Meditation as a tool of self-improvement
Be it in the form of a secular or spiritual practice, there is no shortage to the applications and benefits of meditation. As students, our mental state is always being subjected to an ever-looming number of deadlines, tasks and obstacles, many of which seem insurmountable at times. The first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, containing the essence of Gautama Buddha’s teachings, is that life is suffering, reflecting the Hindu concept of “duhka”, namely the stress and pain inherent to our experience of mundane life (1). However, meditation may serve as a way of ameliorating this experience, of bringing stillness to our racing minds. In times where the human mind is constantly bombarded with information from the internet and social media, it becomes dangerous to become lost in the noise. It is due to this historical context that preserving our inner stillness, as well as dedicating a few minutes each day to silence, is becoming more and more important.
Due to its varying forms, there is no universal definition of meditation. However, the essence of most meditative practice boils down to the act of retraining and redirecting your attention, with the purpose of achieving an introspective, calm, or blissful state of mind.
Meditation, often coupled with prayer (albeit not necessarily), lies at the heart of most, if not all religious traditions. First recorded in cave drawings of people sitting in meditative poses as early as the year 5000BCE (2), meditation has seen a multitude of uses throughout history. A famous example of a practical application is in the case of the Samurai, who used meditation as a way of calming the mind before battle, priming their being for the possibility of death in the coming hours (3). For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the secular practice of meditation, which is more likely to be found useful in our historical context.
-Ancient depiction of meditation in regional India 5000-1500BCE.
How do I meditate? How should I go about incorporating it in my life?
Fundamentally, classic meditation is extremely simple.
Go to a quiet place, sit down, close your eyes, and do nothing except notice that you are in the present moment and breathing.
However, what I’ve just described represents an ideal scenario. In actuality, it is more likely that your attempt at reaching stillness will instead become an ample time for you to think about your problems, or even the most trivial things that your mind could possibly conjure up. All thoughts not given attention during the day strike at us when we are finally experiencing silence, be it while trying to fall asleep, or during meditation. When thoughts arise while sitting, notice them, but place them aside. Ignore them. They will fade as you continue breathing. Not all strings of thought are worth following, as many are just filler and a way for the mind to maintain its constant chatter.
It is this constant act of redirecting your attention to the present that is key to successfully meditating. Think of it as a bicep curl for the mind. If stillness is not achieved during a meditation session, it is no problem. Part of achieving silence is resisting the urge to judge your performance after a meditation session. As your mind is more accustomed to noise rather than stillness, it should come as no surprise that unlocking the capacity for quieting your mind may come after weeks of disciplined practice. It is said that even master meditators can only maintain stillness of mind for no more than the duration of 20-25 breaths before their concentration is tested by the apparition of a thought.
The most effective way of picking up meditation is starting small. A short, 5-10 minute session at the end of your day is perfect. Experimentation with longer sessions may be attempted at a later time. I prefer meditating before bed as it allows me to falls asleep easier.
Meditating in the morning, although much more popular, is not for me, as I do not find that it engages my mind in a way that wakes me up. This differs for everyone and should be left up to individual experimentation. Same with your sitting position: you should sit in the way that you find most effective and comfortable, though I would recommend making sure you keep your back straight, as I find it catalyses the process of quieting the mind. Your breathing should be light and rhythmic. At the beginning of your session you can use deeper breaths as a way to kick-start your relaxation.
The practice of meditation comes harder for some of us. Many who face difficulty at the beginning often abandon the practice. If you find yourself demoralized by initial failure, there is great benefit in pushing onward. Even though you may still descend into deep thought, you are still setting aside time for silent introspection, which is a rare practice nowadays, and whose application in organizing your thoughts should not be underestimated. Even if you are doing it wrong, you are probably still greatly benefiting.
You can also opt for guided meditations or more stimulating visualization exercises. These can be quite effective in goal setting, facing latent emotions and organizing your psyche for a variety of purposes. I wholeheartedly recommend the app InsightTimer, which has a handy timer for meditation as well as a plethora of free guided meditations and courses. It’s an invaluable resource for the aspiring meditator.
Why should I meditate? What are the benefits?
Meditation has been shown to have a number of cognitive enhancing benefits. Although a growing repertoire of research sheds light on the many positive effects of meditation, it is Sara Lazar of Harvard University that has made some surprising discoveries in recent years. Her research points to meditation causing an enlargement of parts of the brain such as the left hippocampus, the temporo parietal junction and the pons, which are areas related to regulation of emotions, learning, memory, empathy and formation of perspectives (5) (6).
Furthermore, her research pointed to a shrinking of the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, anxiety and stress. It is astounding how far a little discipline can go when it comes to meditation, even if it should be noted that subjects in her research meditated for around 30 minutes on average per day for 8 weeks until measurements were taken. Other researchers found that meditation has a direct effect on sustained attention, also known as concentration (7).
You can also use meditation as a way to rest mid-work or as a nap substitute, especially if you have trouble falling asleep in the middle of the day. Taking a break from deep work to meditate will always be more beneficial than binging Instagram for 15 minutes before returning to work.
Moreover, meditation may positively impact fitness and muscle gain. By reducing the stress hormone cortisol (8), which has an inhibitory effect on testosterone, the main hormone involved in muscle protein synthesis, you can use meditation to increase your gym gains, while also achieving more intense, focused workouts (9).
The widely documented positive effects of meditation make it a free and natural way of developing our ability to concentrate, retain information, and even increase our fitness. Given the demands of our course and our future careers, investing time in our formative years to raise our capacity for awareness and overall cognition constitutes a sure path to improving ourselves. Additionally, meditation also allows us to escape the often overwhelming and uninterrupted input of information that we are exposed to in our fast-paced lives.
1. Carol Anderson (2013). Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon. Routledge. pp. 1, 22 with note 4. ISBN 978-1-136-81332-0.
2. Dhyansky, Y. (1987). The Indus Valley Origin of a Yoga Practice. Artibus Asiae, 48(1/2), 89-108. doi:10.2307/3249853.
3. Nukaryia, K. (1913). The Religion of the Samurai: A