The Practice of Meditation

Photo Courtesy: Medical News Today
Meditating while seated in a posture as shown above can help with focus. However, the practice itself is centered on taking control of the mind and the thoughts that flow through it, releasing those that cause stress.

Keenan Thungtrakul/Senior Reporter

Life can feel out of control at times. One class after another. One homework assignment after another. One test after another. One meeting after another. The list goes on. It can feel like there’s no room for rest. No time for relaxing and unwinding. What free time you get might be short or spent contemplating about the next thing to get done. All of this places high amounts of stress on the mind. What do you do to relieve it?

There are many forms of stress relief, and some are not as effective as others. A relief strategy often recommended by friends and professionals alike is the idea of being still, and letting the stress-producing thoughts ebb away. Believe it or not, that concept is one of the foundations of a millennia-old practice called meditation. It is thought to be one of the simplest yet effective methods of stress relief that people still practice today. It’s the idea of taking responsibility
for your state of mind, with the goal of changing it for the better.

When you first hear the word “meditation,” you might think of the practice that Eastern religions do or some form of mental exercise. Well, meditation is more than a religious practice. In fact, it does not have to be. This article will give a detailed background of the practice, how and why it’s a useful stress relief technique, and how to get started should one wish to explore.

What is meditation? It is the practice of understanding and transforming the mind. It is a technique used to relax the mind and attain a state of consciousness different from the natural state. In this particular case, the mind is clear, relaxed, and focused inward instead of outward.

The goals of meditation are to develop positivity, calmness, and understand the patterns and habits of the mind. By achieving these goals, one can experience improved concentration abilities and significantly better mindsets. Meditation is a practice that developed in Eastern cultures for thousands of years. Generations have worked to refine the practice to make it so that an everyday person can attain a state of mental peace and tranquility.

Some myths can make one skeptical about or doubt the effectiveness of meditation. Meditation is not concentration, loss of control, an exercise, or something involving mental effort. While the practice helps develop concentration, meditation itself is not the same.

Any random thoughts you experience in meditation have nothing to do with the practice. They are merely losses of awareness of a part of the mind. Meditating in a specific posture can help with balance and focus, but meditation is more than a position. Repeating a mantra may help with releasing negative thoughts, but the mantra itself is not the center of the practice.

How does meditation work? Most theories describe meditation as a sophisticated form of relaxation involving something called the parasympathetic response. Psychological stress causes the activation of the sympathetic component of the nervous system that causes the “fight-or-flight” response in its extreme. Meditation or any form of relaxation acts to reduce the frequency of these activations by slowing the release of stress hormones and promoting increased parasympathetic nervous activity, slowing the heart rate and improving blood flow. If regularly practiced, meditation has been shown to help relieve levels of anxiety and depression while improving attention, concentration, and overall well-being.

According to a 2015 Forbes compilation of studies on meditation, one can observe the effects of the practice throughout the brain. It acts to help preserve the brain as it ages. It reduces activity in the brain’s “me center,” the part that causes us to have “monkey minds,” minds that constantly wander from thought to thought. Such wandering can lead to stress, anxiety, and worry. The quieting effects that meditation has on this “me center” appears to dial down this constant wandering. Meditators that experience this “monkey mind” are better at snapping out of it and telling their minds to calm down.

Meditation’s effects rival those of antidepressants for symptoms of depression and anxiety. While it’s not a cure, it does help with managing them.

How can one start to practice? Beginning meditators can find it hard to meditate or keep a regular rhythm. The best advice is to start small and gradually build upon it. Try and start your day with a short morning meditation. The state of peace will help the whole day go better. One engineering student did this exact thing during his Gauntlet semester, and he felt that was one reason why he kept his GPA after the semester was over.

Allow yourself to be an open system. Let the energy flow through you. Enable full communication with your mind and spirit. It will be helpful to close your eyes and focus on your breathing,
allowing energy to flow through you as you inhale and exhale.

Establish the quality of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy, but by forgiving you can let go of a lot of things that can stress you out. Meditation is not about concentrating, focusing, visualizing, daydreaming, fantasizing, or stopping thoughts; it’s about releasing them.

Try using a candle or meditative music to set your mind and attention straight. Some might use incense.

If you find yourself getting distracted while you meditate, just stop thinking. If any worrisome thought comes to you, just acknowledge and surrender it. Let it flow out of your mind. Thoughts are like airplanes coming and going. In your meditative state, let time slow down and allow the time between thoughts to expand. This state is called thoughtless awareness. In this state, the excessive stress producing activity of the mind stops without reducing one’s alertness. It enables
one to focus on the present rather than dwell on the past or the future.

Try and meditate with others. You’ll feel the effects quicker than if you do it alone. There’s a meditation group that meets every Monday at 16:00 hrs in the Chapel at the Center for Faith and Spirituality. Can’t make it? Try forming your group with a few friends.

There are those that will come up with the excuse “I’m super busy, and I can’t make time.” There is a time for anything if you make time for it. Simple, short practices, done regularly, can still provide the benefits described above. It can be as short as five minutes before the day starts and after the day ends. Make it a high priority, like eating, showering, and brushing your teeth. That will help with making the practice a habit.

There is not one precise way to meditate. Everyone has a unique mind. One cannot force meditation. It must happen with a fresh, open, and forgiving mind. Let go of any preconceived notions and expectations. They will lead to blockages and distractions. Stay neutral and open, realizing that awareness of the busy mind is part of the practice.