Meditation: definition, techniques, benefits - The art of meditating

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a mind-training practice that promotes mental well-being. In this article, you will discover what meditation is, its main principles, its history, the different types of meditation, its benefits, some practical advice, and finally the opinion of a specialist.

From the Latin “Meditare” which means “to contemplate”, meditation is a practice that consists of training the mind so that it frees itself from negative and harmful thoughts. Obviously, many thoughts are useful for managing one’s life or solving practical problems.

But the mental mechanisms are such that they constantly produce often deleterious thoughts. The goal of meditation is, therefore, to make these thoughts no longer have control over us, and to free us from the negative ruminations that prevent us from moving forward in our lives.

Meditating is therefore using certain techniques of concentration and relaxation in order to focus on oneself and thus, silence one’s inner hubbub. It is a parenthesis in our stressful daily noise at an infernal pace and too fast: it is to be able to rest, stop and observe what is happening in us …

The main principles

The practice of meditation consists above all of the training to maintain one’s attention and to prevent one’s mind from getting carried away by the thoughts that arise constantly.

That said, it is not a war activity where you have to fight against thoughts. Instead, the “soft will” is used. It is an activity of letting go where we accept that thoughts scroll, like clouds or horses of a carousel, without being captivated by them.

Meditation is also a spiritual practice, in fact, many people say that meditating is above all to be truly in touch with oneself and ultimately with “the whole universe”.

The different types of meditation

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is the approach used in stress reduction workshops designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. There are also groups that form around experienced practitioners, especially inspired by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who adapted the teachings of Chinese Zen (more flexible than zazen) to the West. The schedule of meetings may vary from one group to another.

Transcendental Meditation (TM)

Based on the Vedic tradition of India, the technique (with mantra) of transcendental Meditation was adopted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was heavily popularized by the Beatles in the late 1960s. The apprenticeship is done in 4 consecutive days, for a substantial fee.

Vipassana

Traditional Buddhist practice was kept alive, especially in Burma, and disseminated in the West by S.N. Goenka and his disciples. Vipassana is an ascetic practice (based on the continuous observation of breath and bodily sensations), in a highly structured context. To get started, you must first register for a 10-day retreat. Subsequently, other retreats are offered (3, 10, or 30 days). There are no weekly practice groups.

Zazen

The strict practice of Zen (a fusion of Buddhism and Taoism) as it developed in Japan within the lineages of masters. Zazen is practiced in a rather ritualized context: the relationship with the master is important. Due to the discipline required, it is not suitable for everyone. The various centers offer both weekly meetings and retreats (called sesshins).

The benefits of meditation

Increase the occurrence of positive sensations

No more “positive” feelings. When we feel positive feelings (joy, curiosity, enthusiasm, pride, etc.), electrical activity is predominant in a specific area of the brain (the left prefrontal cortex). A study using magnetic resonance imaging found that in a state of meditation, this area is particularly active.

According to the researchers, it could be that meditation promotes brain activity in areas associated with positive feelings while inhibiting those related to anxiety and negative feelings. They hypothesize that this could eventually affect the temperament and make it more “positive.”

Reduce chronic pain symptoms in older adults

In 2008, 2 reviews on the effectiveness of meditation in the treatment of chronic pain in older adults were published. The findings of these reviews suggest that meditation may be an intervention that helps reduce overall chronic pain. However, as it is often accompanied by other treatments and therapies, its specific effectiveness is not clearly established.

Improve concentration and attention skills

The practice of meditation would allow you to stay longer and effectively focused on a task or problem to be solved. When a person is highly focused, their gamma-frequency brain waves naturally synchronize and amplify.

But these periods rarely last more than 1 second at a time. Researchers have found that individuals who have been meditating for a long time manage to make them last several minutes.

Research over the past 40 years has found that meditation has several measurable psychological and physiological benefits.

Reduce stress and anxiety

Many studies have highlighted the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in reducing psychological and physiological stress. This could be explained by its action on negative thoughts. Indeed, many thoughts are harmful (ruminations, catastrophic scenarios, mental representations that have nothing to do with reality…), and these thoughts create what is called “internal stress”.

The practice of meditation can help chase away these thoughts and reduce stress. This is why, when practiced daily, meditation is a powerful anti-stress.

Preventing cardiovascular disorders

A randomized clinical study evaluated the practice of Transcendental Meditation by comparing it to information and discussion sessions with 84 patients with cardiovascular disorders that were considered stable.

Beneficial effects were observed with regard to blood pressure and insulin resistance in the meditation group. The use of Transcendental Meditation by patients with cardiovascular disorders could also improve some aspects of metabolic syndrome.

Reduce the severity of symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder

A 2008 study investigated the effects of meditation on individuals affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The results showed a decrease in the symptoms of the participants who attended the sessions. In addition, they had less difficulty letting go of their thoughts.

Improve the immune system

In one study, researchers found that following vaccination, meditators had higher levels of antibodies to the influenza virus than in a control group. In addition, the increase in this rate was proportional to the increase in brain activity in the area related to positive feelings (the left prefrontal cortex).

How to meditate? Meditation in practice

According to the different schools, and they are numerous, meditation can be practiced standing, sitting, walking, eyes open or closed, silently or repeating a word, mind focused on an image or not. There do not seem to be major differences in the effects of one form compared to another, the most decisive element being diligent practice.

To be well understood and integrated, meditation training should take place within a certain framework: stress reduction workshops, retreats, meditation classes, or groups. This is important to develop good habits (practice, proper posture, etc.).

There are now many resources on the Internet that allow you to learn meditation and meditate alone. Most are in the form of guided meditations accompanied by music or sounds. The latter aim to bring inner calm or to access more easily states of relaxation, vigilance, or creativity, for example.

If you want to start alone, here are some techniques that can help you concentrate, since they occupy the mind, and thus limit the occurrence of parasitic thoughts.

Meditation on breathing

This is probably the most common technique today. This consists in being aware of the air that enters the body, that is expelled from it, and that still penetrates… As breathing is a permanent and infallible movement, it gives a stable anchor to the effort of attention.

Body scanning

The person sits with their back straight and performs a mental scan of their body. This exercise must be done without judgment and allows one to become aware of possible tensions or painful points.

Meditation using a mental image

The individual imagines a precise image and must focus on it. He can imagine a tree, the sea, or anything that inspires him.

The use of a mantra

The individual repeats a mantra (sacred formula), a phrase that is personal to him, or a syllable (“aum”, for example). He can repeat them mentally, articulate them without making noise, or say them aloud. In the latter case, the vibrations caused by the vocal cords are supposed to bring the body to a good disposition.

Meditation with an object

The person stares at an object near him. It can be the flame of a candle, an image that is dear to him, or a geometric shape drawing

History about Meditation

Meditation is a thousand-year-old practice that originated in India more than five thousand years ago. Around 600 BCE, it spread to Japan and Asian countries.

In the eighteenth century, meditation techniques arrived in the West, but it was not until 1927 and the publication of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” that meditation and Buddhist philosophy interested Westerners.
In the 60s, yoga and meditation techniques became popular and secularized in the West.
In 1979 in Massachusetts, with the publication of the mindfulness stress reduction program to treat patients suffering from chronic diseases, meditation entered the medical world.

Meditation is for everyone, including young children. However, people suffering from psychiatric disorders are advised to seek advice from their doctor who will indicate the most appropriate meditation.

Image Credit: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from pexels.com

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