This Summer, 2019, I will be running beginner’s meditation groups.
The aim of a Beginners Meditation Course is for us to gently explore the different meditation techniques that will help you to lead a more balanced, focused, healthy and stress-free life. I hope you will take away from these sessions a valuable tool that you will be able to use for the rest of your life.
What IS Meditation?
I have many people say to me “they wish they could meditate”, as if it is some special spiritual practice, out of the reach of us “ordinary” folks, something that is only available to a select few. The truth is it is actually one of the most easily accessible things we can do for ourselves to ease stress and tension in our bodies, if only we can get “ourselves” out of the way. In its simplest form it is breath work… just being able to breathe deeply into our bodies to induce feelings of calm, and to focus on the present moment is meditation.
Another thing I hear a lot is “I don’t have time to meditate”. A very famous Zen quote goes something like this; “you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you are too busy, then you should sit for an hour!”
So, let’s begin with some ideas of what we think meditation is. There are so many different styles and techniques of meditation that it is literally quite mind boggling. For the student new to the practice it can be really daunting and off putting. Many people associate it with hippies, or Buddhist monks, or even esoteric occult practices…. They believe it’s all about chanting, or that you must spend long periods of time in deep spiritual contemplation sitting in a cross-legged position, or that the goal is to reach some spiritual stage of enlightenment – none of that is true! Well, actually, yes, there are some people and practices that do those things, but NONE of that NEEDS to be done to be able to effectively meditate, and reap the benefits of taking a few moments of stillness each day.
In its simplest essence, meditation is the conscious focusing of the mind. We can use external things to focus with, such as a candle flame, the breath, a mantra, or on several external stimuli, this is known as mindfulness. We can follow recorded guided or moving meditations. Whenever the mind is very focused things that we have been very anxious or worried about cease to be so important, and this is essentially what meditation is, living in the moment and leaving behind any worries or fears.
How Stress Affects The Brain And Body
In our Western culture, we are constantly on the go… connected to the world via social media, always busy, never able to disconnect, yet being disconnected from each other, (and nature) at the same time! There seems to be a constant level of stress and pressure placed upon us from work and family commitments, always struggling to find the balance of trying to fit it all in, as well as trying to find time to do the things we enjoy. Because we are so dependent on our gadgets and social media, we never seem to switch them off, this leads to ourselves never being able to “switch off”. In our society, there is a massive “epidemic” of stress related conditions; anxiety, headaches, IBS, insomnia, stress triggered skin conditions like eczema, weight gain connected to stress related eating habits, which then leads to health problems like diabetes, the list goes on.
We spend much of our time worrying about what might happen, or what has already happened, and this constant stress puts the brain into “fight or flight” response, also known as “the acute stress response”. This part of the brain is also known as the “reptilian” brain, and the fight or flight response was all our ancestors had to protect them from the dangers of their lives back then… the choices they had was either fight or run! In either case, the physiological and psychological response in the body to that danger was to release a huge flood of hormones, which included adrenaline, and noradrenaline. The results of these are increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, the muscles tense up, skin and palms go sweaty, as the body prepares to respond to the danger. The body was only designed to be in this state for a short period of time, until said danger was over, as the rest of our time spent would have been sitting around the fires, or in whatever family / community dwellings we had at the time, eating, or resting, being part of nature, a much simpler way of life. This response can be triggered to both real and imaginary threats! The stresses of our modern lifestyles, the disconnection from society and nature, keep our bodies in this heightened stress state for prolonged periods, so that the increased production of hormones have nowhere to go, which causes physical problems such as muscle tension, headaches, respiratory problems, digestive issues, anxiety, etc. Most of my clients suffer with at least one or more of these conditions!
To fully understand how meditation affects the brain we need to learn about the different types and functions of brainwaves that we have. The brain is in constant communication with itself and the body, this communication is identified as brainwaves. Brainwaves are produced by neurons (nerve cells) communicating electrically with each other. Like radio waves, they are categorised into “bandwidths” according to their frequency: gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta. Gamma are the fastest of the brainwaves, and we are still learning about these, but we do know that being in a state of Gamma waves for too long is undesirable as it overstimulates the brain leading to anxiety.
Here is a brief description of the brainwaves, their function, and a picture to illustrate what the brainwaves look like.
BETA is our normal everyday state of consciousness, associated with the “alert mind”, therefore not desirable to remain in for extended periods of time.
ALPHA waves happen when our thoughts slow down, and we start to relax. For example, after a yoga class. This is the resting state of the brain and helps us with learning and coordination.
In THETA state we can begin meditation. This is the “dream state” and we withdraw from the outside world to the world within ourselves.
And finally, when we are in DELTA state, we are generally deeply asleep, Although, some very experienced meditators such as Buddhist monks can access this state in deep meditation. When in this state a lot of the deep healing the body does while we are asleep happens
So to summarise, when we meditate what we are doing is moving between the brainwaves best suited to healing our minds and bodies, by slipping from our busy wakeful Beta state, gently into Alpha, and as we become more experienced, into Theta, so that we can let go of our outside world and internal self-dialogue and “monkey mind” chatter (as the Buddhists call it) and tune into our inner wisdom where calmness and stillness prevail.
The Benefits Of Meditation On The Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Self
There are many studies that show and prove the benefits of meditation for mind, body and spirit. You only have to type it into Google to find hundreds of articles and statistics on the subject. From reducing chronic pain and anxiety, and increasing alertness, the evidence is overwhelming that on a physical, emotional and mental level the benefits of bringing a regular meditation routine into your life will greatly enhance it. Many people who practice regular meditation say it also allows them to feel a greater confidence in who they are and their place in the world, that their life’s purpose is clearer for them.
The body and mind are interconnected. The way we breathe affects not only our body but also our minds. If we are in a state of stress and breathing rapidly and shallowly it triggers our sympathetic nervous system, our “fight or flight” mode. By learning how to meditate we gain control of our breathing, and by focusing on the breath and practicing deep breathing it triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, “rest and digest” mode. Deep breathing slows down the heart rate and relaxes the muscles, similar to when the body rests or sleeps, thereby restoring calm. In this way, by meditation and focusing on our breathing, we can fool the body and mind into calmness.
In summary, by starting a regular meditation practice some of the benefits you will see and feel will be;
On a physical and mental level – strengthened immune system, less prone to colds and infections. Improved physical and cardiovascular health. Reduced aches and pains. Improvement in memory and concentration and ability to focus.
On an emotional level – increased emotional stability, reduced stress. Reduction in anxiety levels and depression. Improved self-awareness and confidence, increased compassion.
On a spiritual level – deep inner peace. Enhanced intuition. Clarity in thought and about your life’s purpose.
At this point your inner critic and internal self-sabotage dialogue may have kicked in… “this all sounds too good to be true / it can’t be this easy / I’ve tried and failed/ I can’t switch my mind off” etc. And indeed, meditation isn’t a magic bullet for all of life’s problems, it can’t stop bad or stressful life events from happening, and it will require some dedication and commitment from you. But I can guarantee that by bringing in a regular meditation practice into your life, you will be able to handle and deal with life’s stressful events better and more calmly than before. One of my favourite ever quotes is “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”, which absolutely sums up how meditation has helped me in life…. I choose to surf!
I plan to run my beginner’s meditation courses targeted at specific groups, as well running a traditional mixed group. I feel that some people will benefit from being in a group together that are facing similar issues. So, there will be one to help deal with anxiety, one for men, one for women, another dealing with how to cope with the challenges that the journey through the menopause brings us, and I hope to add to these as I myself journey through this topic.
What you will learn on this course;
- What meditation is, and what meditation is not
- How stress affects the brain and body
- The benefits of meditation on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual “self”
- A meditation technique that suits YOU!
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s learn to surf and take the first steps towards inner peace and good health as we explore so different meditation techniques and begin our meditation journey!❤