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Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation has become the new buzzword during this crazy time. You might have heard this term being thrown around by friends, dinner gatherings and perhaps even the health professionals you frequent. Most people have tried to meditate at some point in their life and there seems to be a vast variety of effects reported. So I wanted to provide a little guidance and some useful tips that I have found with meditation.

Just as a disclaimer, I am not a professional mediator nor a meditation teacher. I am still working on the skill and have much to learn with the practice. However, I did take part in a 10 day meditation retreat and learnt some valuable lessons during the process. The retreat was done on the outskirts of Woori Yallock in Victoria through an organisation called Dhamma Aloka. The retreat consisted of ten long days of strictly no talking, no phones, no books, no mental stimulation and at least 8 hours of compulsory meditation a day. Through this process, I learnt a lot about myself and a lot about meditation.

The Research on Meditation

Within the last 20 years there has been a lot of research done on meditation and its effects. The meditation has become so important as tool for treatment and rehabilitation in areas such as chronic pain (Hilton et al., 2017), psychological behaviours (Katterman et al., 2014) , well-being (Goyal et al., 2014) and even your immune system (Black & Slavich, 2016). I won’t go into too much detail in this blog but the research is fascinating to read.

Something that has fascinated me recently is emerging research in neuroscience that has demonstrated the effect of the breath on the autonomic nervous system (Huberman, 2020). If you are unfamiliar with this, the autonomic nervous system is responsible for crucial unconscious mind states. The two main mind-states that are of relevance to us are: (1) the fight/flight response and (2) sleep/hibernation response (Huberman, 2020). 

This study in particular looked at particular breathing patterns and how they can stimulate these previously thought unconscious responses (Huberman, 2020). For example, try out these patterns:

  1. 5 Breaths with a 1 second inhale and a 10 second exhale 
  2. 5 Breaths with a 10 second inhale and a 1 second exhale
  3. 5 Breaths with a 5 second inhale: 5 second breath hold : 5 second exhale

What did you feel? So the research suggests that breath is all about carbon dioxide control within your lungs and what that does to your state of arousal.

The first pattern has the ability to engage pathways along the sleep/hibernation response by decreasing the arousal state. This is done by expelling greater levels of carbon dioxide through sustained exhalation periods, resulting in maximal oxygen retention and quality in your lungs. This can be a useful tool that you can use to help with getting to sleep.

The second pattern has the ability to engage pathways in fight/flight response by sustained carbon dioxide retention for a longer period due to the increased inhalation times. This can potentially explain when we are running or partaking in physical activity, we take deeper breaths.

Finally, the last pattern is the bridge between the two. It is the balance between both states that actually propagates the normal breathing pattern. These are some of the techniques that navy seals and free divers use during their training to deal with stressful situations.

This research is so interesting because meditation always starts with the breath and I never really questioned why teachers did that. Almost every meditation application or meditation teacher will bring the concentration to the breath and now it makes sense. Through modern science we can see clearly why that is the case and how we can use the breath to help with our meditation. 

Basic Method of Meditation

You can have a never ending discussion over the complex benefits of meditation. However I think people tend to complicate it too much. Meditation is simple and it is the simplicity that makes it so valuable.  Meditation is the way to achieve letting go. With true meditation, one lets go of the complex world outside in order to reach the serene world inside. It is a wonderful, blissful and serene experience. 

Often in the beginning meditation can be hard work. I find that you find yourself in one of two situations.

  1. Effortful Meditator

When I started to meditate regularly, I definitely found myself in this boat. I wanted to reach the serenity so bad that it was all about putting the effort. I would try to sit for hours on end and force myself to meditate. Perhaps I was a little too physio with the process and treated it like an exercise rather than a skill. This was a difficult habit to break out of. Direct the effort into letting go and  Part of the art and difficulty of meditation is to abandon the thoughts that float through your mind.

  1. Effortless Meditator

The other end of the spectrum is the classic snoring meditator. Some people are so good at letting go that they end up letting go in a different way. They lose the attentiveness of the mind and end up falling asleep! It is quite common and it has definitely happened to me, so don’t be disheartened if that happens.

The aim is to find the balance between the two ends of the spectrum. To be aware and centred with the world

How does one achieve mindfulness and inner peace with all the mayhem that is going around? 

How can meditation help you?

This is for you to find out. There is preliminary evidence that has been done on meditation and different people will tell you different things. The brilliance of meditation is how unique it is and the process that you will experience will be individual to you. 

When I did my meditation retreat for ten days, they were adamant on the vow of silence for the duration of the retreat. You were not allowed to speak, make eye contact or communicate with anyone for the next ten days. This was incredibly difficult from a behavioural standpoint but an even bigger part of the process was so that you did not communicate with others about your experience. That way everything you experienced was yours and not something that other people told you to believe.

Meditation is a journey that you embark on yourself. Unless you make the strides to improve this skill and nurture your mind, it won’t be all that useful. The other disclaimer I want to make is there is no need for you to go to a 10-day meditation course to gain the skill. Start at home with a couple of minutes at the start and the end of your day. Try to maintain your concentration on your breath and disconnect from everything else around you. Build the seconds to minutes and the minutes to hours. I have listed some useful apps that can be great to help you with some guided meditation.

I wish you luck on your endeavours. 

The goal of this meditation is the beautiful silence, stillness and clarity of mind

References

Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 13.

Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B. A., Apaydin, E., Xenakis, L., Newberry, S., … & Maglione, M. A. (2017). Mindfulness meditation for chronic pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 51(2), 199-213. 

Huberman, A. (2020). Breathing Exercises for Optimized Brain Performance. Retrieved 11 September 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSwQSb-Cb7U 

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., … & Ranasinghe, P. D. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine, 174(3), 357-368.

Katterman, S. N., Kleinman, B. M., Hood, M. M., Nackers, L. M., & Corsica, J. A. (2014). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review. Eating behaviors, 15(2), 197-204.

Li, P., Janczewski, W. A., Yackle, K., Kam, K., Pagliardini, S., Krasnow, M. A., & Feldman, J. L. (2016). The peptidergic control circuit for sighing. Nature, 530(7590), 293–297. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16964

Meditation Apps

  1. Headspace
  2. Calm 
  3. Insight Timer
  4. Aura

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