Back in my college days, my friends and I decided to visit Dharamshala, one of the famous tourist attractions in the state of Himachal Pradesh, best-known for its magnificently breath-taking snow-covered Dhaula Dhar mountains. During the trip, I visited a Buddhist monastery located in McLeodganj, a suburb of Dharamshala. As soon as I entered the monastery, a sense of calm came upon me. I felt a connectedness to everything around and within myself. I had never experienced anything like this before.
The sight of meditating monks, the sounds of gongs at prayer time, the spinning wheels around the sidewalks and the vibe of that monastery stayed with me for a long time. The effect was so profound that I decided I would visit the place again.
Two years later I did visit the monastery again with my family. Both times, it was not just the memory of the beautiful and astonishing monastery surrounded by the splendid Himalayas that lingered on, but the feelings associated with the experience, the revelation of something surreal, pleasant and peaceful.
It was many years later that I had the opportunity to investigate those feelings.
I was introduced to the concept of meditation three years ago when in a very casual conversation with my friend she mentioned Ageless Body, Timeless Mind by Deepak Chopra.
I had never read any of Deepak Chopra’s books nor was I planning to. With a little baby and a toddler and a full time job, my plate was already full. Severely sleep-deprived, reading was the last thing I wanted to do. But I was intrigued by its title.
As I began reading, what really caught my attention was the emphasis on meditation. I didn’t quite understand the quantum physics application to healing and I attribute it to my ignorance of quantum physics in general, but the concept of meditation got the bells ringing in my head.
Being a skeptic, it was not easy for me to embrace the idea of meditation right away. This book was just a pointer to look in a direction that I had not considered before. With my newfound interest and curiosity on the subject, I dived into the subject of meditation and mindfulness and gradually things started registering.
Making Friends With Yourself
Meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit) is the practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, image, breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, gradually relaxing the mind to enhance personal and spiritual growth. Meditation is a way of becoming so familiar with your thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns and attitudes that it becomes a way to get to know yourself intimately. It’s a process of making friends with yourself.
Instead of turning your attention outward, to other people or the external world, you turn it inward back on yourself. As a result, it could change the way you relate to the world.
The practice of meditation is believed to have its roots in the ancient Vedic traditions of India. It is speculated that it originated more than 5,000 years ago and served as a means to understand and get closer to the true nature of God (Brahman) by Hindus.
And almost 2,500 years ago, meditation evolved when one of the best-known figures in the history of meditation, Siddhartha Gautama, attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree and became Buddha. He practiced meditation to achieve his personal awakening to truth and reality.
Meditation became an essential part of Buddhism in this era and spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and the rest of Asia. The essential difference in the ancient Vedic meditation technique and the one used by Buddhist followers is that the former serves as a means of getting closer to an understanding of a higher being, the latter serves as a means of realizing one’s interconnectedness with all things.
Some forms of meditation were introduced in the United States in the early 1900s, but gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian spiritual teacher introduced the Transcendental Meditation technique (the one based on ancient Vedic tradition of enlightenment) to the Western world.
In Transcendental Meditation (TM), the meditator sits with closed eyes and concentrates on a single syllable or word (mantra) for 20 minutes at a time. During TM, ordinary waking mental activity is said to settle down, until the thinking mind is transcended and a self-referential state of pure wakefulness or awareness is experienced.
Not a Religious Practice
In the 1960s and 1970s meditation caught the attention of many researchers and professors and became the subject of academic research. Until then, meditation was not adopted in healthcare as it was considered to be a religious practice.
Dr. Herbert Benson did pioneering research at Harvard University that showed that meditation acts as an antidote to stress and can be effectively used to promote general well-being and relaxation. After studying the physiology of meditation, he developed an approach very similar to TM called “Relaxation Response,” where he taught patients to focus upon the repetition of a word, sound, or phrase for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. The phrase for repetition does not have to be in Sanskrit. This strips meditation of its association with religion.
Better Things To Do In Life vs Doing Things Much Better In Life
Twelve years ago my cousin started a Buddhist mantra chanting group. She suggested I should do the same if I wanted my wishes to come true. She wrote the mantra on a piece of paper which I accepted politely.
But the rebel in my head said, “You are only 25 and you have better things to do in life than letting this bunch of superstitious people convert you to Buddhism. Just disappear.”
I am glad I did the disappearing act then. I am not critical of what she was doing, but the reasoning she gave me was enough to steer me against it. The transformation (though pretty ironical) from someone who thinks that I have better things to do in life to someone who wants to do things much better with meditation didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual process, which involved wrapping my head around the concepts, realizing that I can be wise and sane in the middle of chaos. The realization that I could feel a little less miserable during challenging times; That I can tame my monkey mind that grasps and holds onto trivial things; That I can face my worries, fears, insecurities bang on; That I can accept the impermanence of every thought, emotion and feeling, and above all have some control over the constant chatter going on in my head.
I started meditating on my own with the help of guided meditations available online. Meditation does sound simple at first as all you have to do is to sit and watch your breath and do nothing. But our mind has never learnt to do nothing.
My mind kept slipping to its default mode and my attention kept wandering to everything other than my breath. Out of the five minutes, I was spacing out for more than 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Nevertheless, I continued my practice. It felt like going to the gym and dealing with sore muscles.
Initially, the mind does offer a lot of inertia to your practice, but slowly the attention muscles start developing and I began to experience that relaxation that all the studies have claimed. I noticed improvements in my sleep patterns within a few days. Not only was I falling asleep faster, with less tossing and turning, I was able to remain asleep for longer hours.
Another form of meditation which became the subject of research and gained some traction in recent years. Also known as Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist meditation. Among all the different forms of meditation, mindfulness is unique as it is not directed to take us someplace other than where we are. It teaches us to be more present to everything that is, fully aware, without judgment or analysis. Mindfulness means paying complete attention to a particular experience.
For example, drinking tea or coffee can be a mindful exercise if you choose to pay attention to every sensation in your body as you drink the beverage. How does it feel as it’s going down your throat? Is it warm or hot? How is the taste? Sweet or strong? Stay with the experience of drinking without looking at your phone or TV and also without telling yourself a story like: “I wish it tasted more like the one I drank yesterday,” or “It would have been better if I bought it from a coffee shop instead of making it myself.” It is the idea of consciously remaining unattached yet observant.
In the words of Dr. Swati Desai, founder of 2meditate, and a long-term mindfulness teacher, “The power of Mindfulness lies in this: it is Secular and yet Sacred, Simple yet Serious, Ancient yet backed by Modern Science, and it gets you out of “me and mine” by paying attention to “me and mine.”
The practice of Mindfulness Meditation involves sitting in a comfortable position (either on a chair or a cushion) with your spine straight and allowing your posture to be upright. Take a few deep breaths in and out, exhaling and inhaling fully. As breathing becomes simple and natural, direct your attention to the natural rhythm of your breath, noticing the sensations as you breathe in and out. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. When thoughts arise, acknowledge them without getting caught in the story, gently returning to the breath. By stepping outside the story we can begin to non-identify. Developing this moment by moment awareness of any experience without pushing it away or holding on to it is mindfulness.
In Mindfulness we don’t label an experience as good or bad. Whether it’s painful or pleasant we treat it the same way. This is called the emotionally non-reactive state or equanimity (stillness and balance of mind). If left to itself, the mind keeps ruminating about the past or imagining the future and has trouble remaining in the “NOW.”
We are slaves to our deeply ingrained mental habits and patterns and Mindfulness changes that relationship by purposefully directing our attention to the object of our focus.
There are five primary benefits of mindfulness, according to Dr. Desai. She summarizes them in an easy to remember acronym CREST. C is for Concentration, R is for Relaxation (reducing stress and anxiety), E is for Equanimity (evenness of mind which helps in dealing with ups and downs of life better), S is Self-Awareness and T is for Taming self-sabotaging habits. Some of the secondary benefits may include a better immune system, lower inflammation, decreased pain, better cognitive capabilities, more empathy and compassion, more resilience, and a better ability to relate to people.
The essential difference in the ancient Vedic meditation technique and the one used by Buddhist followers is that the former serves as a means of getting closer to an understanding of a higher being, the latter serves as a means of realizing one’s interconnectedness with all things.
The Science Behind It
One of the most compelling studies on mindfulness was done by Sara Lazar at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Participants (who never meditated before) meditated for eight weeks every day for 30 minutes and MRI brain scans were taken before starting the practice and after its completion. The results showed that 8 weeks of practice can change the gray matter in the areas associated with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. Most particularly, there was a decrease in the gray matter in the amygdala (the area associated with the flight and fight response) which resulted in reduction in stress and anxiety.
One of the studies that came out of the University of Toronto shows that long term meditators are better in keeping two neuronal circuits of the brains disengaged compared to non-meditators.
One circuit is called the default circuit which is active when we are daydreaming, ruminating, or planning for the future. This is also called the narrative circuit of the brain, which is active for most of the waking period and doesn’t take much effort to operate. The other circuit is called the direct experience circuit that gets activated when you are experiencing the information coming to you in real time. It enables more sensory information to be perceived, which allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. The ability to switch between the circuits is more developed in meditators where as non-meditators are more likely to automatically take the narrative path. That explains the better cognitive and decision-making capabilities in meditators.
Neuroscientist David Richardson carried out brain imaging tests on Tibetan monks who are long term meditators and also on novice meditators. The results show that monks have greater gamma wave activity in their brains compared to the other group. Gamma wave activity is associated with higher mental processes like increased sensory perception, cognition and memory formation and recall.
All these studies eventually prove the ability of the brain to continuously evolve structurally and functionally. On average, 46.9% of our waking time is spent in thinking and letting our minds wander. When we spend close to half of our time in this manner we better have some monitoring in place unless we want to live caged by our thoughts.
I continued to focus on my breath for 10 to 15 minutes more and as the plane got up to speed on the runway to take off, my small dose of meditation was fueling my brain by clearing the fog of anxiety and gearing me towards the take-off on my own mental runway.
My “Aha!” Moment
It happened when I boarded a flight to India and had a panic attack before the flight took off. I knew I was anxious but didn’t realize that my travel anxiety had grown big enough to throw me into a full-fledged panic attack. My heart started racing and I was shivering, hyperventilating, and gasping for breath. It was very embarrassing to be surrounded by the flight crew trying to help and assure me that flying was not that hard. When one of the flight attendants told us that they can’t let us fly in this condition, my husband whispered in my ears—“tickets are non-refundable, you better pull yourself together, and I know you can do it.”
I went to my seat, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath. A few minutes later my breathing returned to normal. My heart stopped racing and my nerves stopped acting out. I continued to focus on my breath for 10 to 15 minutes more and as the plane picked up speed on the runway, my small dose of meditation was fueling my brain by clearing the fog of anxiety and gearing me towards the take-off on my own mental runway.
That day I gained a valuable insight into how my compulsively obsessive fear of travel overpowered me putting me in a situation where I was caught off-guard, vulnerable and weak.
Here is a definition of meditation which aptly describes what happened to me: “A practice to rediscover our hidden neuroses and our hidden sanity at the same time.”
Mindfulness is heavily influenced by Eastern culture but what makes it attractive to the modern world is the science behind it.
Big companies like Google, Ford, Target, General Mills, and Aetna have started offering mindfulness practices to their employees. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques—MBSR (launched by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979) have been widely used by psychologists in treating stress, anxiety and depression in their patients. Models similar to MBSR are also getting adopted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and beyond.
A program called Quiet Time was launched at San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Middle School in 2007. The students at the school were reportedly stressed and agitated due to gang violence and drugs in the community. Just a month after meditation began, teachers reported that bullying went down, kids were happier, less stressed, paying more attention, working harder and results improved considerably.
Responding instead of Reacting
But is this the reason I want to adopt this practice?
Will I be able to remain truthful to the practice if my reasons are based on some external validations beyond my control? The answer is, of course, no.
I realized that by incorporating meditation into my daily life I was not learning anything new, but unlearning everything that I had learnt so far (not that it’s causing any amnesia or memory loss). Unlearning habitual patterns of thinking and reacting, which is a result of years of conditioning either by society, family, friends, school, peers or environment on the whole that we grew up in. When layers of conditioning are sliced one by one, we are able to see ourselves unadulterated, complete, and absolute.
Equipped with this new lens to view every situation and circumstance, we start responding instead of reacting. Instead of dwelling inside our thoughts we start dwelling in the awareness behind those thoughts.
For anyone who wants to take a plunge in this practice, my advice would be to not adopt it for the sake of being part of some trend which appears cool. You might get the benefits but sticking to it and gaining discipline will be a challenge.
Try to understand what it is and why you want to do it. Is it to ease stress and feel more relaxed, or deal with anger or difficult emotions or develop more compassion and resilience?
Figure which part of you is getting nourished by it. Ask the right questions and choose mindfulness mindfully. This way you will be more open and receptive to its benefits.
And remember—don’t try too hard. There will be days when your mind wanders more, just acknowledge that too.
Thanks to Dr. Swati Desai, founder of 2Meditate (www.2meditatetogether.com) for her valuable insights into Mindfulness
A software engineer by profession, Tamanna Raisinghani intends to add more meaning to life by pursuing interests in mind body relationship and meditation.