Tell me, why should I bother meditating?
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
I know if I ever mention meditating, it sounds like such an abstract and weird thing that many people may think it's not for them. For a long time, I thought so too. How can I sit still for so long, and what do I even do? Why bother? Well, my friends, I am here to hopefully tell you why meditation will change our experience of life and how exactly we do this 'successfully'. Don't bash it, till you try it.
What even is meditation?
There are a few meditation practices that have been 'scientifically researched', meaning we know more about it. This is mindful attention and open-monitoring meditation. The first is where we focus on one single thing. This can be breathing, but can be a sensation in our body, a sound or even an object around us. The point is to keep bringing our mind back to what we're focusing on, when it wanders. The second is where we notice everything around us without reacting.
We do this to find that little pause between an automatic reaction and whatever has caused it. For example, our thought and the corresponding action. Although there are immeasurable transcendental and spiritual experiences, here I will discuss how it will help us in our everyday experience in a more tangible way.
You may have noticed, these are surprisingly simple. But definitely not easy. Like most things that provide discomfort and need a lot of effort, it can be very rewarding in the end.
My personal journey with meditation (starring: 'Anxiety disorder? You must be joking' and 'For goodness sake, would you sit still?)
I think it always helps hearing another person's account of their experience. So without further ado...
I am someone who found it incredibly difficult to sit still. I hate giving everything labels, as sometimes they serve no purpose. But I do believe it helps when it has become very disordered, as opposed to something that doesn't really disrupt your life.
Alongside that, my personal experience of an anxiety disorder (remember, different to everyday, human anxiety!) made it difficult to sit still without worrying I was wasting time. I had to constantly be on the go or be doing something, otherwise I would feel very anxious. The worst part was my racing thoughts that would not let me relax. Even if I took some time away to 'rest' it was difficult to feel relaxed with the constant bombardment of thoughts and nausea of 'impending doom' (amongst other things). But once you notice them, we react to it and make it worse. This is the key!
Before therapy and meditation I thought I had to remove the thoughts and physical sensations and force them to go. Like trying to stop a waterfall with a make-shift dam. Obviously, it didn't work. Working with my therapist to challenge thinking patterns with CBT and do gradual exposure of fears clearly helped. But it was the constant meditation that helped me feel relaxed for the first time in a really long time.
I almost gave up because it was so difficult at first. You have to completely face yourself, the scary thoughts and feelings. Like being told to jump out of a plane into the endless free fall. But for the first time, I realised all these things I feared are simply just there, like the clouds in the sky. What is actually me, is choosing to react and be swept away or simply observe and let it pass through. This is where meditation comes in...
YOU vs. the thoughts, emotions and body you HAVE
Meditation cultivates that separation of identity between 'you' and the thoughts, emotions and body you have. Just like you have a body, you just have thoughts and emotions. For some reason though, we seem to identify with them strongly. This is where trouble begins. We are startled or scared by our thoughts and emotions, and let them take us for a ride.
But YOU are in control. Thoughts are like a collection we acquired as we grew up and emotions a potential source of information. Nothing more or less.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. They can be overwhelming. But this is where meditation helps. After a lifetime of letting our emotions and thoughts control us, not being swept away by them is hard without some help.
Every time we sit down to meditate, our mind will wander. Then the moment we gently bring it back - we are building that mindfulness muscle! Our brain will learn to give us a little space for us to decide before the autopilot reaction.
Awareness vs. autopilot subconscious
It's funny as I was writing this, I found that I was constantly tapping my foot, a kind of manifestation of restless energy. I didn't realise until someone pointed out to me, as it was driving them to the brink!
Writing and meditation sometimes feel similar. Each one helps the other. They have both helped me slow down and take a pause.
The best part is coming out of autopilot and into awareness. Instead of someone else letting me know of the metaphorical 'tapping foot', I realise it myself in the moment.
I know what you're thinking... of course I am aware! It's not like we're animals, unaware of what is going on. Humans have consciousness.
But you know, that's kind of what we're doing. Except we think we have control of the helm, where in fact we don't. There are many learnt, automatic behaviours and thoughts, that happen before 'you' intervene.
Once we build this meditation skill, the uses and opportunities to change our life positively, is endless.
The mind is a well-meaning weirdo we need to make friends with
Okay, the mind is a little weird and can be frustrating. But instead of letting it control us or ignoring its presence, we can actually become friends with it. Like a lovable but sometimes exasperating friend, strong connections always make life better.
The strangest thing about the mind is all the things it does without us being aware. I couldn't even list them all here. The way it creates shortcuts in order to process this crazy world and our experiences.
Don't forget that without these things, you literally couldn't live with your brain. It is trying to be efficient for you. The problem is, when we are not aware of what is doing, and we think its all us. This means we can live in a haze, not knowing the reality of our experience.
Meditation, even starting with 10 minutes every day, is you making friends with your mind. It will be with you as long as you are, so might as well become good friends!
Your brain on meditation (this is for you sceptics out there)
This part reminds of me of a quote I learnt, during a neuroscience lecture:
“If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we'd be so simple that we couldn't" (Ian Stewart).
I don't know about you but I find the brain and mind, so fascinating. I won't bore you to tears, about all the brain parts and structures that it affects. But know this: those parts of our brains that are constantly on and busy, get a well deserved break (shown through fMRI scans). It strengthens the connections we need, and weakens the ones that decrease our wellbeing. This slowing down of activity, will have a lasting, positive effect on the brain.
If you want to know the technical but mind-boggling details of how the brain changes with meditation, then check this out! I love how this explains it in a way we understand without over-simplifying it.
So, 'actual' changes! If you're someone who likes physical evidence, this will be your cup of tea. Although, I do have to say to you, there's more to life than tangible evidence. Meditation is definitely something you just have to experience and feel the effects for yourself.
Increase emotional wellbeing, decrease illness
As many meditation experts will tell us, if we think too much about the end goal of meditation, it takes away from the practice. A little bit like pursuing happiness. The more we try to pursue it, the more elusive it will become.
Having said that, there are clearly remarkable benefits if we meditate slowly, but surely over a long time. I think knowing these will provide as the motivation to try and practice daily. Even starting with 5 minutes per day.
Better focus (trust me when I say, if I can do it, you definitely can!)
Focusing on the present (increases overall wellbeing and happiness of life)
Increasing patience and tolerance
Reduce negative emotions
Research also suggests, meditation helps people manage symptoms of conditions such as: anxiety, depression, chronic pain, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, IBS, sleep problems and tension headaches (source: Mayo Clinic).
But really, what do we have to lose? This goes back to always needing tangible evidence. Be open-minded and persistent. It could have immediate benefits but it could take longer. Take baby steps.
Not for the outcome, mind. Just a way to pause from your hectic life. You could then, accidently-on-purpose stumble across these benefits.
Thank you for reading this far! I hope that it encouraged you to try meditating. I would love to know how you get on, here or on IG (@homegrownwisdom).
Here are the closing words, my friend:
“By the practice of meditation, you will find that you are carrying within your heart a portable paradise" (Paramahansa Yogananda).
References and useful links:
Trouble meditating? Read this: https://www.headspace.com/meditation-101/trouble-meditating
More on meditation: https://buffer.com/resources/how-meditation-affects-your-brain/
The Science behind meditation: https://io9.gizmodo.com/how-meditation-changes-your-brain-and-makes-you-feel-b-470030863
The low-down on meditation (Mayo Clinic): https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858