5 Benefits Of Meditation & What We Can Do To Experience It
People who practice meditation always say that it positively impacts their lives in an immense way. So what can we do to experience meditation and what exactly is it. Spoiler Alert: I find experiencing meditation challenging!
In everyday life our mind can become very busy, filled with thoughts, worries, to-do lists and responsibilities. Meditation offers an inner oasis of calm, a place with no thoughts, a place where the mind is still and clear. Sounds blissful doesn't it!
Last week I started a weekly meditation class, which I am doing with varying degrees of success. It's helped to clarify what meditation is, and what it isn't. But it has also reminded me that bringing calm to a busy mind is challenging and requires a lot of practice.
So, I'd heard "mediation" to describe various things. What exactly is it?
Mediation, mindfulness, and relaxation are all different things (all beneficial though!)
Meditation is something that you experience, not something that you "do". The true nature of the meditation is the experience of a still mind (aka a clear mind or mind without thoughts).
Take sleep for example, we do not "do" sleep, we experience sleep. To promote falling sleep, we "do" things such as create a comfortable environment, lie still, listen to music etc. In the same way we can "do" things to invite mediation to happen to us.
In Yogic philosophy, the most sacred ancient text is called "Yoga Sutras" by Patanjali. Patanjali compiled the sutras in India somewhere between 500 BCE and 400 CE. Patanjali is to Yoga what Buddha is to Buddhism.
In the "Yoga Sutras" Pantajali tells us about the "8 Limbs" which offer guidelines for a meaningful and purposeful life. Here's the "8 Limbs" in summary:
Yamas - morale disciplines/practices for conducting ourselves in the world
Niyamas - refers to morale duties/practices directed towards ourselves
Asana - postures/the physical practice of yoga
Pranayama - breathing techniques
Pratyahara - sense withdrawal
Dharana - focused concentration
Dhyana - meditation
Samadhi - bliss / enlightenment
Pantajali tells us that we need to work though limbs 1-4 and then we are ready to start the next stages towards meditation.
So let's go deeper into limbs 5, 6, & 7 to understand what Pantajali tells us to "do" to experience meditation and what meditation is.
You know when there is a noisy popcorn eater in the cinema and you zone it out. Or when you are sitting in an uncomfortable seat but ignore your discomfort. Or when you are looking out of the window on a train but not really paying attention to the world outside. These are examples of withdrawing your senses.
The first step to experiencing meditation is withdrawing your senses from the outer world to bring your attention more deeply inside. The messages from the senses will still come in, but we can practice ignoring the messages going into your brain.
The next step is about focusing our attention to develop the ability to concentrate our mind.
Have your ever counted sheep or focused on your breath to help you fall asleep? That focused concentration is Dharana.
To experience meditation, choose something to focus on. You could focus on your breath, or perhaps a mantra, or looking at symbol, or focusing on a candle flame.
For many years I thought I was 'doing' meditating by listening to the sound of nature around me. Although this was relaxing and beneficial, it was not meditation. Through withdrawing your senses and focused concentration, meditation happens to us.
When we've withdrawn our senses (Pratyahara) and we've focused our attention (Dhyana) we can experience meditation (Dhyana).
Meditation is when our mind is still, calm, clear from thoughts. You will just know when you've experienced it. It's also important to remember that to experience Dhyana we have to let go of expectations of experiencing it
OK so what's so good about meditation, what are the benefits? There are endless benefits but here are my top 5:
1. Triggers parasympathetic response
The nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
When the body is stressed, the SNS contributes to what is known as the "fight or flight" response. Once the crisis is over, the body starts to return to the pre-emergency, unstressed state. This recovery is facilitated by the PNS; within this state the body can start to to restore, reset, and rejuvenate.
Meditation triggers the PNS response, allowing rest and renewal for your entire being. With more rest and renewal your cardio vascular heath will improve along with your sleep and your physical wellbeing.
2. Builds emotional resilience
Processing emotions is not always easy. Often we end up numbing ourselves so we don't feel pain/anger/hurt/sorrow/fear.
Meditation allows us the ability to sit with physical or emotional discomfort and let it pass. Part of having a full life is feeling all of your emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. Through building emotional resilience we can develop better self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-reliance.
3. Improves your relationships
Meditation can literally shift my mood into one that it more positive. It allows you to see the bigger picture so you 'don't sweat the small stuff'. Meditation creates more space for compassion and kindness, which goes to improve the relationships with people around you.
4. Gives clarity of mind
The stillness created from meditation and improved concentration allows clarity of mind. We will literally see our lives more clearly. Don't be surprised if you suddenly have the answer to a problem you have been thinking over!
5. Connects us with spirit
Meditation opens us to a deeper connection with spirit. In other words it connects us to joy. We may start to see the joys in life where we didn't see them before. Connection with spirit is also an important pathway to the final 8th limb Samadhi (bliss / enlightenment).
So why is this simple practice that costs nothing, requires no equipment, and has endless benefits challenging to experience?
Experiencing mediation takes self discipline and it takes practice. My own challenges to meditation include making excuses not to practice such as "i'm too tired", "I'm too busy", "my mind is too active today". And then when I do practice mediation I have a tendency to fall into sleep!
But like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, persevere with meditation and your ability to experience it will get stronger too. Mediation is so rich with positive benefits - it allows you to restore & heal, build emotional resilience, improve relationships, shift your perspective, and feel joy. More about meditation has to be experienced to be known. It is waiting for you and I, if we are ready.