A scientific peek at meditation (and my favourite)
by Sue Kira, Nauturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Before revealing my favourite meditation, I feel it’s first worthwhile to present a brief scientific viewpoint (although when meditating, science is the furthest thing on my mind).
Meditation itself is not a religion, although some religions practice meditation in daily rituals and consider it a religious or spiritual experience. But there is no need to be aligned to a religion or group to meditate – it’s purely a personal practice.
Meditation is quite different to our normal waking state and very different from sleep during which we have limited awareness.
Meditation is a conduit to stillness, our inner self. It’s a way to deeply relax the body and release inner tension. With sustained practice, meditation can develop presence, awareness, harmony and joy and the capacity to cope with life’s problems calmly.
There are many different meditations to quieten the mind and expand awareness. Most techniques seek to focus attention gently on a physical or mental phenomenon, which may be an object, a sound, a thought, or a physiological process.
Modern research shows that frequent meditation creates balance between the two hemispheres of the brain. You can develop the ability to deliberately change your brain level functions. When you develop this skill you can change any negative programming buried in your subconscious so you can function in a harmonious state.
Brain wave patterns
Just as your heart beats at so many times a minute, your brain also emits a certain number of vibrations, or cycles per second. The four brain-rhythm patterns are called Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta.
The Beta level is the level in which you live, eat and work most of the time. In Beta, the mind focuses on the physical dimension, the physical senses, time, space, intellect, belief and reason. Beta is where you also experience stress, tension, negative thinking, depression, self-doubts and emotional outbursts. Beta is left brain driven.
The Alpha level is the level in which the mind is focused on inner levels of power and awareness. Alpha is the source of inspiration, intuition and creativity. The mind is free from the worries and frustrations of the physical world. The average person operates in this level during rare fleeting moments of strong emotion or deep thought.
The next level is Theta. For most people Theta is the sleep level. It is an easy-to-learn conscious disconnection of the body and the mind, with little awareness of physical sensations. In Theta meditation you can access your ‘beyond everyday thinking’ mind to envision the future and discover extraordinary inspiration and empowerment. Theta and Delta is where the most profound healing occurs.
The slowest level of brain wave pattern is the Delta level. This is the level of very deep sleep – the unconscious. Delta is the deepest meditative state.
As we use meditation to slow the brain waves from beta to alpha to theta and to delta, there is a corresponding increase in balance between the two hemispheres of the brain. As the brain waves slow down and the brain balances, you tap into ‘whole-brain’ thinking.
What is ‘whole-brain’ thinking? This is where we use both sides of the brain to think, rather than one side at a time (as we usually do). We have heard how we normally use about 10% of our brain; with ‘whole-brain’ thinking we tap into more of our brain’s capacity and our potential.
‘Whole-brain’ functioning is associated with increased creativity, insight, learning ability, problem solving ability, memory, reading our bodily imbalances and healing.
However, from an energetic perspective, research suggests the brain is a receiver and our true intelligence impulses come from our inner most, known as the inner heart, which is deeper than our physical heart and believed to be the access point to the source of wisdom and intelligence.
The ongoing research into the heart brain communication will be fascinating to follow, particularly as meditation is a connection to our inner most.
Meditation and Hormones
Research has shown that meditation dramatically affects production of three important hormones related to longevity, stress and well-being. These are: cortisol, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and melatonin.
Cortisol is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands. In increased amounts, cortisol is a major age accelerator which also interferes with learning and memory and in general, bad news for your health and your well-being.
Cortisol is the ‘stress hormone’ so we need some of it to combat the effects of stress. However during prolonged stress, cortisol increases to un-healthy limits. The more cortisol in your body, the more stressed you feel. You are then more susceptible to disease and you age faster!
DHEA is another hormone produced by your adrenal glands. DHEA is a precursor to virtually every hormone your body needs. When levels are low, you’re more susceptible to ageing and disease; when DHEA is high, the body is at its peak – vibrant, healthy and able to combat disease effectively.
DHEA acts as a buffer against the stress-related hormones such as cortisol. As you get older, your body manufactures less DHEA, making you more susceptible to stress and disease.
Melatonin is a hormone that helps create restful sleep. We produce less of it as we age. During sleep many important rejuvenating substances are created in the brain and the inability to sleep soundly can dramatically decrease the quality of your life and accelerate the ageing process. New research also reveals that melatonin is a powerful antioxidant, even more powerful than Vitamin E.
Regular meditation can help you reduce the production of cortisol in your body, while increasing the production of DHEA and melatonin.
I’ve experienced numerous types of meditations and while there’s a difference in techniques, fundamentally they are about quietening the mind and connecting to self. Here are some…
Transcendental Meditation (or TM) was developed and brought to the west in the late sixties by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and popularised by the Beatles. It’s a silent meditation, 20 minutes twice per day sitting with eyes closed, repeating a personal mantra to oneself which is given by a teacher.
Merkaba Meditation by new age spiritualist Drunvalo Melchizedek, was a technique I tried for a while to ‘make conscious contact with my higher self’. It involved seventeen different breaths to reach completion, with the last three breaths recreating rotating tetrahedrons. It was ‘out there’.
Others included: Chakra Meditations, where you imagine your chakras bathed in colours; Singing bowl meditations where you listen to the sound made by a stick tapping different bowls and rolling around the rims, so that various frequencies are said to align you to deep brainwave states; then there were chanting meditations, such as the classic ‘OM’; there were meditation music tapes; and tapes with guided meditations to follow.
Many meditations I tried were quite time consuming, which wasn’t suitable for my busy lifestyle with children to care for and a busy business to run. Some were amusing, but just didn’t ‘do anything’ for me. Probably the best at the time were guided meditations on tape (provided they didn’t go on for too long).
Some think meditation will transport them to bliss, nirvana, and a life transcending reality. Sure, that could possibly happen if you meditated 18 hours a day, cross-legged in a cave in the Himalayas…but what purpose does that serve?
Most information about meditation is about the upside and how we can develop presence and awareness.
The problem for some is the ‘expectation’ where meditation becomes an exercise in ‘trying’ to get ‘there’ rather than allow the process to develop with consistent practice over time, in turn followed by disappointment and abandoning meditation altogether.
My article, Creating new neural pathways investigates the science of Neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to regenerate cells and rearrange neural connections. This means, through our actions, we can ‘reprogram’ our body and dispense with old destructive habits.
The key to doing so relies on ongoing repetition so the new neural connection (habit) becomes natural. And likewise, consistent regular practice of meditation is paramount if you wish to make changes in your life.
The next point is to have no expectations. Go with flow.
But there are situations where meditation may not be appropriate, particularly for those with mental health problems or anxiety. Some may find that if meditation is ‘not working’ then there must be something wrong with them, which amplifies negative belief patterns. Meditation-associated anxiety is real and can be devastating. Meditation is not a ‘cure-all’.
Having stated that, there are other approaches to consider, which follow…
My favourite meditation is the Gentle Breath Meditation™ which I find is the simplest and most effective. It’s time-efficient, practical and can be performed anywhere, at any time. There is no set length of time – it can be effective in short snippets – say 2, 5, 10, 15 minutes or longer (your choice). But initially, I suggest 10 minutes say once a day and another couple of short sessions whenever you get the chance. Later you will know what works best for you.
Try to eliminate potential distractions if possible. Sit comfortably, with your spine reasonably straight. This allows energy to flow freely up the spine which is an important aspect of meditation. You can sit in a chair, on the bed, on the floor, basically anywhere that’s comfortable. Leaning against the back of a chair, a wall, a headboard etc is perfectly acceptable. Your legs can be in any position – it is not necessary to sit cross-legged. And of course, the toilet is a good place to ‘escape’ and meditate.
If, for physical reasons, you cannot sit, lay flat on your back. Place your hands in any position that is comfortable.
This pure form of meditation is where you follow the breath by breathing in and out through the nose. Initially, focus on the area at the tip of the nose and observe the feeling of the cool air gently entering your nostrils. Do this for 3 or 4 breaths and breathe out naturally.
After a few in-breaths, begin to also focus on the out-breath by observing warm air flowing gently out of your nostrils. Then continue to focus on both the in-breath and the out-breath for as long as you wish.
As thoughts drift in, allow them to drift away again and re-focus on the tip of the nose and follow the air flow. Have no expectations…simply be with the breath and if thoughts keep coming in, that’s ok. Some days the mind will be active, others it will keep out of the way.
That’s it. Simple.
At first, practice with your eyes closed, then as you progress, meditate with your eyes open, or mix it up if you wish.
As it builds, the meditation becomes quite natural. You will find it’s easy to activate the gentle breath and incorporate it into your life throughout the day – as I am doing now while typing.
With frequent practice, the Gentle Breath Meditation™ can have a profound influence on your life. It’s a meditation that creates harmony within the body and allow you to access a deep ‘knowing’ that comes from the soul and connect you to your inner truth and universal knowledge, in turn leading to energetic integrity, vitality and freedom.
I mentioned before the difficulty for some to meditate because of mental health issues or expectations about meditation that can create anxiety.
Because the Gentle Breath Meditation™ is not a structured process and can be practised for short periods of time, this can benefit those who have difficulty connecting. Short meditation periods can gradually ease participants into a more sustained practice.
Nevertheless, some may still find the Gentle Breath Meditation™ difficult to connect to. It may also be difficult for some to connect to when feeling stressed. But there is another approach called Conscious Presence.
Conscience presence is where the mind and body are in unison. For example, you go for a walk and you are completely engaged with what is being presented to you (as opposed to thinking about anything else outside that sphere, including past or future stuff).
Off you go and bring your attention to what is around, particularly nature. Observe the birds, colours of leaves, the feel of the breeze, sounds, smell. Observe your body – the tips of your fingers, how your body moves, how your feet touch the ground.
Too wet to go for a walk? Then bring your attention to your hands and body while you make the bed, wash, or brush your hair. When you eat, smell the food, focus on each mouthful and be conscious of the flavours, textures and tastes. Observe how each mouthful feels. What does your tongue do while you chew?
You can be present whenever you choose to be. It’s when your attention is focused on what you are doing right at that moment, whether it’s closing a door gently, washing up, gardening, lifting, shopping or working.
Conscious presence is a meditation, a quality of being, and while you are present, observe your breath and notice how gentle it has become. Gentle breath by stealth?
You can live your life as a meditation by simply observing what you are doing, feeling or thinking (and no, you don’t have to be perfect at it). Just by becoming aware of your breathing, for example, you can quieten your thoughts and create a deepening sense of relaxation.
Presence, gentleness, awareness, connection, harmony…what a lovely way to experience life and bring love through inspiration to others.