Attention

Meditation Made Simple

Meditation is a skill that anyone can learn and develop through practice.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Meditation is the rock star of mindfulness practices, and it continues to receive increasing attention, particularly in mainstream circles. Guided meditations, in which participants follow recorded suggestions, directions, and imagery, have proliferated in digital formats on a wide variety of apps and other web-based platforms. 

Why meditate? Meditation is a skill that helps quiet the mind by turning down the volume and quantity of our incessant and distracting thought-based internal chatter, giving us greater opportunity to bring and keep our attention where we want it. Although it can be beneficial for everyone, practicing meditation is recommended for people in recovery so much so that it is a central part of the Eleventh Step in twelve-step programs. The intent of meditation is to tame the mind’s continuous activity as a precursor to training it. Meditation is a form of mind training.

Wherever the mind goes with its constant waterfall of thoughts and images, our attention follows (we follow), automatically, unconsciously, often mindlessly—into the past or the future, and into thoughts stuck on replay and feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, and resentment. Our minds frequently take us to places—cognitively and emotionally–that create stress and suffering. It’s a form of slavery unto itself.

With stunning and tragic consistency, our thoughts effectively create our reality. The primary purpose of meditation is to become consciously aware of and detach from the flow of thoughts, images, and stories that continuously clamor for our attention, telling us compelling stories that so often pull us back into past experiences or propel us into untold future scenarios. The goal of meditation isn’t to control our thoughts, it’s to keep our thoughts from controlling us—by unchaining our attention from them.

Meditation practice connects the mind with the body and precipitates greater feelings of calm by stimulating the body’s relaxation response through the activation of 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.

There are many ways to meditate, and different types of meditation utilize distinctive vehicles to achieve and maintain present-centered attention. Meditation approaches can be divided into two fundamental styles. Concentrative practices are aimed at sustaining conscious attention on specific content, such as particular internal sounds or bodily sensations. Open awareness practices have a more broad-based focus; to develop a big-picture monitoring ability in which sensory content and experience are registered, but not used as an anchor. 

Concentrative practices include breathing and mantra meditation. Breathing meditation centers on the breath and making it the locus of attention. Mantra meditation anchors conscious attention on a mantra, an energy-based sound that produces a specific physical vibration that 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.

Mindfulness meditation (sometimes known as insight meditation) is an open awareness practice that 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. 

Other types of meditation focus on bringing to awareness and expanding the felt experience of specific beneficial thoughts, emotional states, or spiritual principles such as compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, gratitude, or patience. These are brought to mind and turned them inward toward oneself and/or outward in general or toward specific others. 

There are a handful of guidelines that apply to most 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 strongly 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 mentally or physically. It’s often best to begin slowly, perhaps with 3 to 5 minutes a day, and gradually work up to longer sessions. 15-20 minutes a day is common for many experienced meditators.
  • Breathe smoothly through your nose with your mouth closed and place your tongue loosely on the roof of your mouth. Breathe deeply and slowly through your stomach rather than your chest and exhale completely in preparation for the next inhale.
  • 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 and provides centering for the day. For others, evening works better because it helps them wind down toward the end of the day. Most importantly, if you want to establish a meditation practice it’s important to do it regularly—even when you don’t feel like it or think you don’t have time for it. Even a few minutes is infinitely better than nothing.

A question many beginners ask is, “How do I stop my thoughts?” The simple answer is that you don’t. Self-imposed pressure to stop thoughts mobilizes resistance and judgment, both of which are disruptive to the meditation process. Even during meditation, other thoughts—including those related to the past or future—naturally emerge. 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 birds flying overhead. There is no need to be disturbed by them, obsess over them, or try to change them; simply become aware that you have drifted away from the moment and use that awareness to gently and matter-of-factly refocus your attention and return to the here-and-now.

At the beginning of what is now a more than 40-year meditation practice, I would often become frustrated and self-critical when thoughts intruded, believing that I was doing it “wrong” or otherwise failing. Gradually I learned that this is an inherent part of the process and began to bring greater acceptance and self-compassion to that aspect of my experience. Subsequently, encroaching thoughts have become inconsequential—whenever they come up, I simply return my attention to the intention at hand.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices become even more important in a culture that is increasingly attention deficit disorder-inducing. Seductive technology-driven distractions encourage and normalize spreading ourselves ever thinner. The proliferation of 24/7 connectivity, expanding mobile information technology, and new social media platforms places ever-greater demands on our precious attention, emotional availability, time, and energy. How common has it become for people to be plugged into their smartphones, tablets, and other devices, absorbed in electronic pacification, completely disassociated from where they are and who they are with? 

The stress precipitated by a global health pandemic makes mind-body centering that much more essential. There are myriad health benefits associated with the practice of meditation that have been demonstrated by scientific research over the last three decades. Although these positive effects begin almost immediately, they also accumulate over time. A 2019 study the journal Behavioral Brain Research found that as little as 13 minutes a day of meditation over an eight-week period improved attention, mood, emotional regulation, and memory for people who were new to the practice.

Interestingly, however, while science has documented the wide-ranging and specific positive impacts that meditation has on mental, emotional, and physical (as well as spiritual) health and wellness, relatively little has been known about the specific neurobiological effects of cultivating present-moment awareness and acceptance that underlie these benefits—until recently.

A 2016 study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that internal inflammation seems to be the central factor. Meditation practice reduces inflammation by causing particular changes in the brain’s functional connectivity. Chronic inflammation—the persistent, ongoing activation of the immune system’s defense response, even in the absence of injury or infection—is at the heart of many serious health problems, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s essential to understand that our thoughts are not the problem; the automatic habitual attention we give to our thoughts that allows them to carry us away on their current that is the problem. Meditation interrupts that process. It’s the difference between being swept away by a raging river and sitting on the riverbanks watching its flow. We have thoughts, but we are not our thoughts. Moreover, our thoughts aren’t accurate reflections of the reality of what is. We don’t have to become a protagonist in the stories (however convincing) they create or buy into and believe those stories. 

The main reasons that meditation has been around for over 2,600 years are that it has proven to be profoundly beneficial and at its essence, it’s impressively simple. Ironically, because life is so complicated for so many people, the simplicity of meditation can actually make it more challenging. Moreover, just because it’s simple does not mean that meditating is easy. It requires practice, patience, and perseverance. As the renowned Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo puts it, “It takes a lot of effort to become effortless,” 

Copyright 2020 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

References

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2018.08.023

J. David Creswell, et al., “Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation with Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Biological Psychiatry, 80, no. 1 (July 2016): 53–61.