I didn’t know anything much about meditation until my late 30’s when I went to an open meeting about it in the city where there was a large gathering of interested people. I was surprised to find it was so simple – just following the breathing.
But everything that’s “simple” is not necessarily easy, right? So I didn’t follow up with any meditation for another few years when there was more news about it, and I got interested again and began to meditate in earnest.
I started in a small way, just a few minutes, and then got up to about 40 minutes a day. It was quite astonishing that with just following the breathing I could “disappear”, at least my body seemed to, and I found it was extremely relaxing, although that is not necessarily the goal of meditation.
Then I got too busy and grew away from it, as often happens, but am back meditating again, and find that I have a good bit of work to do before I can get back to my previous level. I have taken courses and retreats in the past and learned a lot more about meditation. A weekend retreat is hard work because you just sit and meditate for a couple of hours, have a break and then repeat, but it does encourage self-discipline for body and mind.
Meditation reduces stress
There has been a lot of research about meditation, and there is evidence that for depression it is as good as any standard medical treatment. Meditation has been found to bring relief for depression caused by a number of different issues. It can also be used for anxiety and pain relief, and pain guru Jon Kabat-Zinn uses mindfulness meditation for pain in his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes.
Meditation helps reduce cortisol
Meditation reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which if high, can cause the brain to shrink – enough to depress anyone! But excess cortisol has other bad effects on the body. You may not notice an increase of cortisol in your body, but there are signs:
- Weight Gain
- Decreased concentration and memory problems
- Increased Blood Sugar Levels
- Reduced Libido
- High Blood Pressure
- Decrease in bone density and other things that you wouldn’t want to know about.
What causes high Cortisol?
Excess cortisol can be caused by certain medical conditions such as Cushing Disease, depression, anxiety disorder, Posttraumatic stress disorder, severe obesity, Metabolic syndrome, chronic pain, polycystic ovary syndrome, obstructive sleep apnoea and many other things again you wouldn’t want to know about. (but if you really do want to know more, you can find the information in an article in University Health News, 21.01.2019 “How to Recognize High Cortisol Symptoms”).
The most common cause is –
Stress! Too much stress causes an imbalance in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is a really good reason to learn to meditate because you can avoid many of the side effects of stress, improve your mind and your mood, and relax as well.
How to do it
Step 1. Allow some quiet time, preferably in the morning, lunchtime in a quiet spot away from work, or after driving home, where you stop a short distance from home for your 15 minutes of meditation. You can then arrive home relaxed and ready to be pounced on by the family.
Step 2. Loosen any tight clothing, and put on a timer that will gently wake you after whatever time you have decided on. This also makes sure you don’t go off to sleep which is definitely not meditating! Try for 5 minutes to begin with.
Step 3. Sit upright in a comfortable position with your back supported. Try and stay in that position without moving around all the time.
Step 4. Close your eyes (if you have contacts it might be an idea to put some drops in your eyes).
Step 5. Begin to notice your breathing, in, out, and count the breaths up to 15. This leads you in to the meditation where you can dispense with the counting and just notice your breath. Of course you will find that your thoughts intrude, or wander, or images flash into your mind, or you become distracted by sounds. But try and include them all except if extremely loud or there is some danger. Move if necessary or try another time.
Step 6. When a thought enters your head, just notice it and let it go, and at the same time say to yourself “One”. Return to the breath. This moves the thought away. You won’t get rid of all the thoughts but the idea is to concentrate on the breath instead of any distracting thoughts. This is only one way of meditating, there are many, and for more in-depth information a good book to read is Mindfulness in plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Wisdom Press, Boston. If you have chronic pain, then there is Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief (CD) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Extremely soothing.
Is it for everyone?
Meditation is not recommended for someone with severe depression as it can make the person feel worse. But when feeling better, then meditation may be started, but be aware that you need to be patient, because it may take 2 months to notice any real changes, and of course like any other new venture, you must be persistent and practice regularly. Be kind to yourself and not demand perfection. Once you become a regular meditator, you will find that you feel happier and your mood more positive, with your brain chemicals being more balanced. Meditation is a good treatment for depression and anxiety but not when those conditions are at a severe level.
Meditation can be relaxing and quite refreshing, clearing the mind. Be careful though not to fall asleep. Meditation is not sleep, and not as good as a sleep because even though your brain is in very slow cycles, meditation lacks the REM (rapid eye movement) phase which true sleep has. If you are really tired you need a nap or some sleep.
Many corporations for years have recommended meditation for their executives, but except for severe depression anyone can begin and follow the 6 simple steps above.
Be patient with yourself and the process. Be persistent and practice daily, preferably in the morning at the same time. Keep it up until you notice it making a difference.
If you need some guidance, there’s a good website called www.headspace.com where you can get a meditation app which is super popular.
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