What is Meditation? Definition, Goal, Benefits and How-to
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Meditation and mindfulness have become the mantra for experiencing a more fulfilling life. This is wonderful, considering the many benefits being experienced first-hand by more and more people. However, you may notice that the ‘natural state of our mind’ has started to seem more like ‘another must-attain goal.’ Yet, the idea is simply ‘to be.’
What Is Meditation?
It is the act of being fully present in the here and now. It is the art of observing without feeling a need to intervene.
If you take a moment to pause and simply pay attention to your breath, you will know what meditation is about. The very moment when you become cognizant of your breathing pattern is when you come closer to your mind’s natural state of conscious awareness. This simple act of concentrating on the breath carries the seed of deeper realization, awareness, and clarity, along with many psycho-therapeutic and physiological benefits.
When we begin to observe, we begin to understand.
A subjective experience that develops over time, meditation is rooted in concentration or dharana. Concentration is an effort to fix the attention on a particular object or idea for a prolonged period of time. This helps to train our mind to eventually reach the state where we can connect with our innermost Self in a state of conscious awareness, without being distracted by the constant mental chatter. As Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutras (verse 1, 2): “Yogash citta vrtti nirodha” or “Yoga is the cessation of movements of the mind.” Buddha took this a step further by defining the aim of meditation as the cessation of the mind itself: “Sañña-vedayita-nirodha” or “Cessation of perception and sensations.”
- Meditation is a state, and as such, it cannot be taught. However, concentration exercises, as well as the underlying philosophy, can be taught.
- Continuous and dedicated practice, accompanied by self-reflection and self-study, assists in better concentration and greater control over the mind. This results in profound changes in attitude and lifestyle.
- You progress as you practice. This is a gradual process, and there is no urgency to arrive at any pre-determined state.
- The impact of regular practice is long-term, and you witness the shift from a sense of momentary calmness and detachment to a more regular state of sensory and ego detachment.
Types of Meditation:
There are two meditation techniques primarily, concentrated meditation and mindfulness meditation. The other types of meditation are a variation of these, and they incorporate different elements and knowledge from various cultures, philosophies, religions, and spiritual schools.
Concentrated Meditation: This meditation technique is about repeatedly directing one’s attention to a particular object. It could be the breath, a sound, a word, a mantra, or a candle flame. Through this conscious attempt to draw the senses inward and calm the mind, one can stay more relaxed, focused, and productive.
Mindfulness Meditation: It is the state of being fully present in the moment through the practice of deep breathing. When we focus our attention on our breath, we become more aware of our mind and the nature of our thoughts. This is a basic meditation practice that can be done as an everyday practice or in a more formal session to boost our overall health.
Guided practice of mindfulness meditation brings deeper states of realization, and a person develops a more accepting and compassionate attitude.
What Is the Goal of Meditation?
Self-care and self-realization can occur when we undergo a transformation in our conditioned habits. The goal of meditation is to help us attain this transformation.
Like every spiritual practice within the Eastern tradition, mindfulness helps the practitioner arrive at a state of deeper awareness. It trains a person to calm the mind through focused breathing, streamline their mental activities, and enter a deep state of relaxation. By redirecting attention to the breath and clearing the mind, meditation increases the body’s prana levels. This creates the ideal ground for the brain to rewire itself. This allows for the healing and transformation of the Self to manifest.
As we begin to know our self, we begin to know others.
Through self-inquiry and contemplation of questions like “Who am I?” we aim to connect with our true Self or the essence of our being. When we reach a meditative state, we find ourselves shifting away from ideas of separation, be it of the body and mind or that of one’s ego and self, and enter into a state of thoughtless awareness of and connection with our spirit.
Our consciousness transcends the ego and its constructs and moves to the higher mind. This is the region of super-consciousness or “the Self,” and this is what forms the center of our being. The Self is what gives life to everything that we are, that we do and think.
When we enter this dimension of the higher mind, we enter the dimension of inspiration and illumination, and we begin to explore the deeper truths and aspects of our experiences. Initially, these moments of connection are short, but through continuous effort and practice, we are led to recognize and realize the divinity and timelessness of the Self. This is also referred to as Self-realization or Insight.
Why Is Meditation So Popular?
Because unplugging the mind from the constant flow of information and entering into a natural state of stillness works for everyone, everywhere!
Truly, it is the uncomplicated nature of the practice that makes it so popular. Whether practicing in daily life or sitting down for a formal session, this non-sectarian and inclusive practice is for anyone wishing to:
- improve their overall physical and mental health,
- improve their quality of life or,
- experience higher states of consciousness
Impact of Meditation
As a practice and as a philosophy, it resonates with every individual at different levels. Yet, from a health and well-being perspective, meditation benefits us at 3 elemental levels: physical, mental, and spiritual.
Studies and research are increasingly suggesting that mindfulness living has the potential to:
- Balance our nervous system settings and help us deal with stress.
- Influence and alter our brainwave dominance.
- Regulate our emotions.
- Revitalize the body and the brain though effective oxygenation.
- Prevent and potentially cure various cardiovascular diseases.
- Increase our life span and life quality.
Benefits and Effects of Meditation
Meditation and science, even a decade ago, this combination would have raised some eyebrows. The concept of body-mind connection is relatively new in the modern, scientific approach. In recent decades, questions about the effects of meditation have become a subject of increased research. Scientists and medical professionals have started to realize that merely treating the physical symptoms is not enough. They now understand that the human body is way more complex and interrelated than what was earlier believed.
When we understand how the body functions, we realize how breathing and other mindfulness practices can help us take better care of our health. An increasing number of clinical studies and research have revealed the ways in which these techniques have the potential to:
1. Balance our nervous system settings and help us deal with stress
Stressful situations and strong emotions like anger, anxiety, worry, etc. can become a repetitive pattern. This strongly affects our health by causing an imbalance in vital bodily functions. This includes irregular breathing, improper digestion, increased heart rate, excessive adrenaline flow, and blood pressure issues.
Regular mindfulness training helps the body and mind to relax more easily. Managing the breath flow trains our autonomic nervous system to strike a healthier balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic mode. This improves oxygenation of the heart and the brain, balances the heartbeat and blood pressure level, and allows better functioning of the lungs and the endocrine system.
Across traditions, meditation has focused on two key aspects: focus on the breath and stillness of the body. The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system during meditation practices and all the benefits connected to it can (with regular practice) also have lasting effects on our nervous system balance in daily life.
2. Influence and alter our brainwave dominance
Our brain is in the beta stage whenever we are:
- actively working,
- engaged in logical thinking, or
- in a general state of alertness.
It naturally enters the alpha state when we let ourselves rest, unwind, and relax. However, the presence of stress inducing factors can cause what is known as “alpha blocking.” The brain finds it difficult to make its natural transition from the beta to the alpha state, i.e., from a state of activity to a state of rest. As such, we might experience insomnia, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Additionally, it also impacts our emotional awareness and creativity.
Meditation practices are specifically designed to help practitioners shift from a heightened state of concentration to a more relaxed state of inner awareness. As one’s practice progresses, so does the ability to experience deeper levels of consciousness.
More experienced meditators are able to move into an entirely different state of brainwaves and enter gamma wave activation. Gamma waves are often associated with insight, peak focus, and expanded consciousness.
3. Regulate our emotions
We are emotional beings, and a majority of our feelings are by nature more psychological than biological. The amygdala commands the brain’s ability to perceive a situation and emit a response. An important part of the brain’s stress circuitry, it is responsible for both intense emotional reactions, as well as, for focusing our attention.
Studies show that regular mindfulness training significantly lowers activity in this region of the brain and helps in healthy emotional processing.
4. Re-vitalize our body and brain though effective oxygenation
Have you ever noticed how wonderful the body feels when you start breathing more consciously? People in the East have hailed the benefits of deep, steady, and slower breathing for a long time. With studies revealing the relation between our breathing and cardiovascular activities, today, even medical science acknowledges this.
Whenever we are in a meditative state, our breathing naturally returns to a slower rhythm. As a result, there is an increase in the body’s overall oxygenation. Moreover, it also calms our nervous system, thus facilitating other psychological benefits like increased emotional stability, calmness, reduced anxiety, and greater self-confidence.
5. Prevent and potentially cure various cardiovascular diseases
Based on various studies, experts agree that meditation promotes heart health and reduces the risk of many significant diseases. Slow, rhythmic breathing lowers a person’s heart rate and, over a period of time, it also has a positive influence on baroflex sensitivity (BRS).
A key part of the body’s inbuilt balance mechanism, the baroflex helps “regulate acute blood pressure change by controlling the heart rate, contractibility, and peripheral resistance.” The BRS can alter from its natural state if a person is exposed to chronic stress and excessive emotional shifts.
6. Increase our lifespan and improve the quality of life
Harish Johari’s ‘Breath, Mind, and Consciousness’ mentions that according to the ancient Tantric scriptures of ‘Shiva Swarodaya’ and ‘Gyan Swarodaya,’ the life-span of man is not measured by years but by the number of breaths. At the rate of fifteen breaths per minute, a human life is made up of 946,080,000 breaths—a full 120 years. When we slow our breathing and maintain this rate of 15 breaths per minute, we conserve our energy and increase our vitality and our lifespan.
Owing to various mental or physical stimulation, our usual breathing rate often drastically exceeds this number. This, in turn, increases the body’s neuro-motor activities and causes it to utilize more energy. Over the years, this leads to more wear and tear, reduces repair mechanisms, and slows down our energy levels. The result of regular breath-work and mindfulness manifests over time rather than immediately. As such, it enables the body to adjust better to a new physiological set-up.
7. Guide us in spiritual development
Meditation enables us to draw our attention inwards by breaking the cycle of fear-based thinking and conditioned behavioral patterns that we are generally accustomed to. It fosters a more honest and compassionate attitude in a person.
In the humble practice of breathing lies the profound wisdom of life.
Concentrated breathing breaks through the many layers of the mind and allows for deeper contemplation to unfold. As the mind stops oscillating, we become fully present in the moment, and the relation between the body and the mind finds the space to heal, transmute, and evolve. As we evolve in our practice, we experience a greater and deeper understanding of reality than the limited ideas of the individual self . This is the beginning of our spiritual journey.
How to Meditate? Common Challenges
Meditation is an active training of the mind that requires effort and commitment. And encountering challenges is part of the training process. Here are some common meditation challenges that every practitioner faces:
1. Fleeting thoughts and constant chatter
The mind seeks to wander. Jumping from one thought to another, it is like a wild horse running freely at its own pace. While you may find this unpleasant and irritating, remember this is the nature of the mind, and as a conscious practitioner, you are beginning to recognize and address precisely this.
So what do you do? ——— Relax, observe, and ‘sit with it.’
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” – Lao Tzu
Acceptance and patience are two things that will help you bring your mind to a state of stillness. The more you avoid the tendency to engage with your thoughts, the better you will get at calming your mind.
2. Tug-of-war between thoughts and breath
Usually, people tend to be more aware of their thoughts than the flow of their breath. As you start paying attention to your breath, you will feel your thoughts and emotions trying to pull you. As a result, the breathing gets erratic, concentration drops, and you end up feeling agitated and less optimistic.
So what do you do? ——— Acknowledge, accept, and return back to your breath.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Since breathing affects our brain and our nervous system, we inevitably encounter these tug-of-war experiences between thoughts and our breath. Guided meditation practices give us better control over our breathing pattern, and over a period of time, it brings strength and clarity in our understanding of the mind, the Self, and the nature of life.
3. Restlessness and physical discomfort
Meditating has never been an easy ride for anyone. Numerous distractions in the form of sensory disturbances, physical sensations like tingling, tightness in the body, or difficulty in sitting in one posture, restlessness, doubt, anxiety, and mental disturbances like voices or visions can tend to make your meditation practice a challenging experience.
So what do you do? ——— Witness, embrace, and continue.
“Smile, breathe and go slowly” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Allowing yourself to feel these sensations without the need to fight back is the key to overcoming this challenge. Begin to observe the sensations and address them slowly and gently. Let yourself observe the sensation, and instead of brushing it aside, or feeling burdened, address it in a calm and gentle manner.
4. Lack of motivation and attachment to result
The changes felt in the initial phases of meditation are more prominent, thus, making a person more enthusiastic about the practice. However, with time progress becomes slower, and the initial excitement is quickly replaced by a lack of motivation, lethargy, and an unwillingness to continue.
So what do you do? ——— Be more gentle with yourself, drop the need to ‘achieve,’ and trust the process.
“karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi” or “You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.” – Bhagavad Gita 2.47
Meditation, or any spiritual practice, for that matter, needs to follow the laws of Karma Yoga. We must do our duties and tasks to the best of our abilities without having any attachment to the result. It is as much about being disciplined in the practice as it is about surrendering to the outcome. As soon as a practitioner becomes attached to a certain desired outcome, the practice loses its potency and becomes a facade.
Through meditative practices, we aim to go beyond our mind, the senses, and the ego. This is a journey that needs discipline, trust, and submission to the process itself.
How to Meditate? Tips for Teachers
Like any other practice or skill, learning meditation also requires that you first get to know the instructions and guidelines related to it. Effective guidance on the teacher’s part enables students to overcome challenges (both internal and external) and become more receptive to their learning.
Self-improvement begins with self-acceptance.
As a practitioner, you have to be committed to your efforts. If you persevere more, your practice becomes better. When you see meditation as a journey of the Self, it becomes easier to align with the instructions that your teacher or guide brings. Remember, meditation is an experience before anything else, and it is YOUR experience before it becomes a shared experience.
As a teacher, your personal experiences can help co-create a more conducive environment for your students to learn and get into their own practice. Molding a student can be both exciting and challenging, so here are some guidelines to help you in your teaching sessions:
- Encourage your students to feel comfortable and informed by giving them a clear and concise understanding of the guidelines prior to a class. Avoid being repetitive or boring them with too many details.
- Adopt the right posture and a comfortable sitting position during your classes, and avoid any unnecessary movement. The way you present yourself influences the way your students perform.
- Since you are co-creating a shared experience with your students, it is important that you tune into your experiences (without getting fully immersed in it). You also need to remain aware of your surroundings. We recommend that you keep your eyes closed whenever you are leading a meditation session but open them occasionally to look around the room.
- Your voice quality, choice of words, and overall presence will have a significant impact on the learners’ experience. As you lead them into deeper states of consciousness, these will be the primary source of guidance for your students during the entire session.
A simple practice available for all, meditation takes us on a path of deeper self-realization, greater acceptance, and more heartfelt living. Learning how to meditate can be a challenging experience, yet with time and regular practice. one overcomes these hurdles, and the journey becomes more enjoyable and enriching.
Breath, Mind, and Consciousness by Harish Johari
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Golemand and Richard J. Davidson
About the Author
Ram is the Founding Director of the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams India and The Netherlands. Since 2009, the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams have become renowned internationally for their professional yoga teacher training courses, and have up to present trained over 6000 yoga teachers from all over the world.
Born in New Delhi, India, in a traditional and spiritual family, his yoga philosophy education started at the age of eight years as a part of his primary school education. Presently, he is the lead teacher for various teacher training programs at the ashrams as well as at the Arhanta Yoga Online Academy. You might be interested in his Yoga Alliance accredited Meditation Teacher Training.