What is Meditation?
Writing for The Chopra Center, Roger Gabriel, a teacher of meditation and Ayurveda, defines meditation as “a journey from external activity to inner silence” and as an “opportunity to just be.” Practically speaking, you can meditate for any amount of time–a few minutes, as HeadSpace advertises, or 8 hours, as they sometimes do in zazen–and at any time of the day or night. Your meditation practice might look very different from someone else’s and there are different practices stemming from different religions and parts of the world–zazen in Japan and Korea, Hindu, Vedic or yogic meditation in India–but the basics are sitting in a particular posture for a certain amount of time and focusing on your breath or a mantra. In zazen, it is important to achieve kekka-fuza, or full-lotus position. In fact, according to Dogen, the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen tradition, in this practice, this is the only “objective”: Just to sit. In Dogen’s Shobogenzo, an important Buddhist text, he says to “Sit in kekka-fuza with body, sit in kekka-fuza with mind, sit in kekka-fuza of body-mind falling off.”
This might understandably be hard for you at first–so don’t let that scare you off! You may want to start with an exercise that will help you build up to Dogen’s “mind-body falling off” state: you can visualize a sacred image, concentrate the mind on a certain thought or sensation, count–or simply focus on your breaths, or chant a mantra. You can even start with guided meditation, which is what HeadSpace is, in which a teacher–in a class, or even coming through your headphones via a podcast–walks you through a meditation, directing you to focus on your breath and reminding you to clear your mind. I personally love Oprah and Deepak Chopra’s 21-day meditation experience, a guided meditation app that you can do anywhere and any time for 21 days–a great amount of time to get you into a steady habit. I use these when I fall off track and need some guidance to get into a daily practice on my own again.
What are the benefits?
Issho Fujita, a Zen monk and head teacher at Valley Zendo, a Soto Zen center in Massachusetts, writes that “In Oriental medicine we find the interesting idea that harmony among the internal organs is of greatest importance. All the issues associated with Head”–the part of the body that you normally place the most importance on–“are something merely resulting from a lack of harmony among the internal organs.” This is the same philosophy used in acupuncture. As an acupuncturist, I look for the unique disharmony in the organ systems of an individual, which may be leading to conditions such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, fear, worry etc. During the acupuncture treatment, the needles tap into those energy systems and begin to guide the body to healing, bringing the organs back into harmony, calming the mind, improving sleep, balancing the emotions and so on. It’s very common to drift into a dreamy sleep-like state during an acupuncture treatment. When this happens your body is going into a healing rest, similar to a meditative state. According to a 2013 study, acupuncture changes your brain waves, activating your delta brainwaves (deep sleep) and calming the aplha (awake but not stimulated) and beta waves (awake and engaged), allowing your body to fall into that meditative restful dream-like place.
While stress management is one of the outcomes of meditation–and can be a huge motivator for starting a practice–Roger Gabriel sees the spiritual awakening as the real benefit:
“Through regular practice of meditation, you not only reconnect with your own essence, you also begin to understand your interconnectedness with everyone and everything else. The separateness, which leads to so many challenges in the world, begins to dissolve into a deep sense of peace and harmony; an unconditional love begins to bloom, bringing understanding and compassion; and your connection with the Divine is reestablished opening you to higher states of consciousness.”
But the stress reduction is not to be understated or dismissed: there are numerous scientific studies proving the connection between mindfulness/meditation practices and a reduction in anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction (including, in particular, smoking cessation) and even ailments like ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues. A Harvard University study from 2014 found that meditation actually “rebuilds the brain’s grey matter.” Participants in this study practiced some form of meditation for 30 minutes every day for 8 weeks, and MRIs after the study period showed that they had increased grey matter in their hippocampus, important for learning and memory, as well as in other structures within the brain responsible for compassion, self-awareness and introspection. Personally, I have found that meditation has made me significantly less stressed and anxious, and has increased my clarity of mind. When I have fallen off track and missed days or weeks–or honestly, even months–of meditation, I feel scattered, ungrounded, anxious and much more sensitive to life stressors.
Your own practice
All this talk of zazen and 30 minutes a day may have you running in the opposite direction. And it’s true that you may not even be able to do guided meditation for 15 minutes in the beginning; your well-worn neural pathways that tell you to always be doing, creating, producing may not let you have this luxury at first. But it’s ok to start very, very small!
Many meditation centers and teachers recommend sitting or even lying comfortably–no lotus here; you can use an eye mask to aid you in closing your mind off from the outside world; don’t try to control your breath–just breathe naturally. Start off doing this for just 2 minutes a day. And it can even be a pre-sleep routine to get you relaxed and shutting off from the pressures of the day. Once you’ve acclimated yourself, you can start increasing the amount of time you practice.
It’s important not to judge the experience.The most important thing is that you sat down and made that time for yourself! Just keep at it and you’ll reap all the wonderful benefits!