Have you ever been really stressed out or felt your life spinning out of control?
Are you ever in a bad mood for no good reason or can you not seem to find the energy to do the things you normally enjoy doing?
Do you think you could be more present in your life or enhance, your brains performance relative to your creative or professional output?
While there may be clinical reasons for whatever issue you seek to remedy, it could also be a lack of control over your brains processes and thoughts.
For thousands of years, there has existed a mental practice known as meditation which gives the meditator control over their mental processes and lets them fix what ails them or enhance what they already have.
Meditation is a simple mental exercise that involves focusing one’s attention on something like the breath, or a few words known as a mantra, or by monitoring your thoughts, feelings and the environment to achieve a state of peaceful being.
Historically there’s been countless different ways of applying these two methods but all the schools of meditation are really just ways of trying to improve one’s life through mental control.
Meditation is a simple mental exercise, its free, requires no equipment whatsoever except that which we are equipped with from birth and its a very rewarding practice which is easy to begin at any point in time.
Some encourage having a teacher to begin a meditation practice but that’s more for motivation than for technique as the practice itself is quite simple.
So first let’s look into exactly what is meditation and what physical effects the various practices exert on our brains.
Meditative hide and seek. Countdown from 60 and then try to find yourself.
Before we understand meditation, we need to know something about how our brains operate.
Our brains are constantly sending out electrical impulses known as brain waves. Brains waves are the means by which our brains communicate with the entire body.
So when we have faster or higher frequency brain waves our thoughts and bodies are wired and alert.
When we have slower or lower frequency brain waves our thoughts are slower and more thorough and our bodies are more relaxed and dreamy.
Scientists can track our brain waves, most commonly by using a device known as an EEG or Electroencephalograph.
Through watching peoples brains scientists have found 5 brain waves we all produce which are characterized by the Hz frequency range they are transmitted within.
These 5 brain waves or “brain states” as measured by the dominant brain waves being produced, from highest to lowest Hz are;
- Gamma (Above 30Hz) which is the “enlightened state“. It’s only been recently discovered and is associated with more efficient brain processes and better information retention. Its also known as the hyperactive state because people in gamma states are thinking very quickly and this can lead to anxiety in those prone to it.
- Beta (13-30Hz) is our typical brain state. It’s our analytical, planning, categorizing state and is most effective for normal day to day activities like driving, working or eating.
- Alpha (9-13Hz) is our calm, tranquil state. In it, we feel lucid, tranquil and connected. We usually enter alpha states after relaxing activities like yoga, pleasurable sexual experiences and walks through nature.
- Theta (4-8Hz) is our meditative, visual state. In it, we feel a deeper awareness and a greater capacity for holistic or “bigger picture” thought. reaching this brain state is the goal of most meditation practices.
- Delta (1-3Hz) is the deep sleep state. It’s our slowest, most relaxing state which we usually only reach when we’re in state 3 or 4 of the sleep cycle. Some Tibetan monks with decades of meditation experience can reach this state while maintaining awareness of their surroundings.
The brain mix and matches these states over the course of the day as determined by the activities we are going through.
In an attempt to most effectively prepare your body and mind for what it’s about to go through which could be running from a predator, sleeping or sex.
Therefore by exerting control over our brain states, we can convince our body we are in a certain environment and thus can control its responses to them.
For example, if you’re usually stressed out at work, you can meditate to forcefully relax your body by entering a theta brain state.
Then through your practice and getting proficient at that when you next encounter this stressful situation you’ll be able to stay relaxed and calm.
Whereas before your brain would take over and think this is a stressful situation so it better speed up in preparation for a flight from a predator not from handling your boss or social anxiety.
So we know what meditation is. Its a method of controlling our brain’s dominant brainwave or brains state in order to be able to better control our responses to external events.
“We tend to think of meditation in only one way. But life itself is a meditation.”
Meditation historically has had its roots in the Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophies.
But the idea of focusing on something to achieve a mental state is present in hundreds of philosophies and religions including; Judaism, Islam, New Age practices with crystals and healing states, even in Christianity with silent prayer and the recitation and reflection on the revelations of the Christian God.
Its likely had such prevalence in history because of how effective it truly is, even science has found that meditation practices can vastly improve quality of life.
Now while it had its start in religion, today its usually practiced in a secular way as a sort of push up for the brain, rather than as a way of connecting with a higher power.
Beyond the subjective effects of mood and focus meditation has been proven to reduce cognitive decline in the elderly and to promote reduced levels of stress hormones in people of all ages.
Even the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism believes that contemplative neuroscience or the science of meditation is worth pursuing in a secular way for its promotion of human values like self-discipline and compassion.
So now that you know what meditation is I bet you’re curious about how it’s practiced. Let’s find out!
“Mind like a candle in a windless room”
There are two well-defined types of meditation; Focused Attention (FA) and Open Monitoring (OM).
Each of these types has a variety of different methods for practicing them.
In FA meditation the practitioner focuses their attention on something such as their breath or a mantra.
Usually, they’ll find their mind start to wander so they’ll acknowledge the minds wandering, release the distraction and then continue to focus on the object.
Almost all meditations follow this pattern with the only difference being what the meditator focuses on and how they sit or move while they’re focusing on the object.
Some notable FA methods of meditation are;
- Transcendental meditation – where the meditator focuses on a mantra provided to them by the TM organization for a fee (about $960USD) which is decided based on their age and gender.
- Loving-Kindness meditation – has the meditator focuses on feelings of compassion and empathy in order to promote more love and connection in their lives. There’s even evidence that LK meditation can cause the meditator to enter into a gamma state.
- Zazen (Zen) meditation – where the meditator focuses on the breath moving in and out of their stomachs. In Zazen, the meditator must sit in one of several rigidly define poses with a straight back to allow ease of breathing.
- Vipassana meditation – uses mindfulness of breathing at the nose area, with a contemplation of impermanence, in order to gain insight into the nature of reality.
- Taoist “Neiguan” meditation – has the meditator visualize their body and mind.
- Chakra meditation – where the meditator focuses on one of their bodies “Chakras“. Which are a Hindu concept of seven or more wheels of energy running along one’s spine which represent the energy of the body parts nearby. So the lowest chakra at the base of the spine represents the genitals energy. The third chakra up represents the energy of the digestive system.
- Self Inquiry meditation – which is sort of abstract. Where the purpose is to focus ones attention on the subjective state of existence, not on the subjective notions of existence we commonly use to characterize and identify ourselves, like what we’ve accomplished or what we look like. It’s focusing on the experience of being.
- Guided meditations – where a speaker will present imagery for the practitioner to visualize in their mind.
These are only a sample of the hundreds of methods of Focused Attention meditation and many more can be found which can have a myriad of positive effects on your life.
The other type of meditation is Open Monitoring meditation.
In OM meditation the practitioner stays attentive moment to moment to anything that occurs in experience without focusing on any explicit object.
To reach this state, the practitioner gradually reduces attention on an FA object until their attention is neutral and open.
So you gradually reduce your focus on some object like your breath until you can focus on nothing at all and just be noticing everything and focusing on nothing.
Some notable OM methods are;
- Mindfulness meditation – where the meditator focuses on nothing and allows themselves to exist in the present moment. The idea is to become more present with ourselves as we really are in order to be more present in our day to day lives. In contrast to other meditations where there is some objective, mindfulness meditation is nice because there is no goal but to be present at the moment.
- Effortless Presence meditation – where one attempts to reach the “Pure Being” state, characterized by effortless inner silence and deeper states of consciousness.
- Taoist “Emptiness” meditation – with the objective being to empty oneself of all thoughts, feelings and sensual perceptions.
As you can see, the Open Monitoring methods are all very similar.
You attempt to empty yourself of everything going on in your mind and to then be present in the moment.
There are even many practices that aren’t quite meditations but that have components of FA or OM meditation in them. Mostly they involve focusing on something while performing a series of movements. Practices like;
There are even tools that can assist in meditation practices like deprivation tanks.
Deprivation tanks are unlit tanks of saline water the user floats in which deprives them of all external stimuli and feeling, allowing them to most closely experience only whats in their minds.
It’s sort of like being in a womb as an adult.
Or binaural beats which while suspect do have some scientific research to support them.
They are two Hz tones, one emitted from each headphone. Each tone is a different frequency.
The difference being whatever Hz frequency they want to cause the brain to produce to try and match them.
Headspace which advertises itself as a “gym membership for the mind” is also an option.
It’s the most popular option available for guided meditation programs.
However, they charge a monthly fee and listen to someone else speaking while meditating does a disservice to a lot of what makes meditation so great.
“Quiet the mind and the soul will speak”
Meditation as a practice has helped billions of people to find peace and relaxation in a world of stress and anxiety.
The universe isn’t sentient and doesn’t care whether you’re happy or not.
So it’s up to us as individuals to find and equip ourselves with the tools that enable us to be happy and prosper.
Meditation and all the topics I discuss on Grasping Triumph are some examples of those tools you can use.
To start meditating today all you need to do is pick a style, either Focused Attention or Open Monitoring.
If you choose FA then pick an object to focus on, your breath usually being the easiest.
Find a quiet place you won’t be disturbed and just do it. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Or just be present.
Personally, I’ve practiced meditation in some form or another for years now, with my current favorite being mindfulness meditation, which I practice in the morning to put myself in my own physical body so to speak and out of my head and dreams.
I find it very grounding and it sets my days up for happiness and productivity.
But whatever style you choose is right as long as it helps you and I encourage you to experiment until you find the perfect style for whatever you’d like to improve about yourself.
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Andrew is a design graduate student in Toronto who writes about leadership, design, and startups. Visit his blog Lead Boldly for exclusive content. Or say hey on Quora | Instagram | FaceBook | Twitter | LinkedIn.