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Bringing Meditation Back to the Basics

Meditation is for everyone who is willing to try with an open mind.

Michel Mathys, used with permission
Source: Michel Mathys, used with permission

Some days in life simply just don’t work out. You’re driving the kids around while juggling your own impossible schedule and adding to it, you seem to be hitting all the red lights in traffic. There is no end to the fighting with your partner, and the pile of work on your desk just never seems to shrink. And why does that damn phone never stop ringing?

There was a time in my life, where I just didn’t know how to take a step back from a bad, busy day. I knew I needed to break through that feeling of métro, boulot, dodo.

And that was where mindfulness meditation turned things around for me. I learned to reserve a minute for myself, which has become a way of self-care. I have made it a habit to take a few moments in between back-to-back consultations or meetings, just to meditate. It rewires and resets me, like a dearly needed pause button.

And I am a better doctor for it.

Doctor, say what?

As a physician and neurologist, I come across people from all walks of life in my consultation room. Sometimes, I am the messenger of good news. Ofttimes, I am not. What happens then, is that people expect something big when it comes to medicine. Cure-alls, magical fixes, wonder drugs. The big guns. A linear solution to their specific problem.

That’s why many a time, I am confronted with raised eyebrows when I actually prescribe: daily meditation and breathing exercises.

Wait. Did they catch me saying, meditation? How in the world would that help with their medical condition? Their expectations are scattered and the confusion is almost tangible.

Because there is no quick fix

Don’t get me wrong. I would never argue meditation to be the sole answer. If only it could be as simple as that. But still, I have been a long-time advocate of the health benefits of daily meditation and breathing exercises. Studies have shown that meditation can have positive implications in handling stress, anxiety, and overthinking.

I don’t say this lightly, because I conduct a lot of clinical trials to inquire into the positive effects of habitual meditation upon the human brain. I once even invited Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk with a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics, to participate in my study.

We carried out EEGs, MRIs, and PET scans to examine the brain activity of a person during the act of meditation. Looking at the image results of these tests, we concluded that certain parts of Ricard’s brain were exceptionally developed, such as his corpus callosum and some areas of his central nervous system. Brain function and meditation thus seem to be heavily interrelated.

But meditation is also for folks like you and me

Now, we don’t all have to be Buddhist monks like Ricard to reap the positive effects of meditation. And that’s exactly why I am interested in no-nonsense meditation. To refute wrong assumptions with hard facts and scientific studies, but also to get people exploring and cherry-picking what works for them. To offer meditation as a tool to navigate peaks of stress, to be less judgmental, or to simply stay grounded throughout the day.

Trust me when I say that everyone is perfectly capable of meditation. If I am able to do it (and I am surely no Buddhist monk), you surely are too. Even your grandmother, your colleagues at work, the mailman. It can be as low-threshold as dreaming off during your commute, your morning cup of coffee as you take in all the aromas, or going out for a mindful walk in the forest. There is no right or wrong here.

Meditation is for everyone who is willing to try with an open mind. Because that is exactly what meditation is all about: observing life without judgment while being fully aware of the present moment. Accepting your wild monkey mind and letting things go.

Now, there are a plethora of exercises you can try out. The sky is the limit. You can explore formal exercises like the body scan, try out visualisation techniques, or have a go at transcendental mantra meditation.

But before all that, it always comes down to the basics – which is your breathing.

Counting your breaths

When starting out with meditation and mindfulness, you should consider your breath to be the anchor of any exercise. It can be as simple as inhaling through your nose for four seconds, then holding your breath for four seconds, and slowly exhaling for four seconds through your pursed lips. You can repeat this cycle seven times, or you could set a timer for the duration you desire. There are myriad variations as to how you can count your breathing. Explore what feels good for you. If you feel like taking it up (or down) a notch, you can always change it up.

When your thoughts have wandered off too far, don’t beat yourself up yet. Let go of that image of an empty mind, that is not what we are trying to achieve here. Simply try to note what is going on, and then calmly bring your attention back to the way you breathe.

You can opt to go sit somewhere nice and quiet, to focus on your exercise. But as you can imagine, you can just as well start counting your breaths at work, during your commute, or morning shower. You can choose to focus on your breath alone or combine it with a body scan or a mindful walk.

There is simply no rule as to when, where, or how you meditate. Just make the journey your own, and remember to have fun!

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