Mindfulness. Do I get it? #1
Written by Hillary R. Hoff
I’ve been pursuing the act of meditating for a few years and it isn’t until recently I feel I understand what it’s mostly all about. Everyone has their own opinion and will meditate a different way. Some believe meditation is a time to reflect on the self, a time to calm down the breath and opportunity to expand the mind. Others define meditation as the chance to be in your body and discover emotions, past lives, or blockage that is stored in particular physical areas you meditate on. Whether referring to focused or mindful meditation; people consider meditation to be a way of life, a way to transform the mind and embed a lifestyle pace which provides peace that is deeper than the deepest sleep.
Part I: What is meditation?
I still don’t fully know what meditation is but I am continuing to challenge myself everyday. People who are overactive, anxious, or enthusiastic movers find it extremely difficult to meditate and simply can’t sit still, such as myself. However, I am finding it to become easier and easier, day by day. Easier to calm myself, become aware of my breath, guide myself and others through meditation techniques and get deeper into my thoughts. Happily I am slowly recognizing the time is moving by faster and I am no longer looking at the clock. Meditating on what we are doing while doing it, being aware of our thinking while thinking it, conscious of what we are saying while saying it, observing breath while breathing, and consciously creating space where we can be fully alert inward, despite our constant outside distractions. Meditation can absolutely incorporate all the definitions and beliefs previously mentioned; reflection, relaxation, release, expansion, exploration or simply just free space. But what is it, really? With one word, what can meditation be described as? As it’s different for everyone, I believe the best explanation for meditation is mindfulness; pure and blissful mindfulness for the inner self.
What happens in the brain?
When we mediate, our brains don’t process as much information, thus giving us more time to focus on our thinking and stop the flow of distraction, stoping us from constantly moving from one thought to the next and not giving ourselves enough time to process what has actually happened. Let alone giving us the opportunity to filter our thoughts which we have and decide which ones are unnecessary and crowding up space in our beautiful brains. Even if you have never meditated before, a 20 minute meditation will provide the same effect to your brain as it does with someone who practices regularly. When we meditate four main areas of our brain are completely calmed and are not overstimulated as they normally are. First, the frontal cortex switches off, which is in the part of our brain which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. Our parietal lobe slows down, which is the area of our brain which processes sensory information regarding our surroundings and orienting our time and space. The thalamus is our gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses our attention by funnelling some sensory data deeper in our brain and stopping other signals while in their tracks. During mediation the thalamus reduces the flow of incoming information into a trickle. Lastly the reticular formation is the brain’s sentry, a structure that receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert. Mediation dials back the arousal signal in the reticular formation center (https://blog.bufferapp.com/how-meditation-affects-your-brain). As you can see, our brains our very busy and can easily become overwhelmed with information. With meditation we start to slow down and show a decrease in beta waves. Particularly if we become stressed or anxious meditation will grab hold of our thoughts and guide us into our parasympathic system, which is typically what our bodies do when we exercise. Meditation lowers blood pressure, relaxes our muscles, slows down our pulse rate, improves circulation and oxygenation. Regular meditators build a stronger immune system, levels of energy and vitality, and improve sleeping patterns. Pain becomes more manageable, overall stress symptoms and fatigue reduces, thus being replaced with our “feel good” hormones, endorphins. The DHEA hormone; which is susceptible to aging and disease when the levels are low will increase providing a healthy level to the body when meditating (http://www.gateways-to-inner-peace.com/benefits-of-meditation.html). The list of physical meditation benefits can go on, what I find most enlightening are the mental benefits.
People speak about empty spaces found between the constant flow of thoughts when meditating. Empty spaces that may last for only a milisecond or two. To be an empty space, it doesn’t mean it’s a blank slat or filled with nothingness, but more so similar to the experience of seeing a shooting star. You see the star just as it shoots before you have time to grasp really what it was, until you see another and another you start to become familiar with what a shooting star is. Within time you begin to see more and longer falls of the shooting stars and even the opportunity to point them out to others in the moment that you see them. The empty space between thoughts may be a flash of a feeling, a delayed emotion from something which happened previously in your day, a visual, a memory from your dream, a click to your subconscious, an answer to a personal question, a tap on the missing puzzle piece perfectly connecting all corners and angels. A Buddhist antidote refers specifically to guilt when referencing emptiness. “Emptiness. As ultimate cure for all delusions, realizing emptiness will also rid your mind of guilt” (http://www.viewonbuddhism.org/guilt.html). However, I believe this empty space is a cure to much more than only guilt. What is this emptiness? Is it the time for answers and explanation to finally catch up from our thoughts? Is it a relaxing or a sweet slow down period for our brains to absorb? It must be something very special and unique for all of us because it’s our individual emptiness, just as we all have different fingerprints and wave colours in our eyes. We all have our own meditative empty spaces to discover.
Some cultures and societies around the world do not encourage to embrace emptiness. Western society admires speed and instant gratification; leaving no time for emptiness. People in professions who are forced to think quickly and are constantly “on their toes” are paid larger amounts of money and set as a hierarchy. The pressure of technology pushes everyone to fill empty space with social media, emails, and being regularly available for work. This emptiness is necessary for our brains to discover more of who we are, building the bound with ourselves. Just as we spend days and hours throughout our week connecting with others; writing emails, collaborating with colleagues, communicating with loved ones. We rarely have an empty moment to give invested time and energy to ourselves also; giving ourselves fuel and love to burn off into the universe. Just as a boomerang comes back after sending if off into the unknown, how do we expect to catch it when our back it turned to someone else or head is down looking at our phone. Being alert and aware of this empty space by slowing things down a bit and most importantly paying attention to ourselves; also known as mindfulness.