The first time I tried meditation was after reading James Redfield’s novel, ‘The Celestine Prophecy’. It was in the late 1990s and I was working as an R&D scientist in the pharmaceutical industry at the time.
To be fair, I had meditated before, as a teenager, when I listened to a relaxation tape that my Mum used every day to help her sleep, but I didn’t realise at the time that I was meditating.
I had heard the word meditation before, but only in the context of bare-chested Indian Gurus sitting cross-legged and chanting in Sanskrit. I also attended a holistic fayre one weekend and the stall that featured meditation was run by people with long hair and dressed as hippies.
The practice seemed inaccessible to me. I didn’t want to grow my hair, wear a big necklace, and start walking around barefoot. I honestly thought the practice and the style came hand-in-hand so it had never occurred to me to try meditation.
But after reading the book and realising that anyone can practice it, I was eager to try. I wasn’t exactly sure I was doing it right. I could barely sit still for a couple of minutes and every single time I tried – every single time – my nose or some other part of my face would develop an unbearable itch.
I gave up after a few attempts and didn’t try again until a year or so later.
My motivation had been to develop my spiritual connection. That’s what I wanted after reading Redfield’s book. I saw it as a solution to the way I had been feeling for a while. I was recovering from depression and was feeling that I needed to make a significant change in my life. I just wasn’t exactly sure at the time what that change needed to be.
I’ve now practiced meditation regularly for over 20 years. I’ve also collated a good deal of research on the benefits of different styles of meditation and written a chapter or more about it my last three books.
There’s much to be gained from meditation and some of the benefits depend in large part on which type of meditation you do.
For example, mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to the present moment, usually by focusing on your breath or different parts of your body. It’s extremely simple to do.
Here’s how: Breathe and then notice that you are breathing. Listen to the sound, feel how it feels. You are doing mindfulness. In that moment, you are being mindful of the fact that you are breathing.
The practice, simple as it is, has been shown to reap considerable rewards. Studies show it can help reduce worry, stress, anxiety, and even depression. It helps boost concentration, self-control, and memory. It also helps one have more control over their thinking and focus.
Why can something so simple offer so many benefits?
Partly it’s because the practice works out, or trains, the brain in much the same way as working out a muscle at the gym builds muscle strength and tone. Just as a muscle gets stronger, so too do brain regions that are worked out by mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness works out the region of the brain just above your eyes (known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), plus some other regions too. Developing this region of the brain helps improve concentration, the ability to bring your attention back to the present when you are worrying, to be more in control of yourself, and more.
Thus, when your mind wanders towards stressful or upsetting things, ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, mindfulness helps you to gain a better ability to bring your attention back to the present moment.
It’s the first practical benefit that I personally noticed when I first began a regular practice.
Kindfulness (Metta Bhavana)
I frequently practice a style of meditation called Metta Bhavana. It’s a Buddhist practice and I refer to as a ‘kindfulness’ practice.
Here, instead of placing attention on the breath, attention during a kindfulness practice is on thinking kindly or compassionately about someone, wishing them health, happiness, peace, or good fortune.
The word, metta, is a Pali term that means universal love and kindness towards all beings. Typically, you think of different people in your life and wish for each person:
“May you be happy, and well, and safe, and may you feel at ease.”
Or some variation on these words around the same general sentiments. You also focus the sentiment on yourself too.
It has some wonderful and unique benefits. Like mindfulness, it also works out the region of the brain above the eyes, but there’s a bias to the left side plus a little deeper in (known as the medial prefrontal cortex) as well as a region known to play a role in empathy (the insula).
Together, these regions are associated with happiness, joy, empathy, and compassion. Working them out, like we would do a muscle at the gym, makes these regions more powerful and the result is that it becomes easier to extract happiness and joy out of the backdrop of everyday events and circumstances in our lives. It also makes it easier to feel empathy and compassion for the suffering and pain of others.
Metta is my personal go-to style of meditation when I feel stressed, worried, or anxious about something. It snaps me back to the present and helps remind me of what’s important.
There’s evidence to suggest that this style of meditation may also slow ageing; that’s according to some research that examined its effect on telomeres. These are end caps on DNA, akin to the plastic end caps on shoelaces (aglets) that stop them unravelling. Telomeres do a similar job with DNA and, just like aglets, they wear down over time, usually in response to stress.
In a 12-week randomised controlled trial that involved a daily practice of either metta, mindfulness or no practice (for comparison), telomere loss significantly slowed on account of the metta practice.
I’d like to point out that this doesn’t of course mean that so long as you think kind thoughts you will never age. This was a study done under a specific set of conditions. But it does suggest that the feelings induced by the practice do cause some slowing of biological ageing, just as feelings induced by stress can speed it up, and that some of this might be due to the effects of the practice on telomeres.
In my early days of trying meditation, I attended a few talks and workshops that taught it. One practice I was drawn to because I saw it as helping my spiritual development, was where you contemplate answers to spiritual questions.
For example, after a few moments of focusing on the breath, you would ask yourself questions like, ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What is my purpose?’, ‘What is my connection with the Universe?’, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, ‘What is the nature of consciousness?’, that sort of thing.
Pretty big questions, but you just allow insights to come as you sit quietly with a focus on the breath.
The answers that come evolve over time and with practice, from more-or-less pragmatic answers like, ‘I am a human being’ to a sense that ‘I am pure consciousness’, which can be accompanied by a sense of felt connection with life itself.
Over the years, I’ve found the practice to be very good for focusing on developing a more spiritual awareness of life.
So whether you’re a novice meditator or expert practitioner, I hope you have found something of value here.
Meditation can be great therapy. It can calm the mind, reduce stress, help manage anxiety, boost happiness, and even lead to profound insights into life and the universe. It depends on the type of practice you do and also on your commitment to a regular practice.
The real benefits come through doing it regularly. No one every became Olympic champion after going to the gym just the once or jogging a few times around the block. Like exercise, the benefits come quickly but accumulate over time. Just as exercise can be a real tonic for physical health and wellbeing, meditation can be a tonic for mental health and wellbeing.
You only need to do the work.
So for the sake of even just five or ten minutes a day, the benefits can be life changing.
How to do Metta (Loving Kindness)
There are a few different versions of the words used in Metta, but the sentiment is more or less the same. The version below is a commonly used one.
In your mind, repeat the following three times each for 1) yourself, 2) a loved one, 3) someone neutral, 4) a difficult person, and 5) all sentient beings:
May you be happy
May you be well
May you be safe
May you feel at ease
And, of course, when you say it for yourself, replace ‘you’ with ‘I’.
You can shorten the wording, if you wish, to simply:
May you be happy, and well, and safe, and may you feel at ease.
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.