Clear the mind or hear the mind? What is the purpose of meditation?
The short answer to this frequently asked question is simple: both.
I know, I know; without context, that answer doesn't really seem like much of an answer at all. Allow me to elaborate: meditation is a practice that can be performed in many ways, in many places, and for many reasons.
A common misconception about the practice is that it's meant to literally wipe your mind clean of all thought, and replace the unwanted chitter-chatter with images of unicorns riding fluffy clouds. And while that can be a achieved via meditation – if it is, indeed, your intention – it won't be the case for many people. When we approach the practice with specific expectations, we are more likely to resist the process and defeat the entire purpose of the meditative practice.
I've come to understand meditation as a moment of introspection; a time to check out and check in, all at once. How do I mean? Well, we humans have a terrible habit of shoving any unpleasant emotions, memories, or thoughts as far down as we can manage, until we are so backed up with stagnant, unwelcome energy, we eventually explode. I'm as familiar with this habit as anyone. But when we approach our meditation with the expectation that it's going to melt all of those things away, without our having to participate in the process, we're only setting ourselves up for disappointment, because it ain't happenin'.
Meditation is the perfect time to notice what's going on inside that busy mind of yours and practice responding to the noise in a more proactive way, because you have actively given yourself a point of focus: your breath. So, instead of shoving those feelings back down, take a good, long look at what's happening inside – notice it, acknowledge it, let it be what it is – and when you start to feel yourself becoming tense or angry or upset, choose to let it pass. Easier said than done? Um, yeah, a teeny bit... But it is possible. By returning your focus to the sound and sensation of your breath, you can – slowly but surely – bring yourself back to the present moment, and let everything else come to pass.
So, in order to actually “clear your mind,” you must first take a moment to hear your mind, without resistance.
Now, if all of this is starting to sound a little too “woo” for you, and you've found yourself wondering if meditation is actually worth the effort, don't fret just yet.The words “sit still” and “be patient” did not exist in my vocabulary when I initially began on my yogic journey. So, if you sometimes find yourself rolling your eyes at the idea of sitting with your breath for an extended period of time, know that I see you, I feel you, I WAS you, and I want to support you. To do so, I've come bearing research...
According to healthline.com, meditation has many science-based benefits, including the reduction of age-related memory loss, and the decrease of blood pressure. The most common – and most sought after – benefits of meditation, however, are the reduction of stress and anxiety. In the same article by healthline.com, they detail the many ways a regular meditation practice can lower stress and anxiety symptoms, which arise when the stress hormone, cortisol, releases inflamatatory chemicals in the brain. These are called cytokines, and they can disrupt sleep, increase anxiety levels, increase blood pressure, and contribute to fatigue and memory fog. Meditation helps alleviate these symptoms by sending oxygen to the brain and regulating the nervous system.
So, where do you begin? The beautiful thing about meditation is that it requires nothing but a willing attitude. That's literally it. You don't have to jet off to an Ashram, or jump right into a 10-day Vipasana, or even purchase a fancy meditation pillow; all you have to do is commit to the present moment and breathe. Nothing to it.
Here are some of my favorite simple meditations you can practice anywhere, any time:
Number one: SA TA NA MA.
This is a Kundalini mantra that helps to orient the mind and open it up to the possibility of change. You can perform this meditation by chanting each syllable while tapping each fingertip (index-pinky) with your thumb, beginning with the index finger, for at least one minute.
Number two: Peace Begins With Me.
This is another finger-tapping method that I've found to be particularly helpful in times of anxiety, when I've felt a panic attack beginning to arise. Simple tapping each fingertip gives your mind a point of focus, and the words “peace begins with me” sets an affirmative intention for the moments to come.
Number three: Breath retention.
A way to regulate the nervous system is to elongate the inhale, retain the breath for a few seconds, and lengthen the exhale.
For about one whole minute, try to match your inhales to the count of four beats, retain the breath for four beats, and exhale for four beats, then notice how you feel.
I hope you've found this helpful. If so, we at Mountain Yoga Studio would love to hear about the evolution of your meditative practice! Drop in for a visit, or contact us via the Mountain Yoga Studio Facebook page or on Instagram @mountainyogasusanville.
If you're ready to really dive in to your practice, swing by the studio Tuesdays at 6:30 to participate in a meditation class. We can't wait to see you!
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