Meditation for mental health has gained some scientifically based evidence in the last few years. “Science proves that meditation restructures your brain and trains it to concentrate, feel greater compassion, cope with stress, and more.” Says Kelly McGonigal.
Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, Eileen Luders, a researcher in the Department of Neurology at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, looks for evidence that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. Until recently, this idea would have seemed absurd. “Scientists used to believe that the brain reaches its peak in adulthood and doesn’t change–until it starts to decrease in late adulthood,” Luders says. “Today we know that everything we do, and every experience we have, actually changes the brain.”
Luders finds several differences between the brains of mediators and non-mediators. In a study comparing the brains of mediators and non-mediators, she found that the mediators had more gray matter in regions of the brain that are important for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility. Increased Gray matter typically makes an area of the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information.
Did you know it was possible to retrain your brain? Research shows it is, but learning to meditate is no different from learning mental skills such as music or math. It requires practice. Think of it as a training program for the brain.
The purpose of meditation is to simply move beyond the normal limits of your consciousness and empty the clutter of your mind while focusing on compassion, gratitude, acceptance, or whatever you want to become. You focus your concentration for the purpose of attaining a higher state. There are three parts of meditation. Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, or concentration, absorption, and transcendence or bliss.
The first state– concentration — is to focus your concentration by noticing your breath, and absorbing your mind with an image or mantra or comforting phrase or scripture. The second state –absorption — is to move into a higher state of consciousness where the mind is totally quiet, and the effort of meditation is no longer there. The third step –transcendence — may take years to achieve and is described as enlightenment or perhaps direct communion.
Mindfulness requires concentration, but rather than concentrate on any one object, we concentrate on the moment and whatever is present in that moment. You may feel anxious, fearful, sad, angry, or a myriad of any other emotions. Become an observer (almost sitting outside yourself and watching from a distance), and just take note of what is going on in that moment. No judgement about it.
To begin, take a comfortable seat. Bring attention to your breath by placing your awareness at your belly and feeling it rise and fall. This will help you tune in to the presence of the body. Once you feel settled, widen your awareness to include all the sensations in your body as well as any thoughts or feelings.
Imagine yourself as a mountain. Some thoughts and feelings will be stormy, with thunder, lightening, and strong winds. Some will be like fog or dark, ominous clouds. inhaling, note “mountain. ” Exhaling, note “stable.” Use the breath to focus on the present moment; cultivate the ability to weather the storm. If you find yourself swept up in a thought or emotion, notice it and simply return to the breath. The key is to pay attention to the ever-changing process of thinking rather than to the contents of your thoughts. As you begin to see that they are indeed just thoughts, they will begin to lose their power. You will no longer believe everything you think! Continue to watch and become mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations for 5 to 20 minutes.