Mca blog

Meditation Isn’t Weird

When I was 10 years old my Year 5 teacher told us a story about a scientist who happened to be a microbiologist. I don’t remember who she was or the context of the story but I clearly remember deciding at that very moment that this would be my future profession.

And it was. Eleven years later I graduated from the University of NSW with a Science degree majoring in Microbiology. I was so clear in my vision that I assumed that everyone had epiphanies like mine and knew what they wanted to do when they finished school. It took me some time to realise that this was a relatively unique experience. Some might say it was a calling, but I prefer to think of it as a passion that I was able to turn into a profession.

Whilst studying at university I found another passion – meditation. For decades I kept these two interests quite separate, as meditation was something that was considered unscientific, with claimed benefits that were anecdotal and had not been proven.

Then, several years ago, I attended a conference in San Diego on Mindfulness and found myself in a room full of scientists, doctors and psychologists, all of whom were meditators. I cannot tell you how empowering it was to “come out of the closet” and wear both hats at once: the meditating scientist!

There is no longer any question about the scientifically proven health benefits of meditation[1]. Studies have shown how practicing mindfulness can reduce blood pressure[2], enhance the immune system[3], increase clarity of mind[4] and even slow down the aging process[5]. Mindfulness meditation can reduce the symptoms of psoriasis[6] (a skin disorder), and produce a measurable increase in both grey and white matter in the brain[7]. Research shows a correlation between regular meditation and the non-expression of harmful genes[8], and that meditation is as effective as medication in treating mild-moderate depression with a lower relapse rate than anti-depressants[9].  On the whole, if we listen to the research, we should all be meditating every day.

But as simple as meditation is, forming the habit is difficult. Why? Because just like regular physical exercise making meditation a regular practice takes self-discipline.  Like all exercise, it can be boring, it can be frustrating. And in our 21st century western lives most people don’t like to get out of their comfort zone. We don’t like to be bored or frustrated.

You might think that meditation is getting into your comfort zone but that’s not always true. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you may have noticed that some days the stillness just happens, whilst other days the mind refuses to be quiet. As soon as you try to sit still you start to itch or fidget, or you remember the email you have to send, or you suddenly feel an urgent need to clean out a cupboard you haven’t been near in months. You may be restless, irritated, annoyed. The good news? That’s all normal!

This restlessness is just the mind throwing up distractions. The mind can be like a small child – as soon as it’s time for quiet the child wants to talk, have another glass of water, play. And just like you tell the child that this is quiet time, not playtime, so too you can discipline your mind. As thoughts appear, you can acknowledge them without going away with them. What are thoughts, after all? They’re just neural impulses that may or may not mean something. Awake or asleep, our brain can’t help but generate thoughts all the time and not even meditation will stop that, though it may slow it down.

When meditation feels calm, that is how it is. When the mind is busy, that is how it is. It is always whatever it is, and each meditation you do is the first meditation you’ve ever done at that time on that day. So it will always be different. No need to judge whether it’s better or worse – it’s different. That’s how it is. That’s mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the non-judgmental awareness of your present moment experience. If this is the attitude, the mindset you bring to your meditation, you will never be disappointed because you’ve let go of the “wanting it to be different”.

This is what it is today.

Some time ago the Australian Heart Foundation ran an ad that said: “Exercise: you don’t have to take it seriously, just regularly”. I would suggest the same applies to meditation. If you can commit to 20-30 mins every day you’ll get great results, and if you can commit to 5 mins some days and 15 mins on other days, you’ll still feel the benefits. It’s easier to commit to the regular practice if you accept that today you might feel bored or restless, or you may feel peace and calm. No expectations, no judgement.

Try this:

  1. Sit upright in a chair in a relaxed but dignified posture, feet on the floor, eyes closed or defocused a few metres ahead of you
  2. Notice how your feet feel as they connect with the floor. No need to move them, just sense them
  3. See if you can maintain your mental focus on this sensation – remember, you decide where you place your attention
  4. When you notice that your attention has wandered, which it will, notice the wandering and gently return your attention to your feet
  5. Be aware of thoughts and judgments as they arise. These thoughts are no problem unless you decide to follow them. So acknowledge them, let them go and return your attention to your feet.
  6. If you find yourself becoming too relaxed and nodding off, you can do this same meditation standing, resting one hand on the back of a chair for balance. The sensations in your feet will be stronger, so some find this becomes their preferred meditation posture.

Whether you’re a novice or an experienced meditator, it’s always helpful to connect with a teacher or participate in regular group meditation as it allows you to share your experiences and gain better understanding of how to deal with distractions or strong emotions as they arise.

The health benefits? Well, you may not notice them straight away, but it’s no different to going to the gym – it takes time for your new muscles to grow, but if you maintain a regular practice, it will happen.

References & Further Reading:

[1] Cayoun, B. Current Contributions of Psychological Research to General Health: The Case of Mindfulness Training.

[2] Ditto, B et al (2006) Short-term autonomic and cardiovascular effects of mindfulness body scan meditation Annals of Behavioural Medicine

[3] Davidson, et al (2003) Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine

[4] Desbourdes, G, et al (2002) Effects of mindful-attention & compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary non-meditative state Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

[5] Eppel, E et al (2009) Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

[6] Kabat Zinn, et al (1998) Influence of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Intervention on Rates of Skin Clearing in Patients With Moderate to Severe Psoriasis Undergoing Photo Therapy (UVB) and Photochemotherapy (PUVA) Psychosomatic Medicine

[7] Holzel, et al (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density

[8] Kaliman, P et al (2014) Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators

[9] Segal, Z et al (2002) Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse

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