Written by Ishar Keshu, Yoga Teacher
Meditation is a practice that can dramatically improve your mood, well-being, focus, centeredness, compassion, and frequency among other things. If you are new to meditation, the practice can have a lot of great benefits for you. Studies performed by Dr. Peter Davidson on brand-new meditators have found that just performing seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation temporarily boosts positive feelings and a sense of social connection. And after 8 hours of training, the volunteers showed stronger echoes of the brain patterns found in more experienced meditators. Over time, loving-kindness meditation boosts the connections between our brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for guiding behavior.
Meditation also has the effect of dampening our brain’s default mode network which is responsible for mindless chatter. If you’ve experienced rumination of unwanted thoughts, mind-chatter, and random thoughts you can thank your brain’s default mode network. This function activates when we are doing nothing that demands mental effort causing us to hash over thoughts and feelings, and creates a running dialogue that we have with ourselves (which is often unpleasant). Meditation lessens the connection between our prefrontal cortex and the default mode which further quietens our mind. The more hours of meditation we practice, the more pronounced this effect is. With a quieter mind, we can then have the opportunity to consciously choose the thoughts we’d like to invite in to empower us to feel joy and raise our state.
With mindfulness-based practices such as Zen and Vipassana, there is a noticeable lowered activity in the amygdales of meditators. The amygdala is the part of our brain which triggers our fight or flight system. This system was helpful for our ancestors when faced with life-or-death situations such as noticing a tiger creeping up behind a bush or fighting an invading tribe. Nowadays, there aren’t too many life-threatening situations in our modern lifestyle yet our amygdala and fight or flight system can be activated through mini-stresses. This can include traffic jams, an angry boss or our unkind thoughts to ourselves which in turn produces cortisol, our stress hormone. The problem is that if we have chronic mini stresses in our lives, this creates a low-level buzz of cortisol in our system causing us to feel fear, generalized anxiety, panic, and burn out. Focused based meditation not only reduces cortisol levels in our body but also shrinks the amygdala and reduces its activity levels.
What I find fascinating about meditation is that its positive effects keep growing the more you practice. For beginner meditators, those with only a few hours of lifetime practice, they experience positive states of being, joy, and marked increases in their mood. For intermediate meditators, you start to see the practice create lasting changes in the brain, even when the meditator is not practicing. In seasoned long-term meditators, the incredible effects of the practice actually infuse with your being. This means that the brain wave activity of a seasoned meditator while at rest (this could mean just lounging around or doing groceries) and while practicing meditation actually look very similar.
As far as how long you should meditate, this will be dependent on your current experience with meditation and your schedule. I usually recommend for beginners to meditate anywhere between 25-30 minutes per day. Once you are able to do that, I then recommend 1 hour a day, as a minimum. For more intermediate to advanced meditators, or for those with freer time, I recommend a practice of 2 hours daily. When you meditate 20-30 minutes a day, you’ll notice some spaciousness and your thoughts slowing down throughout an ordinarily busy day. When you meditate an hour a day, you’ll notice deeper spaciousness, awareness and less pulling of your thoughts. When you meditate 2 hours a day, you’ll notice that the great benefits of your practice will start to spill over to your daily life making it more of a lasting trait.
Things You’ll Need
For seated meditation I recommend investing in a Zafu, which is a traditional round meditation cushion used in the Zen tradition. It is usually accompanied by a Zabuton, which is a larger mat placed underneath the cushion to provide padding for your knees and ankles. The idea behind sitting on a meditation cushion is that you are able to sit upright without any back support. When you sit in half lotus or full lotus, your legs form a triangular base which will support you upright. Half lotus is where you bring your right foot on top your left thigh or your left foot on top of your right thigh once seated in a cross-legged position. Full lotus is where you bring the bottom foot on above the top thigh once you are already seated in half lotus. This, however, requires a great deal of flexibility and generally isn’t recommended for beginners or people with knee or ankle issues.
If your knees don’t feel comfortable when you are sitting on a Zafu, a great alternative to that is the Seiza kneeling bench. As the name implies, the kneeling bench allows you to sit back closer to your heels and can be more comfortable than sitting on a Zafu.
If you aren’t open to these great meditation accessories yet, you can always use a regular chair in your house. However, I don’t recommend using a chair for a long-term meditation practice. This is because we have a tendency to slouch when sitting in a chair, since our back is supported and our muscles don’t engage. This not only effects the quality of our meditation practice but our posture as well. Sitting on a Zafu or Seiza bench may incur a learning curve and might be uncomfortable at first, since we are used to being propped up by chairs for most of the day, but in the long run it is most certainly worth the investment!
An Introduction to Mindfulness of Breath and Loving-Kindness Meditation
The two meditations discussed here are mindfulness on the breath and loving-kindness meditation. Mindfulness of breathing, translated to Ānāpānasati in Sanskrit, was originally taught by the Buddha centuries ago and is commonly taught in Tibetan, Zen, and Vippasana courses in the present moment. The idea behind this practice is that it much easier to concentrate and quieten your mind by focusing on a small point in the body, in this case, the tip of the nostril. By learning how to concentrate, we can sharpen our mind and experience insight, wisdom and eventually absorption into our meditation.
The second Meditation type is called Loving-Kindness (also known as Metta). This meditation practice can evoke feelings of warmth, connectivity and love. It provides a “human” element to our meditation practice and helps us feel connected with the world around us. As a side benefit, the loving-kindness practice is a great way to revitalize your spiritual practice if it’s starting to feel a bit stale or flat. The aim, like the name implies, is to radiate loving feelings towards all people in the world. Typically, you’d first start to evoke feelings of love and kindness to your self. Then, extend that feeling out to your closest family members and loved ones. From there, extend loving feelings to good friends and people you have a generally positive interaction towards. Then extend the feelings of love to acquaintances you don’t know too well. Then extend feelings of loving-kindness out to someone you are having a difficult time getting along with at the moment. Then extend feelings out to strangers and people all over the world. There are variations on which phrases to utilize, however the most commonly used formula is, “May all beings be free from hatred, difficulties, troubles, and live in happiness!” You would substitute the words “all beings” with the specific people you are focusing on in this practice (until the end where you include everyone).
The idea behind this practice is that if you eventually learn how to love people you may not know well or are having a difficult time with the same as you do your close loved ones, you will then start to come closer towards the energy of unconditional love. And this is a very high state to be in!
Ānāpānasati – Mindfulness of the Breath
- First find a comfortable seat on your meditation cushion. Keep your spine upright and your ears in-line with your shoulders. Your eyes can be closed, as traditionally taught, or softly open gazing 45 degrees down from you. Place your hands in cosmic mudra; place your left hand over your right with thumbs lightly touching and both palms facing upwards.
- Once you are settled in your posture, bring attention your breath. Observe the *natural* inhalations and exhalations in your body without consciously controlling your breath.
- Then bring your attention to the tip of your nostrils, paying attention only to the sensations you feel here. You might notice as you inhale the air feels cool against your nostrils and as you exhale the air leaving your nostrils feels warmer. Remember, you are not focusing on anything other than the sensations you feel at the tip of your nostrils. This includes not consciously controlling your in-breath or out-breath.
- Continue paying attention to the sensations as you inhale and exhales for the remainder of your meditation session.
Metta – Loving-Kindness
- Before starting the meditation, you may decide to set a stopwatch or timer at intervals to indicate when to switch your awareness from one category of people to the next (i.e going from extending loving-kindness from yourself to loved ones, and so on). However, if you find this method is jarring or distracting, you can choose to follow your intuition instead without the use of interval timers.
- Find a comfortable seat on your meditation cushion. Keep your spine upright and your ears in-line with your shoulders. Keep your eyes closed in this meditation as it will be easier for you to visualize the people you are extending loving-kindness to. Place your hands in cosmic mudra; place your left hand over your right with thumbs lightly touching and both palms facing upwards.
- With your eyes closed, bring your awareness inwards. Repeat to yourself, “May I be happy, free from suffering, troubles and difficulties.” To make it more powerful, actually visualize yourself in a happy, care-free state. Extend that love out to yourself. You can also see yourself doing things that make you happy. There aren’t any rules; just visualize an ideal happy and loving version of yourself. For a 25-minute meditation session, stay with the awareness on yourself for 5 minutes.
- Next imagine in your mind’s eye, close family members and loved ones. See them in a happy and joyous state. Repeat the mantra “May you be happy, free from suffering, troubles and difficulties.” You can either imagine your loved ones all together in one scene or individually in your mind’s eye. I prefer the latter as the personalized approach builds stronger feelings of loving-kindness for me. Also, for added connectivity, get specific about the things that they would be happy about. For instance, if your sister is applying for colleges, imagine the joy on her face once she receives her an acceptance letter from her dream school. Continue focusing on your close loved ones for 5 minutes.
- Now bring your attention to good friends and people you generally enjoy interacting with. As with the previous steps repeat the mantra “May you be happy, free from suffering, troubles and difficulties.” along with visualizing their happiness. Continue with them for 5 minutes.
- Start to bring your attention to acquaintances and people you don’t know too well. This can include your barista at your local coffee shop you see once a week or your neighbor you occasionally see on your morning walks. Though you only see them briefly, they are going about living their lives just like you! They have daily goals, car payments, hobbies they enjoy, etc. Wish them the same happiness and joy as you would to a close friend or yourself. Repeat the mantra “May you be happy, free from suffering, troubles and difficulties.” for 5 minutes.
- Next, bring your attention to someone that you are currently not getting along with, or a difficult person in your life at the moment. Realize that, they too, are sentient beings with feelings, passions, and the same basic needs as you. They also desire to be happy and free from suffering. So picturing them in your mind’s eye repeat “May you be happy, free from suffering, troubles and difficulties.” You can keep this portion a bit shorter if thinking of a difficult person brings up turbulent emotions.
Lastly, imagine beings all over the world experiencing happiness and being free from suffering. If this is hard to conceptualize, you can start off smaller by visualizing people in your country or state. All beings wish to feel safe, loved, and happy despite differences in age, lifestyle, race, gender and other factors. We are all sentient beings! Repeat the phrase “May all beings be happy, free from suffering, troubles and difficulties.” Continue with this for an additional 5 minutes (or longer!) before ending your practice.