You probably know that each of us reacts differently to stress. If you live alone, stress can make you feel anxious and scattered, to the point that you can't focus on anything creative or productive. If you live with others, you might find yourself getting overly irritated and lashing out. We may feel unusually forgetful, inattentive, or rude while our mind is occupied with worries and distractions.
Our human brains are uniquely capable of thinking forward and backward in time. This is a great ability, allowing us insights into the past and future. But under stress, we can become “absent-minded” – literally, our mind goes somewhere else. Over time, this state of mind can lead to many problems.
It's fair to say that the year 2020 has presented plenty of things to make you feel stressed. Now, more than ever, it's important to create a healthy mindfulness habit to help you stay present. Meditation is one way to do that.
Even before the pandemic, our modern lifestyles were full of distractions and stress. Now, as we cope with so many uncertainties associated with the pandemic, staying present is a skill we need more than ever. In order to stay physically and emotionally well, we need mindfulness, the ability to stay in the present moment.
There's no single way to do meditation. In fact, there are many exercises and techniques that can help to develop mindfulness, including meditation. Don't think that you have to sit in a painful position, completely still, trying to force your brain into submission. You can use light, sound, vibration and movement to help you do meditation.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), recommends these common elements of effective meditation: 1) choose a location with minimal distractions; 2) take a posture that supports conscious awareness, whether it's sitting, lying down, walking or dancing; 3) focus your attention on one thing, such as a word, an object, a sound or your breathing; and, 4) cultivate an open and observant attitude, without judgment.
Anything that helps you bring your mind to the present, that helps you stop thinking or reacting to emotions, can be called meditation.
According to medical experts, regular meditation can help improve our overall health and quality of life. It is particularly recommended for reducing stress.
Scientific evidence shows that meditation can help relieve stress and anxiety-related symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue and insomnia. The American Heart Association even recommends meditation as a complementary therapy for heart disease patients. There is some evidence that meditation may help lower blood pressure.
In recent years, meditation has been used by the U.S. military for helping to treat post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and to reduce reliance on prescription drugs.
Meditation is also being explored as a way to deal with other serious health disorders. As medical experts increasingly recommend it, more and more Americans are practicing some form of meditation.
Guess what? Meditation might be able to do more than just make us feel better. Some scientists think it could create beneficial structural changes in the brain.
A groundbreaking 2012 study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience (Luders, Kurth, et al) found that meditation impacts more than just how we act and feel. With years of practice, the anatomy of meditators’ brains may actually change, increasing the folds in the surface of the cerebral cortex. They also found evidence suggesting that the longer they had practiced meditation, the more practitioners' brains changed.
Dr. Eileen Luders of UCLA, senior researcher, says of their findings, ”We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.” In her current research, Dr. Luders is examining the positive effects of meditation in defending the brain against age-related degeneration and dementia.
Dr. Sara Lazar of the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital has studied the brains of meditators for more than 20 years. In her research, she found that meditators’ brains had a larger hypocampus, a part of the brain that shrinks in people with depression. She also found a smaller amygdala, a part of the brain that grows in people with emotional trauma.
Our nervous system operates on electro-magnetic energy, with the brain as the central control center. Our gut (small intestine) functions as the “second brain,” modulating the current with hormonal neuro-transmitters and communicating with the brain via the nervous system. The result is brainwaves.
With practice, meditation can help you lower the frequency and amplitude of your brainwaves, bringing them down from a high-alert beta state to a calmer alpha state. This phenomenon is easily measured. People who regularly meditate often report feeling calmer and clearer, less affected by external distractions and unstable emotions. They may also feel like their five senses are sharper and their minds are more present.
Beyond these temporary sensations, according to Dr. Amishi Jha, PhD of the University of Miami, there is evidence that regular meditation helps people develop greater executive control over the mind, even in unusually stressful circumstances.
In Body & Brain centers, our classes are designed with a specific flow to help prepare you for meditation. The first step is to activate energy with simple but vigorous movements. Next comes deep stretching to circulate energy and calm the mind, and then breathing exercises to develop focus and accumulate energy. This flow is designed to help you to release stress, improve your internal energy balance and increase mindfulness. Afterward, it will be easier to calm your brainwaves during meditation.
Mini-meditation break – If you can only take a brief break to calm your brain, try this! Find a quiet place to sit, close your eyes and take three slow deep breaths in and out. Do your best to fill your lungs and then fully exhale. Place your hand under your nose, without touching your face. Take a relaxed breath in, breathe out through your nose, and feel the breath on your hand while focusing on gratitude.
10-minute breathing meditation – If you can set aside 10 minutes, try abdominal breathing:
• Sit comfortably, with your spine tall and chest open.
• Focus on your lower abdomen, place your hands gently below your belly button, and close your eyes.
• Breathe in slowly through your nose, expanding your lower abdomen.
• Breathe out through your nose naturally, pulling your belly back slowly toward your spine, feeling the muscles contract.
• If you have difficulty focusing, count your breaths. Focus on the feeling of your body, feeling warmth and strength in your core.
Seated energy meditation (10-20 minutes) – This meditation, often called jigam, is a part of many Body & Brain classes. It's an easy meditation that you can do at home. Choose a quiet time and place where interruptions are unlikely.
• Prepare: For best results at home, make sure you're warmed up by doing some active exercise, like squats, for one minute. Follow that with a few deep stretches. Then, shake out your arms, hands, legs and feet, until your hands and feet feel warmer. Sit down and shake your head lightly side-to-side to help you stop thinking and clear your mind.
• Relax: Sit comfortably with your back tall, chest open and shoulders relaxed. Clap your hands together 5 times, then rub your palms rapidly, making your hands hot. Stop, relax your shoulders again, hold your hands facing each other in front of your body and separate your hands slightly.
• Feel without thinking: Close your eyes and feel the energy inside your hands and between them. Allow your hands to float slightly apart as you breathe in naturally, focusing on the energy field between your hands. As you breathe out, allow your hands to float back toward each other again, as though magnetically attracted.
Try a guided version for beginners at BodynBrain TV.
Longevity walking – Many Body & Brain centers teach this kind of mindful walking as a warm-up before class. To try it, simply bring your attention to the ball of the foot (feeling the 'yongchun' pressure point) as each foot meets the floor. Walk calmly and comfortably, with the spine upright, chest open, moving calmly and with balance. For many people, longevity walking is most enjoyable when practiced outdoors, in Nature.
There are many meditative variations for longevity walking, such as counting the number of breaths in and out for each step, gradually elongating and slowing your breathing. Instead of rushing through Nature, feel your eyes and ears acting like open windows through which Nature comes to you. Feel the sights and sounds of Nature around you. Feel your mind becoming calmer and clearer.
Qigong moving meditation – Qigong simply means “the study of energy.” It is a standing meditation practice in which the whole body moves with a sense of flowing energy. Many Body & Brain centers offer on-line classes that provide a simple introduction to this kind of meditation.
Deeper qigong practice can be learned through regional workshops and national retreats (ask your center manager about these). Try this short guided qigong meditation video to see how you like this version of mindful meditation.
If you want to spend some dedicated time learning to meditate more deeply, check out the new Body & Brain live online workshops. Mindfulness and meditation are core elements of these online workshops, and they offer you the chance to practice with some of the finest instructors in the country without leaving home.
Looking ahead, you can start planning for a future meditation retreat to better connect with yourself and Nature. Body & Brain offers weekend and week-long meditation retreats in the U.S. and internationally, also under the guidance of expert instructors. Ask your center manager for more information, and begin looking forward to a new mindfulness adventure.
Connect, Ilchi Lee, 2019, Best Life Media.
“Sensing Energy for Quieting the Mind” guided video version, based on the book Connect.
The Power Brain, Ilchi Lee, 2016, Best Life Media.
Principles of Brain Management, Ilchi Lee, 2007, Best Life Media.
Body & Brain TV (free) , offering quick classes on a wide variety of topics, like the dynamic meditations in the video “Seven Meditation Tips for Digestion.”
Brain Education TV (free), brain health topics including guided meditations.
Change Your Energy website (free or low-cost), with a large repository of classes, courses and blogs, including guided meditations.
Brain Recharge meditation app – see review here.