Meditation and Mindfulness: Benefits and Exercises

Written by Sean Singer, veteran, yogi, and physical health instructor at Bellwood Health Services.

The year has been off to a rocky start, with conflicts in the Middle East, plane crashes, political and ethical issues with a certain president whose name rhymes with “rump,” and then a global lockdown due the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic—and all this before spring! No doubt everyone is feeling the effects of such turmoil and changes to their lives and daily routines. So how do we turn lemons into lemonade during these strange times? Mindfulness and meditation have been around for many years and are effective methods with many benefits. They includes various forms of meditation, whether still or moving, as well as consciously engaging in hobbies and other recreational activities. One might think that meditation and recreational activities should not be lumped together as they appear to have different objectives and outcomes. However, I believe that both are very useful for developing self-awareness which helps to still and calm the mind.

Meditation is brain training.

—Oprah

Reining in Our Racing Minds: Self-Regulation & Impulse Control

Our minds are so busy! People often say that their minds are “racing” to describe a continuous stream of intrusive thoughts that they can’t control. When we want to do something or make a decision, we often find ourselves struggling to focus or think clearly—hence the importance of being able to still one’s mind. A still mind is not a mind without thoughts, because that’s not how our minds or brains function. Instead of resisting your thoughts, you allow them to pass through. To paraphrase advice from one Zen master—your mind is like a house with both the front door and the back door open. When thoughts arrive, let them through—just don’t serve them tea. This is easier said than done! That is why we must train our brains to notice when we start serving tea to our intrusive thoughts. If you don’t develop the ability to let go of them, such thoughts will always be obstacles to achieving things that are important to you. Counterproductive thoughts such as negative self-talk, making excuses, or blaming others should be allowed to leave your mind as swiftly as they arrived.

Social distancing and isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic has given people more time to sit with themselves. Unfortunately, this sitting usually involves watching shows or movies, playing video games, or consuming anything that will distract us from the present moment. Don’t get me wrong—I love to do all those things myself, but the key is being able to regulate how much you engage in these activities. Self-regulation and impulse control are skills with which most people struggle. We know instinctively when to stop, we know our limits, but we tend to ignore that little voice or feeling that tells you when something is enough. As you sit at home binge-watching shows and eating snacks, you know you shouldn’t eat that last chocolate and shouldn’t click the “are you still watching button”—but we do it anyway. So how do we cultivate a better awareness of that inner voice so to improve our self-regulation and impulse control? We do this by practicing meditation and mindfulness techniques.

We’re Limited by Our Inability to Accept Discomfort

When you ask someone, “what do you think meditation is?”—especially people who have never tried it—you often get the same response: “you sit cross legged and chant ‘OM.’” For a long time it was viewed as an esoteric practice and was not accessible to the average person. However, there are many ways to meditate, to become aware of your body and mind. Sitting cross legged and chanting “OM” is definitely one of them. But regardless of the specific type of meditation, being physically still helps focus the mind. A seated position is usually the best starting position for all levels. Buddha sat under the bodhi tree meditating until he achieved enlightenment, approximately 2500 years ago—but you can still practice the same meditation technique today. It’s called “Vipassana,” which loosely translates to “insight” or special seeing. This relatively simple method involves sitting still for one hour and observing your breath and sensations. It’s usually taught in a 10-day silent retreat, where you devote your time to introspection and learning to sit with yourself, which can be uncomfortable both physically and mentally.

We spend most of our lives in our heads, we receive information about our environment through our senses and interpret it in our heads, and everyone has their own interpretation. This is important to acknowledge, because what I may perceive as discomfort might be completely fine for someone else. This means that everyone has their own unique experiences and there is no point in comparing each other’s experiences. Instead of thinking about what others are doing or perceiving, we learn to focus on our own physical self, through our breathing and sensations. This leads us to notice discomfort. Discomfort may have been one of the motivating factors that spurred the development of human intelligence. Entire industries are devoted to making people feel more comfortable, from running water and flushing toilets to reclining couches and Croc’s sandals. We do everything we can to avoid discomfort: we were taught from childhood to stay warm and cozy, so why the heck would anyone want to experience discomfort?

Mindfulness Meditation: Sitting With Discomfort

Sitting with discomfort is probably the most important aspect of any mindfulness practice—not just physical discomfort, but emotional and psychological discomfort as well. This is especially true when your daily routine has been disrupted and you can’t do what you normally want to do, and the things that usually give you comfort are unavailable. The first time I took a Vipassana meditation course in 2006, I learned to sit with discomfort. The effect on my life was profound. Previously, during my time in the military, I had very often been uncomfortable: wet and cold, hot and thirsty, tired and dirty. But sitting still for an hour, three or more times each day, was the most challenging discomfort I had ever experienced.

Simply sitting cross-legged wasn’t too difficult for me. However, the ideal position is with one’s knees at the same height or lower than one’s hips—and my knees could not do this. I had spent the first four days trying to get comfortable, building pillow forts and supports for my legs, but none of it helped. On the fifth day, I just gave in to the sensations of discomfort in my hips and legs. Suddenly everything relaxed, my hips opened and my knees lowered on their own.

Psychologically, it wasn’t much better, sitting with my own mental chatter, questioning what is real, “am I imagining that feeling or am I actually feeling something,” and, “oh that person is meditating so much better than me,” and on, and on. The way we were taught to refocus the mind, was simply to take a deep breath and come back to noticing our breath and sensations. When you notice a distraction or discomfort, acknowledge it, observe it, and keep breathing—remind yourself that nothing is permanent. This gave me comfort as I faced future discomforts and life events, to know that nothing lasts forever, that there is a beginning and an end to all things. So why spend too much time dwelling in misery?—since this too shall pass. Thus, understanding and accepting the transient nature of suffering is one of the many benefits of meditation.

Moving Meditation: Strengthening the Mind-Body Connection

If sitting perfectly still for an hour in silence isn’t your cup of tea, you can get very similar benefits from a moving meditation practice. It can be as simple as noticing that you are walking when you are walking, feeling how your feet land and lift off the ground. Or you can try specific disciplines such as Qigong, yoga, martial arts, and dance. At first, it may seem like you are distracting the mind with breath and movement. But paying careful attention to how your body moves, together with controlled breathing, will improve your mind-body connection.

Moving meditation can all be done at home with no equipment. You can do it whenever you want and the internet has many free guided videos. As long as you are moving, breathing, and maintaining your awareness and presence in the moment, you’re doing moving meditation and you’ll experience the benefits. Do it when you are walking, washing dishes, brushing your teeth. Whatever it is that you are doing, just observe it with your full attention and take in every little detail. This heightened state of awareness has the power to affect your brain chemistry, benefiting your ability to think and function. The practice of Qigong dates back approximately 4000 years and has a repertoire of more than 6000 poses and movements. Don’t worry!—you don’t need to learn them all, but I’m sure that you will like some of the moves. Qigong is a very gentle moving meditation and a practice session can be as short as 5–10 minutes. Yet its benefits are potent enough that you may notice subtle changes almost immediately.

Snapping Back From Dissociation

Isolation can sometimes cause dissociation, which is where you lose touch with reality or the present moment. Frequent dissociation can lead to depression and anxiety without you even realizing it. It’s also associated with a weakened immune system, increasing your vulnerability to disease—which is something you definitely want to avoid during this coronavirus pandemic. By training your brain through meditation, you benefit by developing the ability to quickly notice when you start dissociating, ruminating on the past or future. Once you’re able to catch it quickly, then it becomes easier to snap yourself back to reality. This ability developed through meditation will also translate to more general benefits such as helping you stay focused and being less easily distracted in general.

The Wim Hof Method and Influencing Your Autonomic Nervous System

Specialized types of breath work and meditation can have particular benefits by affecting your physiology. One method that has some scientific support is the Wim Hof Method, which involves breath work, cold therapy, and commitment. Wim Hof emphasizes that humans have the ability to adapt to natural stressors, and in particular to cold environments. He observes that training one’s mind and body to improve one’s adaptability requires doing uncomfortable things, such as taking ice cold showers, holding one’s breath, and being upside down.

People who commit and consistently practice the Wim Hof Method experience many health benefits, one of which is the ability to voluntarily affect their immune system. Dutch researchers performed an experiment where they injected Wim Hof and some of his students with endotoxins; control group participants were also injected with endotoxins but had no training in the Wim Hof Method. Control group participants became violently ill, whereas Wim Hof and his students showed minimal, if any, symptoms.[1] The researchers were baffled, because it was previously believed that humans could not voluntarily affect their autonomic nervous system—but Wim Hof proved that it was possible. Through meditation and breathing, he and his students were able to deliberately alter the functioning of their autonomic nervous systems, and thus suppress their immune responses.

Other Activities Performed Consciously Can Provide Similar Benefits to Meditation

If none of the previously discussed techniques appeal to you, there are many other options in the form of leisure and recreation. You can try colouring or painting, reading, writing, playing a musical instrument, playing games, and sports. If done carelessly, these activities can be distractions that just pass the time. But if you do them with focus, intention, and awareness, you will experience calm and contentment—very similar to the benefits of meditation. If you don’t currently have any hobbies or recreational interests, now is a great time to try something new, since you can’t leave the house! You can order a ukulele and start playing. There are videos and apps galore to help you learn knitting, card games, arts and craft, gardening—the possibilities are endless.

Pick an activity that interests you—ideally one that is slightly outside your comfort zone and that you expect will challenge you a bit. Commit some time each day to practice, cultivating discipline and focus. The human mind will resist all new and unfamiliar things. People don’t want to change, because change is stepping into the unknown, something that all humans naturally fear. But you can’t beat the satisfaction that comes from overcoming the resistance to act and starting to achieve something that you set out to do. Learning and improving at a new and challenging activity gives you goals and requires you to pay attention and act with awareness. Such mental states are similar to those achieved through meditation and mindfulness practices, and produce similar benefits.

Your Mindfulness Practice Is as Unique as You

There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to practice meditation and mindfulness. If you can achieve mental clarity and a calm mind without harming yourself or anyone else, then keep doing what works. During your life, there may have been times when you experienced a feeling of “oneness,” or being “in the zone,” but they were probably fleeting moments. The natural human inclination is to try to chase “good vibrations.” We desire to catch the same good feeling again, to relive a moment—but another moment can never be the same. Instead of engaging in this futile chase, we should observe thoughts and feelings as they come and go, without reacting and without judgment—this is the practice of meditation. The benefits of meditation are feelings of calm and peace, and the ability to maintain relaxed, effortless focus.

The ultimate goal is to stay present and grounded; to maintain awareness of your own existence, sensations, and breathing; to realize that you are in control of your every thought, action, and reaction. By being in the present moment, you can see things clearly as they are. With the mental clarity and focused concentration, you make better decisions. So, pick a mindfulness practice and go try it! If it doesn’t resonate or feel right, try another one. Keep trying until you find one that works for you. Then commit to it and practice consistently and diligently. Remember, meditation is brain training, and a better brain will benefit every area of your life. Happy breathing!

References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034215/

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