One of the best treatments for anxiety and stress relief, meditation is at the top of the list for most people because it is free of any cost, has no negative side effects and is limited only by one’s imagination and time. Unlike natural and pharmaceutical drugs or preparations which may carry some unwanted side effects meditation is an anti-depressant that does not have to be prescribed, manufactured or purchased.
There is no one way to meditate yet one positive result generally obtained from all forms of meditation is stress relief. Research has found that meditation may be helpful for relief of symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anxiety, insomnia and it may help reduce blood pressure. Meditation improves respiration, cardiovascular health and more as it counteracts the adrenal “fight or flight” response that is a root cause of feeling stressed out. It provides relaxation of the mind and the physiological and glandular systems in the body that are overworked during times of high stress.
History of Meditation
The history of meditation as a spiritual or health practice is long and varied with the first records of meditative practices dating back 3500 years to ancient India. Meditation began in Taoist China about 2500 years ago, while Buddhist forms of meditation developed around the time of Christ. Ancient Greeks, Persians and Hebrews developed their own forms of meditation, perhaps borrowing from one another, as these were established in the early centuries of the Common Era.
Forms of meditation continued to grow along with religious practices, often becoming part of rituals, prayer or other traditions still observed today. Meditation has its roots in Buddhism, Hinduism, the Kabbalistic traditions intrinsic to ancient Jewish philosophy, and also in Islamic mysticism through Sufism. An important component of Islamic faith, Sufism was systemized in the 11th and 12th centuries and includes practices such as controlled breathing techniques while uttering sacred words or phrases.
Meditation is also a custom In Eastern Christianity, where words and phrases are repeated in specific postures, while in Western Christianity postures and repetitive words are seldom used except during prayers and rituals, with meditation being considered a more contemplative exercise.
The rise of meditation in modern Western culture can be traced to the late 18th century when interest in Buddhist and Hindu philosophies were revived by emerging intellectuals and philosophers over the next 100 years. In the 1960s Transcendental Meditation or TM became hugely popular while Harvard and other universities developed more clinical techniques for meditating used in therapy. Over the last 60 years the influx of new methods for meditation are almost endless, as the meditation apps and courses online will attest.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is a practice that is very personal for each individual, and may be undertaken in a large variety of ways. It can be included as a part of religious or spiritual observance, a regular regimen for mental or psychological health and well-being, and some will swear by its ability to help heal their physical ailments.
Research has proven that practicing meditation has these benefits:
- Can decrease blood pressure thereby improving cardiovascular health
- Enhances self-awareness and a more positive outlook in general
- Fights addictive behaviours
- Improves attention, focus, concentration
- Improves cognitive performance and memory recall
- Improves sleep quality and amount of sleep
- Reduces pain and inflammation
- Reduces stress, anxiety and depression
Most forms of meditation will include these steps:
- Retreating to a private space in which to meditate indoors or outdoors to minimize noise, distractions and interruptions.
- A consciously directed relaxation of the body and/or calming of the mind.
- Controlled breathing exercises.
- Creative visualization or “mindfulness” to separate conscious awareness from the physical body.
- Some will combine ‘white light’ or divine protection or prayer/religions as a component of their meditation; some do not and meditate as a purely mental exercise.
- Some choose to work with chakras or other energy systems during meditation.
- A regularity of practice to enhance greater results.
Employers can even help their employees and the bottom line by giving time and space for employees to meditate at work. Today’s working world is nothing but stressful for most people since everything now needs to be completed in lightning speed.
In a one-year randomized controlled trial researchers tested employees of a debt collection call centre. Employee participants were given access to a web-based mindfulness meditation exercise; some with group support; and others with group support and clinical direction; a fourth wait-list control group was created. The researchers found that, “All active groups demonstrated significant reductions in perceived stress and increases in emotional and psychological well-being compared with control. Group support improved participation, engagement, and outcomes.” In conclusion, the study suggested, “A self-directed mindfulness program with group practice and support can provide an affordable, effective, and scalable workplace stress management solution.”
The beauty of meditation is that it is so adaptable to the time and place where it can take place. One can meditate at home, at work, outdoors and anywhere a relatively peaceful and quiet place can be found. Everyone who tries meditation should try it at different times of the day and for different lengths of time to see what suits best. Then, a regular regime of meditation will bring most people the best results. Many communities offer free or low-fee meditation classes at community centres.
How to Meditate
Here is a step-by-step guide to a simple meditation for beginners:
- Find a quiet place and set a gentle alarm if necessary or if you have a limited amount of time to meditate. At least ten to fifteen minutes long is best but even just a few minutes meditation can be helpful.
- Before sitting or reclining, relax the body a bit by shaking out arms and legs, loosening tight clothing and stretching.
- Assume a relaxed position, close your eyes and follow this breathing exercise – Inhale through the nose only for a beat of 4 (count silently in your head), hold that breath for a beat of 4, then exhale only through the mouth for a beat of 8. Repeat this controlled breathing two more times then breathe normally. You will likely feel more relaxed, and a bit heady due to the increased intake of oxygen this breathing exercise creates. Oxygen is brain food.
- Some may recite a favourite prayer or mantra here, or ask for a connection with Spirit through white light, divine blessing, angels, etc. if they wish. Faith enhances meditation, for as a wise soul once said, “Prayer is when you talk to God; Meditation is when you listen.”
- Then focus your awareness on relaxing the body consciously. Start at the feet and with your inner voice silently tell your feet to relax and release stress, pushing body tension down and out of the body at the feet. Mentally picture the stress in the legs being squeezed, like wringing out a wet towel down and out through your feet. Mindfully work up the rest of your body slowly over a few minutes or more until you have silently told your entire body to relax and release the stress. Always mentally direct stress downward toward your feet and out of the body.
- Most will find this a perfectly wonderful meditation and stop here and if you do, slowly move around before opening your eyes and getting up.
From here on many will mentally focus or concentrate on visualization, more prayer, or move to the next step in their routine. There is much more one can do to enhance meditation and its benefits using other practices.
Meditation can augment these practices or in turn be enhanced by them.
- Creative visualization techniques.
- Utilizing chakras, an ancient Sanskrit system of energy balance cited in acupuncture, shiatsu, or using other similar energy medicines.
- Yoga, massage, tai chi and other similar exercises before, during or after meditation.
- Regular practice of meditation before sleep, upon awakening or during the day. Most will find a time of day and the number of times per week that suits them best. Workouts, aerobics and physically exerting exercise should be avoided near meditation time.
When completing any meditation exercise, come out of it slowly, moving the body around gently at first, slowly opening eyes and becoming completely aware of surroundings before getting up to walk around. Most will enjoy the quiet, peaceful feelings upon meditating and relax for a little while longer before getting very active. Many will fall asleep during the first few attempts at meditating but after a time you’ll gain greater control of your conscious mind and be more mindfully directed.
The most common side effect derived from meditation is improved sleep as one feels more relaxed in general. Nearly everyone reports that they sleep better, more restfully, and for longer.
Whatever one’s reason for meditating, it’s clear that a multitude of benefits can be derived from investing some time in meditation, including a general sense of well-being, a more active mind, a restful feeling and perhaps an overall improvement in longevity.