Meditation for Mental Health
Yoga is the ending of disturbances of the mind.
-Yoga Sutra 1.2
Your Brain on Meditation
Meditation for mental health has gained some scientifically based evidence in the last few years. “Science proves that meditation restructures your brain and trains it to concentrate, feel greater compassion, cope with stress, and more.” Says Kelly McGonigal.
Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, Eileen Luders, a researcher in the Department of Neurology at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, looks for evidence that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. Until recently, this idea would have seemed absurd. “Scientists used to believe that the brain reaches its peak in adulthood and doesn’t change–until it starts to decrease in late adulthood,” Luders says. “Today we know that everything we do, and every experience we have, actually changes the brain.”
Luders finds several differences between the brains of mediators and non-mediators. In a study comparing the brains of mediators and non-mediators, she found that the mediators had more gray matter in regions of the brain that are important for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility. Increased Gray matter typically makes an area of the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information.
Did you know it was possible to retrain your brain? Research shows it is, but learning to meditate is no different from learning mental skills such as music or math. It requires practice. Think of it as a training program for the brain.
Basics of Meditaion
Six tips for meditation
- Take time to stretch your body for a few minutes up to an hour before you begin. Focus on the breath, and release any tensions that may be built up in the neck, hips, shoulders, legs or torso. If you are not accustomed to stretching or yoga…no big deal, just move on to step 2.
- Dress in clean comfortable clothes. Do no wear anything constricting or that would cause you discomfort.
- Take a seat. When you think of meditation, you’ll think of the classic meditation posture, legs crossed, index finger and thumb touching… but it actually takes a lot of work and strength to sit. It is certainly something to work towards. In fact, all the poses of yoga are meant to strengthen the body so you can sit in meditation. Start out by finding whatever is most comfortable for you. This may be lying down, kneeling propped up on yoga blocks, or pillows, or seated with your back resting lightly against something. The important thing is to keep your spine straight so that energy may flow freely up and down your spine. “Keep the body, head and neck erect without looking about; gaze instead toward the tip of your nose.”-Bhagavad Gita 6:13 OR, close your eyes.
- Relieve external distraction. Find a quiet, comfortable environment. Make sure you won’t be cold, or too hot. Try to keep distracting noises to a minimum. It’s best to meditate on an empty stomach. Eat a meal and hour or two before meditation. Or a light snack before if you must. You don’t want to be so full your body is still digesting, or so empty that you feel distracted. “Then sit and calm the mind and senses by concentrating on one thing.”- Bhagavad Gita 6:2
- Find what practice works for you. There are many different meditation techniques. It might be a good idea to start out with some guided meditations that you can find on the internet. There are as many techniques as there are mediators. When you find one that works for you, stick with it. Only with practice does meditation show its greatest rewards.
What is the goal here?
“We take it for granted that we need to take showers, clean our house, and wash our clothes. Yet the mind and its thoughts need cleansing and ordering as much as our bodies. While few of us would consider eating dinner on yesterday’s dirty dishes, we think nothing of tackling our problems with yesterday’s cluttered mind.” -Chakra Balancing, Anodea Judith
The purpose of meditation is to simply move beyond the normal limits of your consciousness and empty the clutter of your mind while focusing on compassion, gratitude, acceptance, or whatever you want to become. You focus your concentration for the purpose of attaining a higher state. There are three parts of meditation. Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, or concentration, absorption, and transcendence or bliss.
The first state– concentration — is to focus your concentration by noticing your breath, and absorbing your mind with an image or mantra or comforting phrase or scripture. The second state –absorption — is to move into a higher state of consciousness where the mind is totally quiet, and the effort of meditation is no longer there. The third step –transcendence — may take years to achieve and is described as enlightenment or perhaps direct communion.
A Mindfulness Meditation to try
Mindfulness requires concentration, but rather than concentrate on any one object, we concentrate on the moment and whatever is present in that moment. You may feel anxious, fearful, sad, angry, or a myriad of any other emotions. Become an observer (almost sitting outside yourself and watching from a distance), and just take note of what is going on in that moment. No judgement about it.
To begin, take a comfortable seat. Bring attention to your breath by placing your awareness at your belly and feeling it rise and fall. This will help you tune in to the presence of the body. Once you feel settled, widen your awareness to include all the sensations in your body as well as any thoughts or feelings.
Imagine yourself as a mountain. Some thoughts and feelings will be stormy, with thunder, lightening, and strong winds. Some will be like fog or dark, ominous clouds. inhaling, note “mountain. ” Exhaling, note “stable.” Use the breath to focus on the present moment; cultivate the ability to weather the storm. If you find yourself swept up in a thought or emotion, notice it and simply return to the breath. The key is to pay attention to the ever-changing process of thinking rather than to the contents of your thoughts. As you begin to see that they are indeed just thoughts, they will begin to lose their power. You will no longer believe everything you think! Continue to watch and become mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations for 5 to 20 minutes.