The mere mention of the word makes the eyes of many people glaze over, “it’s boring”, “I don’t have the time for it”, “my knees won’t let me sit in that position” and “I tried it once but I got nothing out of it” are all common gripes about meditation.
For many of us the word conjures up images of people seated in uncomfortable looking positions for hours at a time who might belong to obscure religious sects. Some kinds of meditation can be found in such settings but the fact is that many of us meditate without even realising it. So what is meditation and can it be scientifically defined and verified?
The human brain is an electro-chemical organ and an electroencephalagram (EEG) can measure the electrical activity inside the brain. Beta waves are the waves I am using right now, fully awake and focused on the rational task of writing this blog. In our normal waking and thinking state Beta waves predominate. When we meditate our thoughts turn inward and we disengage with the outside world and other types of brain waves become more active.
When we meditate our breathing and heart rate (pulse) slows, blood pressure falls and the parasympathetic nervous system predominates (the sympathetic is more active when we are not meditating). The brain waves that are most active when we meditate are called Alpha, Gamma, Theta and Delta waves, these waves are also more active when sleep. We experience these waves when we are being creative, are lost in the reverance of nature, reverently enjoy art and music, when we unconsciously run on “auto-pilot” and doing yoga. Swimming and surfing are active forms of meditation too.
Meditation and hypnosis have things in common, they both require a deepened state of relaxation both mental and physical for them to take place. There are different methods of inducing this state, a common one is to deliberately slow your breathing by focusing on it and then relax your muscles one part of your body at a time. You can use props like incense, soothing music and dimming the light, some claim that sitting or lying in a pyramid frame is useful too.
Going to bed of a night time is an easy place to start meditating, lie flat on your back, slow your breathing and fully focus your attention on it and then limb by limb go floppy. If you fall asleep in the process it does not matter because it is bed time anyway, if it worked you will awaken very refreshed and happy. You will usually have good quality sleep if you fall asleep this way.
Meditation calms us down but makes us more alert too, so if you are worried that it will somehow make you “lose your edge” don’t be because it won’t. Finding the time to meditate is like finding the time to exercise, you have to create space in your life for it, you do it BEFORE you do other things not after.