Whenever you think about meditation, you picture a long-haired Yogi sitting in the lotus position on a mat with candles, incense, and a gong. Maybe finger cymbals.
In fairness, back in the day when I was training to work for the Church, I would religiously spend an hour a day with a candle burning. I even had a small Tibetan style bell to let me know when the hour was up!
But let's not get distracted with stereotypes or images of such extreme practices which will probably put you off. I want to excite you about tapping into one of the most powerful tools you have in your armoury.
What is Meditation?
We could spend every day for weeks, months, even years discussing this. It is a practice that goes way back to ancient times, possibly beyond. There are wide-ranging ways to meditate, reasons, and so almost limitless benefits from the wide range.
One thing it is not is something you can master overnight! Seriously, when I first looked into meditation over 30 years ago, I saw an advert promising to help you be a 'master of meditation overnight!'
When I was training, as mentioned previously, one module covered meditation in great depth. After all, any spiritual practice, and yes, the Church of England does recommend this, relies on some level of reflection. It's practically prescribed! My tutor, a well-renowned heavyweight in the world of Christian meditation, enlightened me to 2 elements.
(Please note, this is not an article about religion; anyone can meditate, whatever your belief or non-belief system.)
Meditation and contemplation.
There are many other types, but we really will be here forever, so I want to focus on these two. Meditation is an active effort to understand something, a searching within, of what makes you who you are, or some more profound meaning of a bit of text. This should lead to a consciousness you would seldom find. Contemplation is the focusing of the mind on one particular aspect. It's like daydreaming about the most sumptuous meal you've just eaten. Sitting back and basking in how it's making your mouth sing with joy and your belly feels replete.
Most importantly, you do not have to spend an hour of meditation every day. You do not need to get into the Lotus Position to perform a meditation. You certainly don't need to grow a long beard, eat lentils, and wear socks with sandals. Once you are more familiar with meditation, you can access your inner mind quickly and just about anywhere. You can do it in 10 minutes; you can do it while running (my favourite while out in Richmond Park - mindful running.
Benefits of Meditation
As I've said, there are countless benefits, mostly depending on the type, duration, and purpose of your practice. To simplify things, here are five main benefits you will discover across the board.
1) Increases a sense of wellbeing
Studies have shown that regular meditation can release stress, lowering your cortisol levels, the stress hormone. Long-term release of this hormone keeps blood pressure high and helps generate body fat, especially around the waistline. By reducing your stress and anxiety, meditation can actually help reduce weight, although that will involve other weight loss methods.
Through the right meditation course, you can begin to focus on the better aspects of your life, your character, the world around you. This will increase calm. A 2011 study published in the 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal', found that a group of people spent a few hours each week meditating reported a significant decrease in job stress, anxiety, and signs of depression.
2) Promotes Emotional health
Calmness helps to focus on the lighter side of life. By following a course of meditation, you begin to feel more empathy towards others. You will start to notice your own 'trigger points' that would typically tick you off with someone else. With a warmer outlook on life that meditation can bring, you will develop a more profound understanding and compassion to loved-ones, work-mates, neighbours. You will find yourself more present in relationships.
3) Lengthens Attention Span, increased productivity
Being present not only relates to the society around you. Having learnt to control your mind, studies have shown that areas of the brain develop. These areas help with problem-solving, creativity, and a general focus on the problems at hand—memory increases, and with that, the ability to learn.
4) Helps With Sleep
We have already shown how meditation can help you relax. You can take this deeper, and with the right techniques, you will fall asleep faster. You will also have a better sleep quality, more REM sleep where the brain restores and recharges. This will all, in turn, give you a better following day.
5) Improves Overall Health
Many health issues stem from the problems mentioned above. So it naturally follows that these health issues will be, for the most part, healed. However, a broad scope of research has also shown other health improving elements of meditation.
Decreases blood pressure
Takes control of cholesterol
Increases anti-ageing hormones - actually helps slow down the ageing process!
My Top Meditation Apps
As with anything, there are a plethora of apps out there dedicated to meditation. Some are great, some are awful. There is also a mix of free and paid apps. Having personally used a few, here are my 3 top suggestions.
This is a free app offered by the NHS. You can use it for tracking your mood, but there are also some meditation techniques, breathing exercises, and relaxation tools. Initially, you could only get this through the NHS or related organisations, but since the pandemic, it has been made more freely available.
Both a free app and premium subscription (about £50 per year), this top-rated app includes 10-minute spoken meditations and some 'SOS' meditations should you require a quick fix from a sticky situation. It gives a simple approach to with world of meditation, removing all the mysticism.
Very similar to Headspace, but £45 per year. This has guided and spoken meditations that can go up to 25 minutes long. There are breathing exercises and a great section of grown-up 'bedtime stories' to help you sleep better.
There are also many free resources available online, such as on YouTube. It's always worth having a chat with a meditation coach who can tailor a meditations programme to meet your own needs.