Shortly after arriving in Keynsham last year I joined a Meditation group at a local Church. I had been aware for a while about the need to be more still, but I had a number of questions. What happens during Meditation?, what are the benefits?, and what’s the difference between Meditation and (the increasingly popular) Mindfulness?
As I continued to attend the group I felt the Meditation was doing me good but couldn’t explain why. I felt calmer and had fewer headaches and I felt connected to the others in the group, even though we didn’t say much. I resolved to meditate by myself for 20 minutes every morning as recommended. I noticed the difference when I didn’t do it.
I read a review of the research around this, which is expanding as mainstream medical practice has caught up with how beneficial the discipline can be. Tests have shown that over time meditation changes the physical structure of the brain and causes new cell growth, which previously was considered impossible. The controlled breathing helps to switch off our ‘flight or fight’ responses. This type of conscious breathing can also have a positive impact on the heart (by extending the Heart Rate Variability for those who like details).
Overall, the benefits of Meditation can include stress, anxiety and pain reduction, increased energy levels, reduced relapsing in the recurrence of depression and an improved quality of life. Specific benefits have been cited for those suffering with Multiple Sclerosis, Psoriasis, Fatigue Syndrome, Migraine and various auto-immune diseases. There is also evidence that it slows the ageing process and acts as a protector against Dementia.
With all these benefits, why isn’t everyone doing it? Apparently what has put many people off in the past – and certainly research scientists – is its connection with spirituality and the main world religions. This, according to some sources, has led to the emergence of ‘Mindfulness’, which is a secular term and version of Meditation – just with all the religious bits taken out. Jan Kabat-Kinn, author of ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ is attributed to creating the first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme (MBSR) in 1979 in the University of Massachusetts. It enabled controlled scientific research to be carried out with participants for the first time and helped establish the practice as a mainstream health intervention. Funding for research remains a challenge however, as the usual funders (Drugs companies) can see no benefit for their bottom (profit) line.
So does believing in God and using a spiritual, rather than a secular/general mantra make any difference? Apparently a small study has shown that belief in a higher purpose and meaning does matter and can add to the benefits. The importance of ritual and the social contact of a group also enhances this further. Sometimes after the group has meditated we talk about our experiences- what we feel is going on during these times. There is a conscious desire to ‘let go’ of our agendas and our inner noise and chatter; a humbling, a laying down – a sacrifice of time and attention – not asking for anything. One member suggested it gives God the opportunity to ‘download’ his love and peace without our interference. There’s also something very therapeutic about taking time out to focus on the moment – not the past, nor the future, but the present – becoming gratefully aware of our breathing and how our bodies are feeling and consciously relaxing tense muscles.
But it isn’t easy. Trying to keep physically still is difficult and to then stop your mind wandering can be almost impossible at times. The mantra (we use ‘Maranatha’, which is Aramaic for ‘Come Lord’) helps to bring us back to stillness and silence. Focussing on our breathing also helps. There are no experts among us and some of us nod off. We keep coming back for more though and this is linked to the sense that something deep and profound is going on. Something that science may never quite pinpoint. It’s not a quick fix either, it’s a ‘little by little’ conscious giving over the territory of our minds but that comes back to us as a healing presence.
The intention behind writing this blog post was to inspire you to try Meditation or Mindfulness whether you believe in God or not. This is not for the select few, it’s for everyone. To this end, I have noted below the method we use at the group.
How To Meditate
While meditation is common to many religious traditions around the world, the method of practice may differ. The discipline is based on the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and is approached for twenty to thirty minutes twice daily in the following way:
Sit down. Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Then interiorly, silently begin to recite a single word – a prayer word or mantra. We recommend the ancient Christian prayer-word “Maranatha”. Say it as four equal syllables. Breathe normally and give your full attention to the word as you say it, silently, gently, faithfully and – above all – simply. The essence of meditation is simplicity. Stay with the same word during the whole meditation and in each meditation day to day. Don’t visualise but listen to the word, as you say it. Let go of all thoughts (even good thoughts), images and other words. Don’t fight your distractions: let them go by saying your word faithfully, gently and attentively and returning to it as soon as you realise you have stopped saying or it or when your attention wanders. Meditate twice a day, morning and evening, for between 20 and 30 minutes. It may take a time to develop this discipline and the support of a tradition and community is always helpful. In time, the fruits of your meditation will appear in your self, your life, and in all your relationships.
Meditation Source: http://wccm.org/content/what-meditation
Research Source: “Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body” by Jo Marchant. Published 2016 by Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh.
(I heard Dr Jo Marchant speak at the Hay Festival last year – highly recommended)