus on negative experiences and has a tendency to get stuck in thoughts of anxiety, depression, and limitation.
Meditation is one of the best tools we have to counter the brain’s negativity bias. Once we “crack” this, we can release accumulated stress, foster positive experiences and intentions, and enjoy the peace of present moment awareness. Meditation is a powerful and yet simple practice for going beyond habitual, conditioned thought patterns into a state of expanded awareness. You can become less burdened by the past and less worried by the future; you are able to become more present in now.
A large body of research has established that having a regular meditation practice produces tangible benefits for mental and physical health, including:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Lowered cholesterol levels
- Reduced production of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline
- More efficient oxygen use by the body
- Increased production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA
- Improved immune function
- Decreased anxiety, depression, and insomnia
The emotional effects of sitting quietly and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters called dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. While these are all “happy” brain chemicals, each of these substances have been linked to different aspects of happiness:
Dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure, feel rewarded, and maintain focus.
Serotonin has a calming effects. It eases tension and helps us feel less stressed and more relaxed and focused. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been linked to migraines, anxiety, bipolar disorder, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and insomnia. It can become a very big deal to be deficient in Serotonin.
Oxytocin is a pleasure hormone. It creates feelings of calm, contentment, and security while reducing fear and anxiety.
Endorphins are most commonly known as the chemicals that create the exhilaration known as “runner’s high”. These neurotransmitters play numerous roles related to wellbeing including reducing feelings of pain and stress.
Though simple, starting a meditation practice is often not “easy” for a variety of reasons. If you are interested in meditating, read up a bit; there is a plethora of information on how to meditate. (I also have a couple of posts on starting a practice in my blog). The effects of meditation are cumulative, and setting aside as little as 15 minutes a day to retreat and practice is beneficial. If you feel you need some help, contact me through this website or feel free to attend my Stretch and De-Stress class.