The mind is analogous to a wild horse: it has tremendous strength and energy, but utilizes it indiscriminately. Much of its activity seems random, running at high speed in different directions, bucking and kicking. Like a fart in the wind, it’s all over the place. Though mindfulness and meditation, gradually and progressively, the mind’s energy and strength can be harnessed and intentionally focused. In facilitating a present-centered anchoring in the here and now, meditation trains the mind, accessing and conserving mental resources for conscious application toward learning, growth, and healing.
There are many ways to meditate, and different types of meditation utilize distinctive vehicles to establish and maintain present-centered attention. Meditation approaches can be divided into two basic styles. Concentrative practices are aimed at sustaining conscious attention on specific content, such as particular internal sounds or bodily sensations. Open awareness practices have a more broad-based focus, aiming to develop a big-picture monitoring ability in which sensory content and experience is registered, but not fixated upon.
Insight meditation (also known as mindfulness meditation) is an open awareness practice, while breathing meditation and mantra meditation are examples of concentrative practices. Insight meditation centers conscious attention on internal and external sensory stimuli using a relaxed though focused observation of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations as they arise and fall. Breathing meditation focuses on the breath—being consciously aware of your breathing, making that the locus of attention as you slowly and deeply breathe in on your inhale and out on your exhale. Mantra meditation concentrates conscious attention on a mantra, an energy-based sound that produces a specific physical vibration, and may or may not have any particular meaning. The word mantra means to free yourself from your mind. It originates from two Sanskrit words: manas, or mind, and trai, meaning to free from or liberate.
Meditation quiets the mind, helping still the thoughts that continuously wash over it. A common question of people beginning meditation is “how do I stop my thoughts?” The answer is, you don’t. The desire to “stop” thoughts mobilizes both resistance and judgment, and works against meditation’s fundamental intent. Even during meditation, other thoughts—including those related to the past or future—intrude on this most conscious and disciplined effort to stay in the moment. This is neither positive nor negative; it simply is. In my own meditation practice, when thoughts encroach, I’ve learned to observe them without becoming attached to them. I can note their presence, like birds flying by overhead, without letting them make nests in my hair or crap on my head. I become consciously aware that my mind has drifted away from the moment, and use that awareness to matter-of-factly refocus my attention and bring me back to the here and now.
Although there can be significant immediate benefits to meditation and mindfulness practice, the positive effects are also cumulative over time. Recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) finds that meditation produces positive changes in the brain’s ability to process emotions that endure even when people are not actively meditating. Small pebbles can create big ripples. This is especially valuable for anyone seeking recovery from addiction and/or chronic pain.
Stress affects everyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 90 percent of doctor visits in the US may be related to stress. Both active addiction and chronic pain are highly stress-sensitive conditions in that they are a source of great stress as well as exacerbated by the stress of distressing thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, and physical pain. Meditation and mindfulness practice are effective antidotes for stress, calming the nervous system by activating the relaxation response, a set of physiological processes that offset the physiological effects of stress.
In stimulating the relaxation response (the physiological opposite of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response), meditation flips a switch that turns on the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The parasympathetic division is involved in rest, relaxation, recharge, and conservation of energy. Upon its activation, breathing slows and deepens, muscles soften, metabolism and pulse rate slow, and blood pressure decreases.
The health benefits of meditation and mindfulness practice are wide-ranging and have been documented by extensive empirical research for over thirty years. In addition to decreasing stress with all of the secondary health gains that come with that, meditation has a protective impact on heart health by contributing to measurable decreases in cardiac risk factors. Empirical studies have demonstrated that meditation practice can help: reduce high cholesterol; reduce insulin resistance, glucose and even insulin levels themselves; reduce blood pressure and hypertension; and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke among individuals over the age of fifty-five.
Similar to keeping a fine instrument properly tuned, meditation practice enriches the brain’s neuronal structures, enhances connections, and affects neurotransmitter levels positively by decreasing those related to stress and arousal—cortisol and norepinephrine, and increasing those involved in relaxation and mood regulation—serotonin and GABA. When we exercise parts of the brain, which occurs during meditation, they become larger and denser with neural mass or gray matter.
Moreover, meditation can help people face physical pain more successfully. A study using magnetic resonance imaging technology that captures longer duration brain processes (ASL MRI) showed that meditation can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation. Meditation expands the ability to consciously shift the perception of pain, and better accept the pain that is experienced, without obsessing over or trying to change it.
Meditation and mindfulness practice become even more important in a world that is increasingly Attention Deficit Disorder-inducing, with seductive distractions constantly demanding our attention, normalizing unrealistic breadths of multitasking, and spreading ourselves more and more thin. Our technology-driven culture, with its twenty-four/seven connectivity via the proliferation of new mobile information technology and social networking platforms, places ever-greater demands on our time, energy, attention, and emotional availability. How common has it become for people to be plugged in to their smart phones, tablets, and other devices, absorbed in electronic pacification, completely disassociated from where they are and who they are with? And what are the mental, emotional, and spiritual costs of such disconnection?
Mindfulness-based applications that incorporate meditation have been developed for a wide range of behavioral health problems and populations. Empirically supported treatments that are based on or incorporate mindfulness training include: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Dialectical Behavior Therapy; Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy; and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Mindfulness-based protocols have also been developed for relapse prevention for addictive behaviors. With over 2,500 years of history and an expanding and compelling body of research behind it, more medical and behavioral health professionals are incorporating mindfulness practices, including meditation, into their approaches to helping people.