I remember my friend asking me this when we were chatting one day, “Meditation? You mean we can solve problems by just sitting down?”. Then I just smiled because it is not something that can be explained in such simple terms. My friend’s question has also reflected a misunderstanding that the majority of people have towards meditation.
There are many kinds of meditation, and you don’t always have to be sitting down. Meditation is a way of managing our thoughts. When we are practicing meditation, we might appear not to be doing anything, but certain parts of our brain are actually already undergoing changes because of our meditation. The way we think, perceive and feel will also change accordingly.
Meditation is already being widely used in psychiatric treatment in the US, especially for mental illnesses caused by trauma, with the most commonly known illness being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Meditation has also proven to be very effective in treating anxiety, depression, addiction, obsessive compulsive disorders, as well as anger management.
American Veterans (AMVETS) began to introduce the practice of meditation as part of their trauma therapy for war veterans over the last few years. Many research results have shown that meditation has substantially reduced a variety of PTSD-related symptoms. Some of the major trauma treatment research centers in the US have also begun to provide trauma-related meditation training programs for psychiatrists so that they can offer more alternatives for patients.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a method of managing and training our thoughts. We can classify meditation into two major categories based on the difference in their points of focus:
The first category is Focus Attention Meditation. The practitioner would focus his attention on a single object, such as breathing, chanting, frame of mind, a particular part of his body etc. For example, the meditation as part of Kundalini yoga belongs to this category. As the practitioner improves over time, his concentration will become more focused and stable, and won’t get distracted easily.
The second category is Open Monitoring Meditation. The practitioner will observe his surrounding environment and his own self (thoughts, feelings, memories etc.) with an open mind, without being judgmental or inflexible. The aim of this is to help the practitioner achieve a state of total emptiness, so that he won’t easily fall into any instinctive or habitual responses. The commonly known practice of mindfulness belongs to this category.
The Use of Meditation in Trauma Recovery
Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist, breaks up the human brain into four levels according to the time sequence in which the brain develops and the complexity of the brain’s functions, namely brain stem, diencephalon, limbic system, and frontal cortex.
The brain stem is at the lowest level and the frontal cortex is at the highest level. The lowest level with the simplest structure regulates our basic skills and is developed first. The highest level with the most complex structure regulates the more complex functions and is developed at a later stage. Since the brain stem is responsible for regulating our breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, as well as controlling our body’s automatic survival function, it is developed the earliest. The frontal cortex controls our high-level functions such as logic, language, risk assessment and concentration, it is only fully developed at around the age of 20.
In my article “Understanding Brain Structure Through Trauma”, I mentioned that “the smooth operation of the brain stem is extremely important for the development of the frontal cortex”. Since the brain stem of people with PTSD is already seriously damaged, talk therapy will only have limited effectiveness because their brain is mainly focused on survival rather than logic.
According to Bruce Perry, it is possible to cure and strengthen the function of the brain stem through providing repetitive and pattern activities.Such repetitive and pattern somatosensory activities include dancing, breathing, meditation, yoga etc. These activities can greatly reduce anxiety, impulsiveness and other trauma-related symptoms.
Furthermore, research has shown that there was an obvious reduction in the volume of brain cells in the amygdala for a normal person who continuously practiced meditation for eight weeks, therefore his fear, stress and anxiety have also eased substantially. The thickness of his hippocampus cortex will increase, so his learning ability, memory and creativity will also improve accordingly. Meditation can change the way we think, our perceptions and feelings through changing our brain’s structure, thereby improving our mental health. So even if you don’t have trauma-related or other psychiatric illnesses, practicing meditation can also have many benefits.
How to Develop a Meditation Routine?
When we mention meditation, many people’s first reaction would be that they don’t have time. Firstly, in my opinion, meditation is the “me” time that we should leave for ourselves every day. Venerable Master Hsing Yun is 89 years old and has almost lost his eyesight by now. In one of his interviews, he was asked if he gets tired from being so busy at such an old age. The master answered, “Being busy is also a kind of training, being busy can accomplish a lot of things. Try to remain calm even when you’re busy. As long as you feel calm, your physical exhaustion will recover after some rest. You can achieve anything if your heart is at peace.”
In fact, if we can just eat while we’re eating, and just have a meeting during a meeting, we can remain in a state of meditation all the time. However, in reality, we always tend to think about where we should go after our meal instead of paying attention the true flavors of our food; we often also tend to worry about the report that we’re going to present to our boss at meetings. This is why our hearts are never “at peace”, so how can our hearts not be tired at the end of each day?
Our daily meditation practice is the time that we leave for hearts to train and manage our emotions and thoughts.As long as we can allow a bit of time each day to meditate, go for walks, take deep breaths, chant or practice other meditation methods, we will gradually be able to focus and relax even when we are busy with our everyday tasks.
Choosing the meditation method that is suitable for yourself is very important, this will help you make it become a habit.Some people may feel at peace more easily in a quiet environment, so methods such as walking, breathing and meditation are more suitable for them. People who get distracted easily may find methods such as chanting, body movements and meditation with instructions or music more helpful when trying to achieve a state of peace. I would suggest you to try out different meditation methods, and then decide on the method that you like before you begin in depth practice.
Meditation is not restricted by time and place. As long as you want to, you can meditate in any situation.However, a designated environment and time will help you enter a state of peace more easily and help you establish meditation as a good habit, such as building your own meditation “space”. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big and solemn space; just enough to put your favorite cushion, a beautiful candle, a portrait that inspires you, or a book that you like etc. If you can go back to the same place to practice meditation each day, you will feel at ease and relaxed.
Furthermore, if you incorporate meditation into your everyday routine,such as meditation before breakfast, after you come home from work, or before you go to sleep at night, this will help make it a habit. Try to not meditate after a big meal because your blood circulation will concentrate in your digestive system and it will be very difficult to focus. Doing neck and back stretching exercises or yoga poses before meditation can help relax your muscles and increase blood circulation, thereby making it easier to focus during meditation and enter a state of peace. At the end of meditation, spend three to five minutes to totally relax, have a cup of hot tea, have a snack, or simply lie down. Our consciousness will reconnect with our body and get on with the new tasks. Now let’s go back to my friend’s question, “Meditation? You mean we can solve problems by just sitting down?”. I think meditation can help you understand your intentions and thoughts. Just like a domino effect, if you already know that you will cause a series of reactions by pushing the first tile, perhaps you will be wiser and more cautious before you choose whether or not you should do something. Sometimes not doing something might be the better choice. So based on this point, perhaps we can really solve problems by just “sitting down”.