We Know: How Meditation Works

What is Meditation?

Meditation can be defined in three common ways:

  1. Deep consideration, thought, or contemplation about a particular subject or matter.
  2. A religious or spiritual practice whereby the meditator is able to reach a state of mind or level of consciousness that is in tune with or which resonates with a higher state of consciousness or perhaps the deity or higher power of one's belief system
  3. A non-religious or non-spiritual physical/mental practice that allows the meditator to calm his or her mind and body in order to bring about a more stable emotional state, greater ability to concentrate, heightened awareness of one's own mind or self, and/or better physical health.

It seems more like it's a religious or spiritual thing...

It depends. Many people  are exposed to meditation for the first time through a form of religious or spiritual practice. Certainly all major religions make use of some form of meditation as a way for their adherents to connect to the deity or higher power they worship, or in the case of Buddhism, to still the mind in order free it from attachment to the static and interference of more worldly concerns.

Many people have even been first exposed to meditation and have experienced better health, better concentration, etc., through the practice of Hatha Yoga, a physically-oriented form of yoga practice, which is a spiritual practice in its own right, but one not always viewed that way.

How does meditation work then for a person physically and mentally?

Many scientists and medical practitioners have long been aware that simply sitting quietly and focusing on one's breathing while allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, when done on a regular basis for a few minutes a day, can create more tranquility and calmness in a person's life. This has all kinds of health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, slowing the heart rate, alleviating depression and anxiety, and promoting a more positive mental outlook on life.

Scientific research into meditation has established that during meditation a person's heart rate decreases, overall metabolism slows down, and brain waves change, moving the person into what is known as an alpha wave state. In addition, stress hormones are lowered, aiding the immune system, blood flow and allowing the muscles to relax.

What's a good, simple way to practice meditation?

On a very basic level, the effects and benefits of meditation can be achieved by:

  1. Find a quiet place. A darkened room with few interfering exterior sounds is preferable. Sit in a straight back chair (sitting cross-legged on the floor isn't really necessary, although if you find that comfortable and if it aids in your meditation practice, by all means do it). Keep your legs uncrossed, your feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands in your lap or on the arms of the chair if it has such, preferably with palms up and open. You might also consider unloosening any restrictive clothing. If you have a belt on that seems binding, for example, loosen it a notch or two; slip off your shoes if they feel tight.
  2. Close your eyes if you wish--this can help calm the mind, but isn't totally necessary. The intent here is not to shut down your senses or to shut out the world. Focus your attention on your breathing. Count your breaths. Count up to three, then start over. Or count them as high as you wish. Or perhaps just repeat some favorite or relevant word to yourself as you breathe in and out. Thoughts and feelings will inevitably come as you do this, especially at first. Let them pass through your mind and your awareness. You will find yourself engaging in some, even forgetting that you are meditating. This is natural. Once you recognize you are lost in a thought or emotion, draw your attention back to your breath.
  3. Keep this up for as long as you are comfortable. At first it may be only for a few minutes. After a while you may find you can do it for several minutes at a time.

Many faiths and spiritual traditions also offer their own guidelines on meditation which one should check out and follow if so inclined.

Are there dangers to meditation practice?

Some people who have mental or emotional problems may also try to substitute meditation practice for needed treatment, or modify it in ways that may not be in their best interest, which could end up creating problems for them.

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