It feels like everyone is meditating (or, at least, talking about meditating!) these days. Still, there’s not much discussion about how to do it. For this reason, the practice can seem mysterious and intimidating and many give up before they ever really try it. It’s too bad, too, since science is adding validity to the benefits every day. Of course, this is not to say that something is only worth doing because science supports it but, rather, I mention it because it just shows that even the evidence-based thinkers of the world are saying that meditation can help people.
Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind
I was working at the University of Virginia when I heard that Richard Davidson was coming to the school. I volunteered to serve as an usher during this talk even though I really didn’t know much about what he was going to say. In the end, that afternoon changed my life.
Davidson is a psychologist and psychiatrist who specializes in neuroscience. He’s also a close personal friend of the Dalai Lama. As I completed my own degrees in psychology, I cited his work often but I will admit that, as a student, my focus was on getting my homework done. I wasn’t letting his research truly sink in as deeply as I should have. Still, I was familiar enough to be curious and I’m grateful for this every day.
The talk provided an overview of the work Davidson had completed in the previous six years. He investigated the neural changes associated with different forms of meditation. His groundbreaking research uncovered the possibility that meditation could be seen as a form of mental training to promote the regulation of emotion and attention.
The key to Davidson’s approach to meditation is mindfulness, kindness and compassion. His research has shown that, time and time again, regardless of age, when we focus on mindfulness, kindness and compassion, our brains physically and biologically change, our sense of well-being improves and our ability to cope with stress expands. There is also evidence that, as a result of our calmer state of being, our immune systems become stronger, making us better able to ward off illness. Who wouldn’t want that?
Types of Meditation
At this point, there are so many ways to engage in meditation. It seems like every week there’s some new variation and that’s okay! It does nothing to diminish the importance of the practice. It’s important to remember, however, that this is a deeply personal experience so, what works for you may not necessarily work for someone else and, again, that’s okay!
There’s this notion that the only way to meditate “correctly” is to completely clear your mind as you magically transform into some enlightened form for yourself. Are there people out there that can do that? Yes, probably, but it’s not realistic or even appropriate for most of us. We have lives, we have obligations and we have limited time. Does that mean we can’t also be masterful meditators? No!
A trend in Hollywood is Transcendental Meditation. Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Paul McCartney, Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern swear by the benefits. Their claims have been substantiated by research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, American Medical Association, American Association of Cardiology and the American Psychological Association among others. If you can afford the lessons, which can cost more than $1,000 for a single adult (but include free lifetime follow-up sessions), this is an incredible option! Unfortunately, most of us cannot afford to spend that kind of money.
Piggybacking off of Davidson’s research, two other methods of meditation are commonly referred to as Mindfulness Meditation and/or LovingKindness Meditation. First, you can try the Center for Healthy Mind’s Compassion Training which involves a 30-minute commitment every day for two weeks. If that’s a little too involved, have no fear – there’s an app for that! You may also visit websites that offer free meditation sessions such as TaraBrach.com.
Insight Timer App
The Insight Timer is my favorite way to meditate. The free app can be used on smartphones of all types and features recordings of various lengths and a seemingly endless number of topics. You can choose a basic meditation session to get into the habit or you can choose a session that is relevant to something you are currently experiencing. For example, I’ve definitely searched for ones that deal with difficult emotions or difficult people to help me when I’m struggling in a challenging situation. Do I believe that it helped me? Yes!
You can be very selective about how you use the app. You may choose to use the timer or you can select a guided meditation. Best of all, there is a feature that allows you to set a reminder to help keep you on track with your daily sessions.
A bit of warning, though. If you are mad at someone and you choose a LovingKindness meditation, you will likely be guided towards showing that person compassion and empathy. That’s not always easy, of course, and the recordings will remind you to show love to yourself if you can’t direct it towards that other person, but, if you can pull it off, you will be amazed by how much it changes your perspective on disputes, disagreements and bitterness.
Not About Religion
One final point I wanted to make is that meditation is not necessarily about a particular religion or belief system. Rather, it is a personal experience that connects you to the universe around you. You can belong to any denomination and meditate so do not feel like you are abandoning your own faith and values by engaging in this practice!