Wednesday, March 4, 2020

What's So Good About Meditation, Part 1: The Benefits

Alexej von Jawlensky, Meditation "Das Gebet," 1922, Oil on Cardboard 

This is a series discussing meditation from both a scientific standpoint as an evidence-informed practice and from the viewpoint of my personal journey wherein I share ideas that may help you.

by Patrice Priya Wagner

Sometimes the most important things in life find us by surprise. Take for example meditation, something I had no interest in doing except for a couple minutes a day until I took an advanced yoga training on the subject. I enrolled in the training because the classes were held at a convenient time and not really because I wanted to learn more about meditation.

All of that changed after just a few weeks of doing the class homework which was to meditate daily. Soon after the start of the training, I began to sleep soundly, without any nighttime tossing and turning in bed or counting of sheep, and with no changes to my diet, exercise, or medications that could have caused the good sleep. I would wake up in the morning feeling ready to start a new day of my life.

I began reading about the benefits of meditation and decided to see what Western science had to say about the practice. I soon came to consider meditation an "evidence-informed" practice because scientific studies on meditators show significant benefits, including lowering blood pressure. Note: It's always best to consult your doctor before making any changes to your prescribed medications, such as blood pressure medication.

According to Richard Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, meditation practice can help reduce stress. "Studies have shown that the amygdala, known as our brain’s “fight or flight” center and the seat of our fearful and anxious emotions, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness practice."

Based on my own anecdotal evidence, another change in my daily life and in my ability to meditate, had taken place since the start of the training, again caused by a homework assignment. I had been instructed to look deeply into my value system and whether or not my behavior aligned with those values. For example, I strongly believe in not harming animals and the homework caused me to examine all the products I buy. Soon I decided to stop buying some products because they were made in ways that hurt animals.

The assignment also had the additional effect when I sat down to meditate and an uninvited thought came to mind. While trying to quiet my mind I had to be truthful with myself about my actions or else an intrusive thought wouldn't leave. Due to the homework assignment and becoming comfortable with my values and behavior, intrusive thoughts evaporated quickly and easily as I meditated.

My disruptive thoughts were often about something I had done without thinking about the consequences of and, as my self-observing progressed, intrusive thoughts became fewer during meditation. To my surprise, this homework still helps me sit more comfortably in meditation to this day.

All these good things happened just because I was meditating daily. Why hadn't anyone told me how good a meditation practice could be? As I look back on that time, I realize that some people had told me, but I wasn't ready to hear their wisdom or, perhaps, I had put blinders and earmuffs on to stay in my comfort zone.

Meditating is always a work in progress. If you are looking to accomplish something from the practice—to learn it quickly in order to move on to the next thing—may I suggest opening your mind up to a different way of learning about this topic. Meditating is a life's practice that can bring huge benefits to you, but not if you try to rush through it to get to the other side.

What is on the other side, anyway, that you need to get to? We are always here. The time is always right now, this very moment. We breathe in the present—we can't breathe into the future or the past. At least I've never learned how to do that!

Let's do a mini practice together. If you feel safe in your environment, close your eyes or gently gaze downward. Keeping your mind focused on your breath, take a full deep inhalation through the nose and a slow gentle exhalation out of the nose. Do that once more, even slower than the first time. Then gently open your eyes or release your downward gaze.

That was a good start to a meditation session. If you're thinking about meditating on a regular basis, it is important to find a time and place in your daily life to sit in meditation for longer than what we just did. I suggest finding a place where you can be alone, uninterrupted, and where it's relatively quiet for at least three minutes.

While in the meditation training program, the instructor suggested we set up a special place to meditate and bring in an object or picture that resonated so we'd feel comfortable in that space. I tried it and for a short time that helped me get used to settling down in the same spot every day, but after just a few weeks all I needed was to pull out my folding chair and I was ready to quiet my mind. I call it my "Pavlov's dog" response: Set up a folding chair and my mind knows it's time to settle down. I suggest trying the idea of making your meditation space special for you, but depending on the way your mind works, it might not be needed for long.

If finding quietness is a challenge, try using earplugs or a white-noise device to tune out ambient sounds. True story: A few years ago while teaching a meditation workshop to newcomers, I was told by student that the sound of the air whooshing through the heating system on site helped him get into the practice that day. Whatever works for you, use it!

While there is no perfect time to meditate, there are better times than others during a busy day. Choose a time that works easily for you when you aren't usually doing something important. If you squeeze your practice into a time you're ordinarily busy, you may end up skipping it because you don't want to be late for work or haven't yet cooked dinner for the family. If you live with a large household of people, try finding a time when others are taking an afternoon nap or at the end of the day when most folks have settled down. You may want to ask them to help support you in your practice by giving you some time to be quiet and alone. Lastly, if you fall asleep during practice even with the best of intentions to stay awake, I suggest finding an earlier time of day to meditate!

I'll discuss ideas on how to meditate in my next post, but for now, work on finding a good time and place to practice. Finding the right time and place is very important because it can set you up for success in your meditation practice.

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities and offers meditation workshops in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.  

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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