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John Kabat-Zinn and many other psychologists have discovered that meditation has a profound effect on how we feel. Studies have shown that in six week weeks of only three 20 minute meditation sessions per week, subjects were demonstrating profound changes in the left pre-frontal cortex, an area responsible for one’s feelings of well-being.
Not only does meditation help us in the long-term, but it helps us in the short-term, as well. It is through the practice of meditation that we are able to accept all the negative aspects of life without identifying with them. Although it is certain that we will all experience grief, suffering, loss, pain, anger, and despair at some point- by being practiced in the art of meditation, we are equipped with the tools to prevent them from taking us under.
Meditation is ours for the taking. It does not cost us anything but a few minutes of our time and patience. Meditation has also been shown to have various other health benefits, most notably with its connection to the Vagus nerve, which helps to decrease cortisol production (the hormone responsible for giving us those little stress guts).
I have run hundreds of “happiness” groups, focused on helping patients increase their feelings of well-being without the use of drugs or alcohol. A core pillar of these groups is the exercise of meditation. Many of those patients initially showed some resistance to the idea, likening it to some “new-agey” or “hippy” trend. Most were unsure of what it really was, and most importantly- whether they could do it right. Meditation is not an easy practice. It can often feel like changing the course of a river. The following are the basic tips for meditation that are sure to get you started in the right direction:
1)Posture- Make sure that you are sitting on a firm surface or firm pillow. You can either sit on the floor with legs crossed or in a chair with legs shoulder width apart. Just make sure that you are not leaning back on the chair back. Ensure that your back is upright, as if you are sitting on a horse. This posture helps remind the body that the mind is in control. It is a posture of dignity and respect, and symbolizes the act of meditation for yourself each day.
Make sure your chest is lifted and open. This shows that you are open and receptive to what this meditation brings. Make sure that your shoulders are back and relaxed, and that your mouth and jaw are also loose. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends you try slightly smiling.
2) Detachment- A common misconception is that meditation should be an absence of one’s thoughts. This is not possible. View your mind’s energy as you would a flowing river. Each leave that passes, represents a thought. It is your goal to observe those thoughts without judgement, like leaves on a river. Once we are able to separate ourselves from our thoughts, they can no longer bring us the same pain they once did. We soon become comfortable just being with our thoughts, even the most painful. As a thought comes to view, we might think “oh that is interesting that thought has come up now,” and let it pass down the river.
3) Routine- Make sure that you set aside some time for meditation at least three to five days a week, at first. My guess is that once you start to notice the benefits, you will be doing it seven days a week. Most of my patients were on a medication regimen, so I advised them to set aside time for their meditation at the same time they took their medication every day. Another favorite time is right after you wake. This is when the mind is the freshest and most restored. Some prefer right before bedtime. Just make sure that you are not confusing meditation with napping. Meditation requires an alert state of mind.
4) Hands- Your hands can be in one of several positions. These are known as mudras. Each position envokes different feeling states, such as balance, openness, or groundedness. One is the classical forefinger to thumb position. This can signal to the mind an on-the-spot concentration that is often needed for meditation. Another hand position is each hand on the knees, palms facing up. This signals a receptivity to your meditation, an openness to what comes. Some people prefer the traditional Christian prayer position, with both palms pressed together under the chin. The last position is hands on each knee, palms facing down. This envokes a feeling of groundedness, strength, and balance.
5) Eyes- Many people prefer that their eyes are closed. This can be a good thing in that you are not distracted. However, if you find yourself becoming sleepy, you may want to pick a spot about 4-6 inches on the ground in front of you and focus on this during your meditation.
7) Breath- As you get started, simply focus on the breaths coming in and out of your body. You can start by inhaling for four, holding for two, and exhaling for four. This puts the body in a deeper state of relaxation (you may even find yourself getting a slight buzz from the amount of oxygen you are taking in) because we do not normally breathe at this slow pace. As you inhale, notice your belly start to rise, as you exhale notice it grow smaller. Remind yourself that each breath is cleansing, like a broom sweeping out the cobwebs of the soul.
Ending- At the end of each meditation, many choose to clasp their hands together in the traditional prayer position, bowing their head in gratitude for the meditation as well as showing respect to a higher order in the universe.
Dr. Colleen Long has a doctorate in Clinical Health Psychology from Spalding University in Louisville, Ky. She is the author of Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E and is a successful coach to entrepreneurs around the world. Her professional site can be found on www.DrColleenLong.com, and she is the founder of Aesthetic Genetics- a site focusing on helping couples who struggle with infertility combat stress, which has been proven to be responsible for around 30% of infertility issues. She is the creative director for FreudTV, which is the only site of its kind, developed to help psychologists and psychiatrists connect with the media, as well as each other.