Meditation and mindfulness: what you need to know

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.

Meditation and Emotions - Danielle Van de Velde

5 ways meditation can help ease emotional stress

5 ways meditation can help ease emotional stress

I find shopping at the supermarket pretty unpleasant at the best of times. All that choice, over-packaging, noise and brutal lighting just doesn’t appeal. When it comes to buying groceries, I’m a stealth shopper. Shopping list. Target aisles. In. Out. Done.

Now with COVID containment measures in place, which in Singapore involves ‘Safe Entry’ protocols of temperature scanning, QR code scanning to register entry and exit in malls and supermarkets and social distancing in aisles and check-out queues, my days of being a stealth shopper have come to an excruciatingly slow and masked halt. It is absolutely impossible to execute a quick shop and you do not want to be in a rush or running late for another appointment. 

When the world was just starting to wake up to the prospect of a pandemic a few months ago, supermarkets around the world became the scenes of some pretty ugly displays of toilet paper wars, trolley raiding, and expressions of fear and aggression. 

Stress is an interesting thing. While it is a necessary response of the system to deal with heightened events, threats, and complications, our system is not designed to cope with high-stress for prolonged periods of time. We’re all familiar with the more obvious signs when our system is in a prolonged state of ‘high vigilance’. Our immune function falters. Our sleep is disturbed. Our digestive system can get knocked out of proper function. Some of us see it in skin irritations, break-outs or dandruff. Libido can take a dive along with mental clarity. Our bodies reliably signal the state and call for attention.

Prolonged stress also signals through our emotional state and this can be far more subtle and so subjective that we may not be aware of it, until, for example, we have a tense encounter during a pandemic, in a supermarket!

This is exactly what happened with me a couple of months ago, with possibly the most exquisitely dressed, emotionally stressed woman I have ever encountered. 

I had been out riding my bike to get a break from the screen and a full day of writing. On the way home, I decided to pop into the supermarket for some fruit and snacks for my constantly ravenous teenagers. Thankfully, I found what I wanted and proceeded to stand on the line of red tape on the floor to mark the safe distance from the person in front of me, in the check-out queue.

Only two check-outs were open and there were clear straight lines of places to stand. When the person in front of me stepped forward to approach the counter, from the aisle next to me, a woman emerged, infuriated with me. Her jaw was tight. A vein bulged in her neck. Her voice was very strained and through gritted teeth, she snarled at me, “It is NOT your turn…!”

The amount of anger emanating from her was palpable. I could almost feel the electricity cracking and whipping in the air between us….and I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

“Excuse me, I don’t understand,” I said, stepping back because, by the look on her face, I thought she might throw a jar of something at me. 

“I was waiting here first. I was waiting here. I saw you walk past and into this queue. How dare you….”

Again I was very confused. I looked at the red tape marks on the ground and the straight line to the check-out from where I stood. Then I stepped around the aisle and looked at where she must have been standing. It was clear she had been queuing in a line to a closed check-out. 

Her breath was very shallow. She had beads of perspiration on her forehead and she was seething. I dropped my voice and slowed my speech. I could see she wasn’t in a good place, and told her that it looked like she was queuing towards a closed check-out. She turned and looked at where she’d been standing, blushed slightly, and then turned to me and very deliberately looked me up and down from my head to toes and back. She seemed to feel highly insulted by this observation and clearly felt that I had deliberately taken her spot. She felt personally attacked by my actions. 

I wasn’t in a rush and told her that she was very welcome to go next in line to the open check-out. Again she felt she needed to defend her position and be right. She again very angrily made the point that it was rightfully her turn, but with a flourish of her hand and slightly high-pitched voice she declined the offer and rolled her eyes. I insisted. She threw back her head, dismissed me and walked briskly to the check-out. 

Meditation and Emotions - Danielle Van de Velde

And in a beautiful twist, the check-out that this lady was queuing for then opened and a sweet teenage girl who had been standing behind the lady and had observed the whole exchange, popped her head out from the aisle and said with a smile, ‘You go. We can alternate!’ Both the teenager and I were out of the shop before the stressed lady…which I’m guessing would not have helped how she felt either.

It’s a small example of prolonged emotional stress that we are seeing play out on the world-stage currently. This interaction held all of the telltale signs of heightened emotional stress:

  • Irritability
  • Feeling anxious 
  • Inability to hold a different view
  • Highly reactive response patterns 
  • Inappropriate anger and projected blame and criticism 
  • Defensive mindset/victim mentality 
  • Feelings of isolation or tendency to draw away through condescension or passive-aggressive responses
  • Inability to lift one’s mood
  • Physical tension and heat

Here are five key ways an established meditation practice helps with emotional stress:

1. The pause-point

The very nature of meditation is a practice of ‘paying attention’. With regular practice, we train the mind back from the reactive interface with life, into present awareness. This creates a pause-point between what we experience and how we choose to respond. 

2. Regulated anger-arousal

Regular meditators are shown to have less stress hormones in their bloodstreams. One of the main reasons for this is the effect meditation has on the brain. Of the five main physical brain re-structuring that regular meditation causes, a notable one is the shrinking of the Amygdala, which is responsible for anger arousal. The plasticity of the brain is fascinating as it constantly reforms to support our operating mode. With pause-points established and the ability to see situations for what they actually are rather than through an emotionally-stressed filter, that ‘shoot from the hip and think later’ function of the brain becomes regulated, and the part of the brain that facilitates it actually physically shrinks. The resultant release of stress hormones into the bloodstream becomes regulated.

3. Holding different perspectives

Another fascinating brain change with regular meditation is the rebuilding of the Left Hippocampus. This is a part of our brain that literally gets eroded by high levels of stress hormones. It is responsible for memory and recall, and I’m sure all of us have experienced an inability to remember the shopping list or recall a name when we are under the pump. Another function of the Left Hippocampus is our ability to shift perspectives and change our mind. During high emotional stress, this ability is essential, whether you are feeling attached to your own viewpoint, or need to summon empathy for someone else’s. 

4. Utilising the breath

The conscious use of breath is key in all meditation. Mindful breathing connects us with the effects of the breath on the system, especially in the immediate calming of high emotional reactivity. Once this awareness of the breath is established, our breathing becomes both a useful marker when we are over-wrought, by flagging as short, shallow and more rapid, and also a useful tool to calm the system and pause, listen and choose a response.

5. Cultivating empathy

Another wonderful effect of regular meditation is a rise in the sense of connectivity with others and life. This is facilitated by another amazing brain-change through regular practice. The frontal-parietal junctures of the brain are where conscious empathy is enabled, which is coupled with a felt emotion in the heart. This part of the brain also strengthens and physically ‘beefs up’ with regular meditation. There are also some beautiful meditations that utilise visualisation and mantra to deliberately cultivate the vibration of compassion in the system. By engaging in meditation in regular sits, these beautiful aspects are cultivated within us and inform how we respond in situations – such as mine described above. 

With the softer, more expanded states that regular meditation brings, we tend to slip more into the felt flow of life too. There’s a right timing and field of opportunities that always surround us. However, it’s something we can miss when we’re bound in the tightness and separation of emotional stress. Just like the extra check-out opening and a sweet teenager appearing, in perfect timing!

If you wish to start mindful breathing and meditation for emotional stress, do get in touch and take our online introduction to meditation course, Return. 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.

The Meditation Pill

The Meditation Pill
Is the ‘magic pill mentality’ hijacking your inner game? 

Modern living has an incredible effect on our mentality. Constant real-time information relayed 24/7 through a multitude of channels has us skimming the surface of social and world events. The current click-bait headlines and ‘high-alert’ reporting is jizzling the senses…constantly. Social media platforms and gaming that offer instant acknowledgement and gratification have the neuro-scientists confirming their addictive qualities. And the gadgets through which this constant stream is entering our systems mess with our pineal gland and natural sleep/waking patterns.

Loaded onto this usual state of affairs is the extreme world anxiety that all of us are exposed to currently, whether through the media, the mind-blowing statistics of COVID 19, or through the necessary isolation measures we are now adhering to, to flatten the curve. And the increased screen time as we are operating our jobs, businesses, online learning and households, and resultant shifts in security, are certainly taking their toll.

Western medicine’s approach to immediate alleviation of symptomatic discomfort has us popping pills to keep going, rather than listening to our body’s cues for nourishment, rest and restoration. We are trained into seeking instant and easy results to discomfort, so as not to slow things down.

We can be so caught up in the race itself, that we lose the thrill of the experience; the magic of the journey; the enjoyment of our ability and strengths.

Currently there is an intense amount of ‘isolation productivity pressure’; to emerge from COVID, 19 fluent in Spanish, cooking cordon-bleu meals and having mastered a yogic headstand.

The constant pressures to survive and succeed currently have us engaged in a linear, goal-oriented mind-set that creates a dissipation to the present moment and the journey and that require quick fixes to keep up.

We have a magic-pill-mentality.

Ironically, this fast-paced, sensory-overloaded, materialistic focus, and its resultant impact on our health and wellbeing is what is bringing so many people to meditation and inner practice. However, the magic-pill-mentality is possibly the main reason why so many people’s attempts are hijacked.

I see the magic-pill-mentality is various guises in my meditation classes and private sessions and it’s the first thing that has to be addressed if the student is to adopt the natural organic art of meditation into their lives. I am often asked if it’s possible to ‘fast-track’ the mastery of meditation. I even had one very focussed senior executive who engaged me for private coaching, offer me a bonus

if I could achieve this for him. Coming from a corporate background myself, I totally recognised the mindset, but it did make me giggle.  

I was once engaged for a private session with a mother and daughter to teach some basic meditation practices to help with the girl’s anxiety issues. Weeks later the mum commented to me that the session ‘didn’t work’. They hadn’t meditated once since I saw them.

On occasion I see keen seekers wanting to enter the world of meditation teaching and healing. Some frequent many courses and workshops and allow little time for integration or personal practice. They’re seeking the vernacular and concepts and the ‘appearance’ of mastery. This mimicry, rather than instructing from a place of genuine knowledge, is why many don’t see their classes take-off.

Motivation and mindset in meditation are just as important as practising the meditation techniques.

There’s a huge difference between determination to commit to the art and the practice, and ambition to achieve results. Determination is essential to mastering the art and to experiencing the amazing life-affirming changes it creates. Ambition is attached to perceived outcomes and usually flags either a misunderstanding of what meditation actually is, or an ulterior motivation to engaging with the practice in the first place.

There are now plenty of studies that prove the dazzling results that regular practice yields, initially on our physiology and then our experience of self and life.

Brain structure and brain wave patterning alter, body-chemistry, cardio-rhythm, blood pressure and the central nervous system regain balance. However, like any re-training in any system, it requires a daily approach. It’s a bit like training for fitness. One massive effort at the gym may feel good, but it doesn’t create lasting changes to form and fitness. Only daily exercise does.

It’s the same with meditation. At first it requires effort, a push towards establishing the practice and mastering technique, and thankfully that process is a quick one, as the system starts to recognise the movement inwards and neural pathways form to create ‘the habit’ of meditation.

A dedicated minimum of ten minutes a day will yield these shifts in a relatively short amount of time. 

What I find exquisite, is that the physiological changes that regular meditation allows, all enable deeper and more profound experiences of meditation. We are designed to do it, and here-in lies the perspective that works with meditation.

Meditation is engaging in a natural process within our organic physical and energetic system. It brings connection with and balance to our patterns and cycles because it creates inner space and stillness and when we dwell in this state, regularly, our systems

naturally reach for harmony. Meditation connects us to our vibratory energetic self and it is here that we sense broader fields of energy and information.

Forcing our way through meditation sits on the hunt for the illusive inner peace, is a bit like playing a basketball game with all our attention on the scoreboard, it yields nothing as we miss the game.

However, when we turn our attention to the love of the game, the movement and energy, the scoreboard looks after itself.

But the deeper game of meditation is the understanding that arises of ourselves and also the ability to choose new directions and perspectives of self and life. Regular practice creates a mindful default state, a shift from reactive to responsive engagement with life. When that pause-point between the external trigger or situation and the internal reaction establishes, we respond with discernment and most importantly choice.  We have the inner space to start to recognise patterned behaviours and the underlying beliefs or perspectives that are holding these patterns in place.

Once we can see the repeated experiences and reactions and we have the inner space to respond, we can lay down our weapons of reactive attack and blame and ask ourselves authentically, what is it that I am holding that’s making me react this way?

Do I continue to hold this, or do I choose a different perspective? It always comes down to a choice. This is the ultimate blessing of our free-will.

Meditation and inner practices like energetic healing are ways to navigate our inner-terrain and to come to know and love that landscape. They enable us to work with our innate spiritual design. They are not the end game and they are not magic pills. They are keys to acknowledging that we are far more that what our modern world dictates and when we come into this realisation, we enter into the beauty and mystery of Self and Spirit, and it is then that we heal.

One of my favourite writers about this very thing is Bob Sharpels. From his book Meditation: Calming the Mind, he writes it in a nutshell:

“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love”.

Click here for course details and to get started!

Introduction to Meditation

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