Meditation is full of benefits for the body, mind and soul. And, it’s free.
For the umpteenth time in my adult life, I am working on a meditation practice. I began this quest back in the ’60s when I used to sneak peeks at my college roommate who had gone through a transcendental meditation course. She looked so serene, sitting in the middle of our dorm room cross-legged with her fingers in a meditation posture. I was totally intrigued with the idea of a mantra and begged her to share hers with me, which she refused to do. I was crushed, but I do digress.
This new immersion is because meditation or mindfulness, similar but slightly different, kept rearing its head into my consciousness via a plethora of articles in every kind of publication about how beneficial meditation is for our health. And not just our physical health, but our emotional and spiritual well-being, too. And, it can be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time — 20 minutes twice a day. Truth be told, I spend that much time getting a little dose of “Scandal” or maybe “Fixer Upper” on Netflix. Neither of those activities has one iota of lasting benefit (as my husband routinely reminds me)!
Can 3,000 studies be wrong?
Somewhere I read that close to 3,000 studies have been conducted on the benefits of meditation. They run the gamut of meditation helping treat depression in mothers-to-be (University of Michigan), to meditation preventing the overuse of multitasking (Universities of Washington and Arizona). It helps there, too, where personnel were given eight weeks of training in either mindfulness meditation or body relaxation techniques. The before and after training test was a stressful multitasking assignment. Members of the meditation group reported much lower levels of stress, as well as better memory for the tasks they had performed. They also switched tasks less often and maintained focus for longer periods of time.
But in addition to the somewhat obscure benefits, meditation has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, primarily because it reduces blood pressure and psychosocial stress factors. It has also been studied and concluded to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Then there is the laundry list of mental health disorders that benefit from meditation: anxiety, depression, loneliness and eating disorders. I could go on, but all of this begs the question: “What is it about meditation that creates such positive benefits?” Most explanations center around the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a state of calm. It’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” nervous system because activation of this system literally slows most bodily functions down and promotes digestion.
How to get started
We turned to Kathleen Weller, who is a Presbyterian pastor as well as a Benedictine oblate, for advice in how to get started in a meditation practice. Weller teaches meditation and currently leads a meditation group at Pine Shores Presbyterian Church.
“I was attracted to meditation for many years before finding the discipline within myself to begin. In other words, it seemed like a good idea, before I understood how important it would become,” said Weller. She went on to give these simple steps to start:
n “The way to begin is to do it. Don’t read a book, don’t watch a YouTube video. Choose a mantra (a word or phrase).
n Set a timer for 20 minutes. Sit with your back as straight as possible (sustainable). And say your mantra.
n “As thoughts come, release them by returning to the repetition of your word or phrase. At the end, say thank you. My goal is 30 minutes in the morning and early evening. Don’t punish yourself for falling short of your goal.”
She encouraged me by saying this: “The practice is simple. But it is not easy. Don’t expect anything to happen during meditation — no voices, lights, colors. The benefits of your practice show up in your life later, in goodness, awareness, kindness and compassion beyond who you know yourself to be.”
And that, dear reader, was enough to get me started.
The difference between mindfulness and meditation
Meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably, but mindfulness is actually a type of meditation. According to Medical Daily, mindfulness is the act of focusing on being in the present, such as focusing completely on drinking a hot cup of tea, taking in its scent, warmth and taste, and removing overpowering emotions from the mind. It is bringing your full mind to an object, and one easy way to begin meditation is to be totally mindful of your breath. Following your breath improves your awareness of being in the present. And, in my case, it helps me to empty my mind and turn off the chatter. Mindfulness can also be used with eating — focusing on what is going into your mouth — or even on walking or sitting on the beach.
The practice of meditation predates the idea of mindfulness, says Medical Daily.
“Mindfulness is often aligned with the ‘time of the Buddha,’ in which the Buddha discovered that focusing entirely on his breath would allow him to see reality and reach meditation more quickly.”
About the author
Kristine Nickel is a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. For over 30 years she has relieved her stress by writing features for publications across the country.