What are the health benefits of meditation?
Meditation helps you maintain alertness and train your concentration – not to relax, but to de-concentrate. To lose all notion of content, of thinking, of oneself, without losing alertness or clarity of mind. According to Daniel M. Campagne, in his published article Theory and Physiology of Meditation, this is the power of meditation.
What does meditation do to the brain?
There is a lot of research into the physiology of meditation, but little from recent years. In summary, results show that meditation activates the parts of the brain involved in attention and control of the autonomic nervous system.
When you meditate, it creates a feeling of relaxation as you take control of your autonomic nervous system, your stress hormones reduce, and you come out of any anxious state into a calm controlled state of mind.
However, the actual physiological effect in the brain when you meditate is different to that of relaxation. The meditative feeling is one of peace, one in which the mind is truly alert and fully attentive to the present moment with a clear, unwavering focus. According to Ajahn Amaro, it is "completely peaceful and highly energetic at the same time".
Meditation for healing
For centuries, people have used meditation for healing. Meditation has positive impacts on those with chronic health conditions, pain, stress-related conditions and much more.
Studies into mindfulness-based stress reduction training show the health benefits of meditation. After just eight weeks of training, the positive effects on medical symptoms of patients with no relief from chronic pain last for up to a year. Other studies show the effects lasting for up to four years. Although mindfulness is not meditation, it is the practice of meditation that helps you achieve mindfulness.
You can use meditation to calm the mind and heal, as described above. You can also use meditation to prevent ill-health, improve your brain functioning, reduce your risk of heart issues, maintain a healthy weight, stabilise your blood pressure and reduce your risk of diabetes! Using meditation alongside yoga improves immunity and joint disorders.
For many people with anxiety, meditation is the key to calming their wandering minds and eliminating the physical symptoms. Whilst in a meditative state, the body comes out of the anxious state. With continued practice, you train your brain to maintain this state all the time, rather than reverting to the anxious state.
How to meditate
As a structural person, I would like a tick box of things I can check for to ensure a meditative state. This does not exist, and perhaps it is not so important. Researchers, led by Roberto Cardoso created an operational definition. This is helpful for beginners, however, meditation is an ancient practice. It is personal to the user and has hundreds of different influences and purposes. Therefore, no operation definition is the gold standard. To write an operational definition for meditation is like trying to write an operational definition for prayer that must fit all religions and situations.
The recommended steps start with a specific technique that has clearly defined and regularly practised procedures. The effects and future evolution of the meditation will differ from person to person, but the initial technique must be like a recipe. One part of the recipe must include psychophysical relaxation - when you generate a physically relaxed state by deliberately relaxing your muscles or using breathing techniques that generate physical relaxation by impacting automatic physiological functions.
The procedure must also include logic relaxation. This involves trying to avoid analysing the psychophysical effects, judging the psychophysical and attempting to avoid creating expectations. It must be a self-induced state. Whilst the instructor provides the method, the user must apply the technique alone, without the need for induction triggers. This avoids any dependence between instructor and meditator.
Finally, you specify an anchor to bring your concentration back should your thoughts wander. This is as simple as a physical point on the wall, a sound, the breath for example. Something that maintains the logic relaxation aspect of meditation should it drift away.
Is meditation the same as hypnosis?
If you have experience with hypnosis or hypnotherapy, you will recognise that the components of meditation and hypnosis have little difference. In fact, they achieve the same physical and mental state. You can say self-hypnosis is meditation.
However, the above operation definition suggests that hypnotherapy is not meditation, because the hypnotherapist is the guide, and the relationship has dependency due to the therapeutic work involved.
That being said, when you choose hypnotherapy as a tool to help you overcome any difficulties, you also get the benefits of meditation. Your hypnotherapist can teach you the steps to the meditative state so that you can use meditation easily when you are alone as a tool to continue your journey to optimal health.