Reasons to meditate: mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of mind or consciousness. It is a combination of attention, body awareness and emotional regulation that helps generate a different perspective of self.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has done much to introduce secular mindfulness to the West over the last 20 years through the establishment of his hugely successful Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. His operational, widely accepted definition of mindfulness is "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."
Mindfulness meditation can be described as a practice that develops the state of mindfulness, like a training or gym for the mind. Through mindfulness meditation we cultivate attention, body awareness and emotional regulation.
Science validates mindfulness
A huge increase in scientific research on this topic over the last 10 years has produced thousands of peer-reviewed, published papers that address how mindfulness, achieved through meditation, helps with a range of issues:
- Depression – This is the single most important factor in determining quality of life in MS. People with MS are more susceptible to depression than those in the general population. In a vicious cycle, the disease process increases the risk of depression, which increases inflammation, which worsens the physical illness, which can lead to deeper depression, and so on. Mindfulness is so effective at reducing depression, the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has approved it as a depression treatment
- Neurogenesis – People with MS are more prone to neuro-degeneration than the general population is. MRI scans have shown that mindfulness increases the grey and white matter in specific and important parts of the brain. It also promotes neuroplasticity and the creation of new and helpful neural networks in the brain
- Pain – Mindfulness has been used extensively to help reduce physical and neurological pain. Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program was originally devised partly to help people in chronic pain. Scientific studies have shown how mindfulness can help with sensations of pain
- Telomere length – Telomeres are the little caps at the ends of DNA strands. As we age, telomeres get smaller, and we become more susceptible to age-related illnesses. Mindfulness has not only been shown to slow that shortening, it can actually lengthen the telomeres, effectively reducing cellular age
- Happiness – Kabat-Zinn has shown that daily mindful meditation can increase a person's happiness. It shifts brain activity from the right side, which is active when we're irritable and anxious, over to the left side, which is typically active when we're upbeat and optimistic. Even better, much of that shift happens within the first month of meditation
- Compassion – Mindfulness has been shown to increase compassion, which helps build our resilience in the face of trauma
Types of meditation
Mindfulness is a popular form of meditation but there are many other styles; some focus on a mantra or on the breath; some are based on readings or prayer. You can find many more approaches, but we suggest you start with the basics and explore options when you're more familiar with meditation.
Myths about meditation
The following ideas may hold some truth, but believing they are absolute facts may get in your way.
- Meditation is about silencing the mind. Don't expect your mind to be free of all thoughts when you meditate; it doesn't work that way. Mindfulness is about bringing awareness to sensations and thoughts – not silencing them. If your internal voice is active while you meditate, that's okay and completely normal. Let the thoughts come and go while you focus on the present moment
- Meditation is relaxing. You may find meditation relaxing, and you also may not. The goal is not to relax, but to be aware of sensations, thoughts and emotions
- Meditating is easy ... or difficult. You may find meditating hard at some times and easier at others. Each time you meditate, remember that this is a practice and there is no right or wrong way to feel. You practice to develop a skill, much as you might practice playing the cello or working out in the gym
- Meditating is inconsistent with my religious beliefs. Mindfulness is free of religious content, although many religions practice their own forms of meditation. Through meditation, you may become more spiritual, more in tune with yourself and with your relationship to others and the wider universe
How it can help
People often spend time either thinking about the past (often with regrets and recriminations) or planning for the future (often with worries and concerns). A recent article in Science magazine estimated that on average we spend nearly half our time doing this. Meditation can help you regulate your attention, helping you tune into what is really happening right now, and what is important in your life. It can also help regulate your emotions so that you don’t get caught up in thoughts and fears and are able to calm your conscious mind and reduce stress.
How it works
The mind literally slows down during meditation. Normal brain waves, called beta waves, look like a sawtooth pattern, with a frequency greater than 12 cycles per second and a fairly small height. As you enter the meditative state, those waves grow progressively wider and slower, becoming first alpha waves, then theta waves and finally delta waves, which correspond to the subconscious mind. Delta waves offer unique healing opportunities and a relaxation even deeper and more restorative than sleep itself.
How to start
Start with short meditations, perhaps 10 minutes long, and see how it goes. Use guided meditations to get going. Try a few different ones to find a style and voice that work best for you. You can develop your own practice over time. Things to keep in mind:
- There is no right way to feel when you meditate. Some find it relaxing, but that's not the goal
- In fact, there are no goals when you meditate, which makes it unlike most daily activities. Allow yourself to be patient, and your practice will develop over time
- Mindfulness meditation is about being in the present moment, being non-judgmental, and allowing things to unfold just as they are
Perhaps most important: meditation is about being kind and gentle to yourself, looking after yourself and giving your mind and body time to heal.
Another way to conceptualize meditation is to think about it in terms of attention, intention and attitude. So before you start each meditation practice, think about your intention and your attitude. Perhaps start each practice with the intention to bring the focus of your attention to the breath or body or whatever the focus of your meditation is, with the intention to be present in every moment.
You may also want to start each practice with an attitude of openness, not judging yourself in any way. Just be curious about the experiences, whatever they are and however they feel, and view all sensations with an attitude of gentleness and kindness to yourself.
You don't need to sit in the lotus position to meditate, or even with your legs crossed. Posture is important for meditation, but it is possible to meditate anywhere. You can sit on a straight-backed chair, and find a position that is comfortable. If you are in a chair, try sitting forward so your spine is self-supported and upright, and your chin is tucked in slightly. Find a position that is comfortable enough so that you are able to focus but not so comfortable that you fall asleep. (Note - Some meditations – e.g. the body scan – are typically done lying down.)
The more you meditate, the better your results.
We recommend meditating for at least 30 minutes per day, either all at once or in 2 sessions of 15 minutes each.
While some people like to set a timer, others find that it can interrupt an especially powerful session, so you may prefer to check a clock or watch when you think the time is up. Many people find that with practice they get very good at knowing when half an hour is up.
If you miss a day, just resume the next day with the same attitude of kindness and gentleness to yourself. You'll find that the more consistent you are, the more effective each session will be.
People meditate at different times of day.
Some find that meditating first thing in the morning helps them be more mindful throughout the day. It's also easier to find stillness before the noise of the day clutters your head.
Others prefer to meditate in the evening as a way to decompress from the stresses of the day. Some meditate for shorter periods a few times a day, because they cannot find longer periods of time to focus.
The bottom line is that meditating is tremendously good for you, but making sure that you meditate every day is more important than precisely when you do it. Meditation is really effective, but you have to actually do it!
It can be helpful to define a space that's specifically for your meditation – perhaps a room, chair, or even a cushion. Creating a ritual can be very helpful in creating new behaviors and habits. But once you establish your practice, you can meditate anywhere: in a parked car, on a train, even in a corner of a cafe.
Meditation is about finding time to be in the present moment, rather than stilling the mind. It is about noticing what is happening internally when you sit still, so don’t worry if the thoughts keep coming – just notice them.
Meditation is also about intention and attitude, so remember to be kind and gentle to yourself when you meditate – including when you feel you can’t meditate or that you’ve had a "bad" session. There is no such thing as a bad meditation practice, and there is no special state you are supposed to achieve through meditation. So:
- Keep it short and simple when starting
- Choose a guided meditation or class that makes you comfortable
- Use the meditation resources on the OMS website and smartphone app
- If you are flooded by thoughts and feelings during the practice, remember that the intention of meditation is not to stop thoughts, but to be aware of them
- Difficult feelings or emotions arising during meditation may alert you to deeper issues that require attention or action. It may be helpful to consult a therapist or doctor should this be distressing
It takes patience and persistence to establish your practice, but the benefits are extraordinary and very worth the effort.
Many mindfulness meditation courses are available all over the world and online. Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) courses and mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) courses can provide very good entryways to developing your own practice. You can find additional mindfulness and meditation resources here or listen to OMS's own guided meditations, courtesy of Associate Professor Craig Hassed and Phil Startin.
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