I cannot believe that I have written for so many weeks without discussing one of the most effective and comprehensive tools to increase psychological wellbeing: Meditation. About ten years ago I went to see a counsellor who had been recommended to me. She listened to my story and challenges, asked a few questions, and then finally said, “What you need is not counselling. You need meditation.” I never forgot this. But shamefully, it took me many years until I finally persevered with meditation. And she was right; I had a swirling, overly perfectionist, catastrophising, ruminating mind as well as a lot of sadness and hopelessness because of my childhood. And I daresay meditation tackled them all.
According to the definition by Shapiro, Schwartz and Santerre, meditation is a term for a variety of techniques, in which a conscious attempt is made to focus attention free of analysing, dwelling, rambling, reasoning or ruminating thoughts. Shapiro and colleagues point out that meditation is about intention and consciousness. It is also, despite being conceived in religious and spiritual disciplines, independent of religious frameworks. Another important aspect of meditation is that it is an attempt, a process rather than a specific end result.1
Three decades of scientific research have provided evidence that various psychological and physiological benefits are derived from meditation. Meditation practices are now applied in a range of health care settings, having shown to be effective for treating cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, skin disease, panic disorders, anxiety and non-clinical depression. Further, relaxation is frequently a by-product of meditation. The objective of meditation, however, is less to manage stressful situations than it is to cultivate a way of living, Shapiro and colleagues stress. Meditation, they write, “seeps into daily life, bringing greater nonjudgmental consciousness to everything that one does, feels, and experiences”.2
The practice also aids personal growth. Shapiro and colleagues conclude that meditation provides a path of freeing ourselves from unnecessary or artificial limitations. Further, as Roger Walsh, a pioneer in researching meditation points out, the cultivation of meditation develops deeper insight into our mental processes, realities, identity, and consciousness. It allows us to develop optimal stages of consciousness and psychological wellbeing. Meditation thus provides us with a pathway to greater personal awareness, openness and insight.3
I can’t help thinking that we all need these exact outcomes in order to deal well with life and our times. Wherever we look we are bombarded with problems, injustices, and insecurities, many of which no longer have straight forward solutions. Many years ago a friend of mine pointed out that the problems presenting themselves to mankind and individuals now are such that they can only be met by raising our consciousness. But what does that really mean? Raising our consciousness means becoming more fully awake, coming to know more about our own nature and that of others, and expanding our horizon of the world and our conception of it. And that is exactly what can be learned through meditation. Meditation can raise our consciousness because it allows us to contemplate outside our normal mental habits.
There are a host of different techniques and traditions for practising meditation. According to Shapiro and colleagues, the techniques are traditionally divided into two main categories: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation. In concentrative meditation one focuses on one single object and ignores all other stimuli in the surrounding environment. Attention is focused free of emotions and analytical thought, and aims for a direct experience of what one is focusing on. The object can be external or internal, such as sound, breath, a mantra or word. In mindfulness meditation the attention is directed to all stimuli in the inner and outer environment; the discipline is not to let the mind dwell or ruminate on particular stimuli. This form of meditation is considered an opening-up practice. Lastly, Shapiro and colleagues propose one further category: contemplative meditation. This practice requires a certain ability in both concentrative and mindfulness meditation, as it combines focus with openness. Contemplative meditation is about opening up and surrendering to a larger entity such as the higher self, God, the universe. It involves asking questions or inquiring into anything one does not know, such as one’s way, a required understanding, or a sound action.4
In a helpful article Leonard Wright points out that three main misconceptions tend to keep people from meditating. Wright is a medical doctor and long term meditator. He found that his patients often associate meditation with Eastern religious traditions, and imagine the practice involving a bearded man chanting on top of a mountain. Yet despite the practice being embraced and perfected in the East, meditation is found in all world religions, Wright stresses. The instructions always involve the same two steps: 1. focus on something and 2. disregard what comes into the mind. Meditation is universal, Wright argues, and transcends both religion and culture.5
Wright also found that many people seem to be pre-occupied with the idea of a mantra, which must be personally fetched from a “barefoot holy man” in India or Tibet. A mantra is usually a short phrase or word. It certainly does not have to be personal, Wright argues, nor are mantras very important. He advises that people pick their own by selecting a word that has meaning for them.6
Wright also found many people think meditation is hard because they expect themselves to be meditating “perfectly”. However, Wright stresses, meditation is not meant to be a nirvana; it is simply a relaxation of the body teamed with a distraction of the mind. In meditation, he argues, the state we seek is one in which we have no intention; thus right or wrong do not come into it. Wright notes:
True meditation is a spiritual practice, but on a daily basis its rewards are less than omnipotence. It is meant to change one’s perception of reality, not reality itself. When we close our eyes to meditate, our mind does not go completely blank, void of all thoughts, at one with the universe, because just as hearts are meant to beat and lungs to breathe, brains are meant to think and will not be completely devoid of thought, perhaps until we are dead. If done consistently, meditation is a spiritual exercise that allows the meditator to control his thoughts, not walk on water or shape shift. … The point is that when you open your eyes from meditation the world will not be different, you will. This change is simple and easily missed, but very profound.7
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015