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Demystifying Meditation

Quieting the mind is surprisingly simple, even if it’s far from easy.

CC0 Common
Source: CC0 Common

What’s the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

In some contexts, the terms mindfulness and meditation seem to be used interchangeably. Both meditation and mindfulness have roots in ancient traditions and share the common goal of facilitating the experience of being more present-centered, calmer, more focused, less reactive, and less stressed. They complement each other and overlap in many ways.

In understanding the relationship between them, it may be helpful to think of meditation as a subset of mindfulness. Meditation is a set of techniques for practicing mindfulness using a particular structure. Forms of it are found in many wisdom or spiritual traditions and some religious traditions. Meditation utilizes various practices that quiet the mind, usually (although not always) through sitting still for dedicated amounts of time (a few minutes to a half-hour or more). Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be practiced within or outside of formal meditation and woven into any activity. Eating a meal, washing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, taking a walk, and being in conversation with others are all opportunities to practice mindfulness.

Meditation is the most well-known method of achieving a state of mindfulness. Meditation is a skill that helps quiet the mind by turning down the volume and quantity of the ongoing thought-based chatter in our heads, giving us greater opportunity to tune in to the present moment. Although it can be beneficial for everyone, practicing meditation is so highly recommended for people in recovery that it's a central part of the Eleventh Step in twelve-step programs.

Meditation connects the mind with the body and precipitates greater feelings of calm, stimulating the body’s relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic division handles rest, relaxation, recharge, and conservation of energy. Upon its activation, breathing slows and deepens, muscles soften, metabolism and pulse rate slow, and blood pressure decreases.

One of the main reasons that meditation has been around for over 2,600 years is that, in essence, it’s extremely simple. Ironically, because life is so complicated and fast-paced for so many people, the simplicity of meditation, including literally sitting still—can actually make it more challenging. The purpose of meditation is to set aside the distractions that continuously clamor for your attention and consciously slow down your mind—starting with your thoughts—to bring you to this moment, here and now.

Forms of meditation:

There are many ways to meditate, and it’s important to find an approach that fits for you. Most forms of meditation fall within the following three fundamental structures, one of which is based directly on mindfulness:

  • Mindfulness meditation centers conscious attention on the big picture of internal and external sensations using a relaxed, though focused, observation of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations as they arise and fall.
  • Breathing meditation concentrates on the breath and makes it the locus of attention using intentional breathing as described earlier.
  • Mantra meditation anchors conscious attention on a mantra, an energy-based sound that produces a specific physical vibration, and may or may not have a specific meaning. The word mantra means to free yourself from your mind. It originates from two Sanskrit words: manas, or mind, and trai, meaning to free from or liberate.

Other types of meditation focus on bringing to awareness and expanding the felt experience of specific beneficial spiritual principles and emotional states such as compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, gratitude, or patience. You bring these emotional states to mind and either turn them inward toward yourself or outward in general or toward specific others. Guided meditations, in which you follow recorded voice suggestions to help you access meditative states, are available in digital formats on a variety of web-based platforms.

Several guidelines apply to all forms of meditation:

  • Find a quiet space. Meditation is most effective (more so for beginners) when there are minimal environmental distractions. And since focused attention is an essential ingredient, as much as you can, try to find a tranquil space for the duration of your meditation.
  • Assume a comfortable position. Because muscle tension can disrupt attention and interfere with the relaxation response, physical comfort is important. You can use any position, but sitting in a chair or on a firm pillow or rug with your head, neck, and back straight is recommended. Lying down to meditate is generally not suggested as many people have a tendency to become too drowsy and fall asleep.
  • Be aware that when you first start to meditate, it may seem strange and awkward. This may be the case, especially if it is difficult for you to be still both mentally and physically. The challenges can be amplified for people with post-traumatic stress and other more severe mental health conditions. It’s often best to begin slowly, perhaps even with as few as two to three minutes a day, and gradually work up to 15 to 20 minutes.
  • When breathing, close your mouth, place your tongue loosely on the roof of your mouth, and breathe smoothly through your nose. This helps to quiet and smooth out the mechanics of breathing. Breathe in deeply and slowly on your inhale and breathe out fully and completely on your exhale.
  • Consistency is key. If at all possible, try to meditate every day, at the same time of day, in the same location. In this way, you develop a pattern and rhythm for your meditation practice that will help establish it as a habit. Morning works well for many people because it sets a tone for the day; for others evening works better because it helps them wind down. Most importantly, meditate regularly, even when you don’t feel like it or think you don’t have time for it. A few minutes may not seem like much, but it’s infinitely better than nothing.

A common question beginners ask is, “How do I stop my thoughts?” The simple answer is that you don’t. Self-imposed pressure to stop thoughts mobilizes both resistance and judgment, which work against meditation’s fundamental intent. Even during meditation, other thoughts—including those related to the past or future—naturally intrude. This is neither positive nor negative; it simply is.

When your mind wanders (and it will), the most helpful thing you can do is to become aware of the thoughts and simply notice and observe them, without judging either the thoughts or yourself for having them. You can watch them pass like clouds moving across the sky. There is no need to be disturbed by them, obsess on them, or try to change them; simply become aware that you have drifted away from the moment and use that awareness to matter-of-factly refocus your attention and return to here-and-now awareness.

Similarly, if there are external noises or sounds related to other people or the environment, you can pay as much or as little attention to them as you like. You can take note of them, accept them and any thoughts or feelings you have related to them, and bring your attention back to the focus of your meditation, returning your awareness to the present moment.

In fact, more than staying in the moment, the focus of meditation is on returning to it—over and over, as often as necessary. In this regard, as the Zen proverb suggests, “the obstacle is the path.”

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Dan Mager is the author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery.

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