Meditation as Medicine

Published on: 27/08/2020

An increasing amount of evidence suggests the ancient practice of mindful meditation offers numerous benefits to people from all walks of life.

The Basics

Meditation has been defined as "thinking about not thinking," daily, and ideally for 20 minutes or more. You go into a state of calmly becoming aware of your emotions and thoughts. Then, you distance yourself from those thoughts during this special time. It's inevitable for your mind to wander. When that happens, gently detach from the distracting thoughts and bring your attention back to your breathing, or any other focal point such as a word, a prayer, or an object.

Meditation is not completely risk-free. It can resurface fear, trauma, or painful memories for some people, especially those who have psychotic disorders, severe depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

While there is an array of types of meditation, these are a few of the most common:

1. Attention Meditation

Sit with your back straight and with your hands on your lap. Then focus your mind on one thing, such as your breath, an internal image, or a burning candle. When your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to your focal point. This practice will eventually train the mind to watch out for distractions, "let go" of them once they arise, and refocus when needed.

2. Mindfulness Meditation

This meditation, which has origins in Buddhism, aims to monitor various experiences of your mind—thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations. Simply observe them as they arise and pass instead of trying to interact with them or change them. The goal is to maintain a detached awareness; one that is without judgment to become more aware and in touch with your body, life, and surroundings.

3. Passage Meditation

Passage meditation involves reciting a prayer, mantra, or short poem silently to yourself repeatedly. The meaning of the words is not the most essential element; the words are more of a focal point for attention. Experts say passage meditation is great for beginners as it's hard to maintain distracting thoughts when you have a verbal anchor.

4. Benevolent Meditation

This type of meditation generates beneficial states of mind for those who practice it. The usual approach is to repeat a mantra: "May I be happy. May I be free of suffering. May I be healthy and live with ease." Then repeat the same passage focusing on someone you love, then on a stranger, then on an enemy, and then on all living beings.

As stated by Dr. David Vago of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital people with chronic illnesses often experience a lot of self-loathing and self-blame. If you can transform those negative emotions into compassion and love, you are both benefiting yourself and everyone around you.

Start your Practice

The best thing about meditation is anyone can do it and they could do it anywhere. It does not require special equipment, a gym membership, or an advanced degree. Practitioners simply focus on a particular thing as they try to eliminate distracting thoughts.

The goal, experts say, is to anchor your thoughts on something tangible at first. In most cases, it is helpful to shift your awareness to your breath. In doing so, you don't even have to be in a seated position. You can meditate even when you are waiting in line at the grocery or the bank. By finding tiny shifts in your awareness, you’ll be amazed to discover how something so subtle can change your day.

It is said that practicing for five to ten minutes daily will already allow you to enjoy the benefits of meditation, such as reduced stress and enhanced self-awareness. A 2018 American study further found that novice meditators reported feeling less pain with a 20-minute mindful practice. In a second experiment, it was uncovered that similarly brief sessions improve cognitive performance on tasks that demand continuous attention.

However, for most people, especially those who are so used to multitasking, meditation may not come naturally. In some instances, staying still with a painful sensation or experience can be incredibly difficult. Fortunately, you don't need the discipline of a Tibetan monk to embark on a meditation journey. The key is to approach the practice of meditation with curiosity and without judgment, accepting what is true at that moment—including the fact that meditation can be challenging. Instead of trying to change your experience you simply become aware of your desire to change it.

Your perspective can have powerful effects. By practicing meditation, you are able to clear your mind of old, debilitating thoughts and make space for more positive and beneficial ideas for living your everyday life.