We’re hearing a good deal about meditation these days as science begins to confirm its benefits as measurable. I love metrics, but that’s not why I look forward to my daily meditation practice. Contrary to my early assumptions about what one does during meditation -try with great effort not to think- the practice is one that we do as a process, an experience, and the possibility of “failure” simply does not accompany it. As someone who’s intimidated by trying new things for initial fear of getting them “wrong,” I ended up being smitten with meditation as soon as someone pointed out to me that it offers no chance of that. Meditation helps me to leave my perfectionist attitudes aside and sit without apology, without care or caution, without any hope of getting it right or wrong. No wonder I feel calm with it!
But what does meditation actually do for you, ya know, physiologically? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. See there’s this cool effect called the relaxation response that Harvard scientist Herbert Benson identified (and coined) in the 1970s. The relaxation response is the physiological state in which the sympathetic nervous system - you know, the one responsible for “fight or flight” and that is on “slow drip” in most of us in the modern world - is turned off, while the parasympathetic nervous system - yep, that’s the “rest and digest” one - is kicked in to high gear. This means that in your body an amazing process of healing and restoration is under way. And this wildly awesome relaxation response is surprisingly simple to elicit!
Here’s what you do (in a nutshell): focus on a neutral or positive sound, image, or action (such as a mantra, prayer, or specific word or phrase; a yantra, internal light, or visual image of significance; or repetitive activity such as walking, running, or swimming). The focus does not need to be unbroken to stimulate the response, meaning that if you remain detached from thoughts that come up during your attempt to focus and gently return your focus to the chosen object of concentration, your relaxation response will continue undisturbed. How cool is that?!
And that basic process of repetitive focus without attaching? That’s meditation.
More recent studies have shown that the effects of meditation (and the relaxation response) have a cumulative and lasting effect, meaning that the more you do it, the better, but even just dabbling in it will also do you good. Pretty wicked, huh? (heh, i love dated slang). This also means that your efforts reap benefits immediately, whether you have been meditating for 5 years or only 5 minutes. This technique doesn’t discriminate against newbies! I love that!
Yes, my friends, meditation loves you back from day one.
Here’s a simple mediation you can try at home.
- Sit comfortably in a chair or against a wall with your spine supported upright (use pillows, sit on a folded blanket or two, whatever you need to feel comfortable and supported in your seat)
- Place each hand under the opposite armpit (this might seem a bit weird, but trust me there’s science behind it!)
- Close your eyes and become aware of your breath (without trying to change or judge it). Keep focused on the sensations of your breathing. 10-20 breaths (no need to count, just a guestimate).
- When your breath feels balanced (or sorta kinda) and quieter than when you started, bring your hands down to your thighs, letting them rest comfortably palms up.
- Imagine a glow of light at the base of your spine. As you inhale, travel the light up your spine into the middle of your brain. As you exhale, travel it back down to the base. (If it is difficult to “see” a light inside, that’s ok, just think it anyway - visualizing takes time to learn!) Continue like this until you feel in your brain a clearness or see a glow (optical radiance) or just feel very calm. Then let your focus just naturally rest in the middle of the brain with that feeling. If such a feeling never comes, or you feel something different, try not to fret, and trust that everything is as it should be. You can stay with the visualization technique (the light) as long as you like.
- When thoughts bubble up, say silently to yourself “mang” (long “a”, almost like an “uh” sound) letting it resonate like a gong sound. Repeat “mang” as often as you need to clear away thoughts.
- To come back, bring your palms together, tip your chin to your chest, and slowly open your eyes to focus on a point. Gradually let your surroundings come back in to focus. If you feel lightheaded, do a chair pose or similar to re-ground your awareness in your physical body.
My advice? Try it out now!
5 minutes, that’s it. (If you’ve got the time, feel free to sit with it for as long as is comfortable!)
Silence your digital noise makers, put up the busy sign, make space around you, and read through the above instructions a few times. Then give the technique a try with the script set aside. If you miss something, no big deal. Let go of getting it right.
Step two? Grab a friend so you can be fearless together.
And then let me know how it went! Or if you have another approach to meditation, do share! How do you bring it into your life?
Om tat sat!
photo by the brilliant + talented Sarah Lehman