Meditation and mindfulness: what you need to know
‘Meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ are now accepted mainstream terms and are backed by a large body of research into the physical, mental and emotional benefits they offer. In much of the commentary, these two terms are used interchangeably.
Confusion around the terminology and unclear context sees a lot of people swerve around the exploration of meditation and mindfulness entirely. In doing so, they are denying themselves the cultivation of powerful natural techniques to heal and live an empowered life.
So, here’s the low-down on meditation and mindfulness for those starting-up their meditation practice.
What is meditation and what is mindfulness?
Simply put, meditation is an enabler for transformation.
It is largely understood to be a way to find the still eye at the centre of the hurricane of modern life, moving us from a reactive to responsive engagement with life, into mindful living. This, in itself, is a worthy shift, yet the practice of meditation takes us well beyond it.
Corporations are introducing meditation and mindfulness programs into their employee wellbeing menus. Schools are offering meditation as an extracurricular activity and home group teachers are bringing short practices into the classroom as part of their positive education initiatives. Meditation centres are popping up in neighbourhoods and yoga centres and religious centres are starting to emphasize their approaches to meditation more overtly and a myriad of wonderful, clever apps have flooded the Internet space.
On the big stage too, we are seeing celebrities, business leaders, opinion formers and politicians all coming out as avid meditators as if it’s the latest solution to emerge on the wellbeing scene. Despite many of us quietly meditating for years, and ancient spiritual frameworks offering deep, profound wisdom in the art of meditation for thousands and thousands of years, you could say that the ‘old school’ has well and truly become the ‘new cool’.
Yet, despite the buzz and the daily posts on social media sites, there remains a lot of misconception around what meditation actually is, and why to engage. Like any popularised practice, sometimes the smarts behind the actions fall away and while many take up the practice, the deeper understanding of it is lost. Yoga would be a good case in point. Many students are surprised to learn that the original purpose of yoga asana is to prepare the body and mind for meditation and inner work. The fact that regular practice gives you long lean limbs, core strength and a tight yoga butt, is a happy side effect of aligning the energetic systems of the body.
The approach to meditation is the same. Many come to it to relieve stress or improve sleep, for example, which of course it does and relatively quickly with regular practice. But, settling the central nervous system is simply the first turn of the key to unlocking the gateway to empowered living. Once you are able to settle the nervous system and alter brainwave patterning at will, you can enter this inner space, consciously and really get to work.
How do meditation and mindfulness improve our lives?
I find it fascinating that the more we meditate, the more our system changes to enable deeper and better meditation. It’s a natural virtuous cycle that evidences the fact that we are designed to meditate and live creatively through our inner aspect. With regular meditation, we change our default perspective for viewing life. We start to observe ourselves and we start to see the cause and effect of our thoughts, feelings and actions. We start to see the thought and emotional patterns we are bound to and we’re able to observe our reactions to these patterns in our bodies and sense of wellbeing.
This observational state is mindfulness.
For new-comers to meditation, it can be quite an awakening. Very often I see people in my courses come to the shocking realisation of how stressed they have become, of how less vital and sensual they feel and how they have lost their sense of intuition, their inner knowing. The pace of our modern lives requires a mechanical approach to keep up, especially if we’re running a family, home, career, or have children or a partner to support. And when we are in this mode, we become reactive to our outside world and a slave to time. We miss the present moment and we are always shocked at how quickly life is flying past us.
What is mindfulness meditation and how does it help?
Within the thousands of meditation approaches that exist, there are some that are called ‘Mindfulness Meditations’, where the point of focus of the meditation practice is simply to observe. However, all meditation practices lead to a mindful state.
If we continue to nourish this ability to witness ourselves and our lives through regular meditation, we shift from reactive to responsive, and with this shift comes a marked fall in adrenaline and cortisol hormones in the bloodstream. This vastly improves cognitive function. Parts of the brain actually rebuild physically. Our cells regenerate, our body chemistry changes, we sleep better, we dream and we start to feel great. This positivity and calm improves relationships and exchanges, and we feel a connectedness with our life field, and more importantly, with ourselves.
A broader field of choice opens up for us. We have the inner space, clarity and wellness to choose the person we want to be, and how we respond to life and others. We become expansive.
We start to read situations better. We start to feel spontaneous gratitude, kindness, generosity, and love. These beautiful higher feelings are harmonising, soothing, restorative and blissful and they gently change our behaviours.
We give of ourselves more. We smile more. We want the best for others and we try to help them. We forgive more and jettison past hurts, regrets and resentments. We choose our friends differently. We choose to expose ourselves to life-supporting, positive content. This beautiful shift into expansiveness is where we heal and where we start to connect much more palpably with the energetic nature of the self and life. We become creative.
What happens when we start to meditate and establish mindfulness?
At the outset, for the new meditator, the practice is essentially mind-training, to gain mastery over thought and the system’s responses to thought-patterns. It is about reclaiming ‘present awareness’.
In this context, ‘to meditate’ is to consciously draw in the dissipated mind, calm the mind/body system and dwell in a state of clear, alert awareness, at will. It combines posture, the focus on breath, and a single point of focus for the mind. Every time we catch our mind wandering and bring it back to the point of focus for the practice, we exercise the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for our ability to concentrate the mind on the present. Yes, meditation enables the ability to meditate!
There are literally thousands of different ways to meditate and beautiful meditation practices from every culture and spiritual modality. Yet, essentially at the outset, they are all about the same thing – using various techniques and points of focus to train the mind into present awareness.
It’s exactly like getting fit or learning a new skill. It requires dedication to familiarise yourself with the art. You can’t decide to start playing the guitar one day, and then give it up because you’re not able to unleash Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven immediately. It’s similar when we train our bodies. A little exercise every day, very quickly cultivates a new stronger level of fitness and endurance.
Meditation works exactly the same way.
Neuroscience confirms that a daily practice of at least ten minutes every day will establish the neural pathways and associations in the mind, to help master the move into present awareness. The more we dwell in present awareness, the more it establishes as our operating state. We start to live mindfully. A pause point is established between our interface with life experience and how we choose to respond.
Mindfulness is the ability to experience day-to-day life from this viewpoint. It helps us recognize our habitual emotional and physiological reactions to day to day events.
Just like learning a new skill or getting fit, meditation requires a dedicated choice to do it, a push to practice. And after teaching meditation to thousands of people over the years, I can absolutely confirm that within a very short time, that ‘push’ flips to a very strong ‘pull’. Your system recognises the innate benefit of the practice. Your body starts to heal from the damage of reactive stress triggers. Meditation pulls you towards it. And there are also some wonderful meditation practices that specifically circuit-break reactive stress responses as you embark on this transition to mindful living. These are explored in the current online Introduction to Meditation Course – Return, now open, with nine beautiful guided meditation tracks to support you.
If you wish to learn more about meditation and mindfulness or have any questions, do get in touch. You can also visit our website to explore courses and useful content to guide you along your journey to healing, self-discovery and mindful living.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to share it, I request that you please credit Danielle Van de Velde as the author. I do not authorise repurposing or republishing without my written permission. You may email me for the same.