Answering the question 'Why Meditate?' can be tricky as there isn't a 'point' to mindfulness; the practice in and of itself is the goal, and ultimately it's a practice that helps us to inquire into the nature of our own experience. At the same time, meditation can be incredibly effective at improving our psychological well-being and our physical health. Mindfulness mediation has been proven to significantly reduce stress and relieve anxiety, addiction and depression. It's also been proven to improve concentration and it boosts the immune system.
What are the physical benefits?
The scientifically validated physical benefits of meditation include:
Lowered levels of cortisol and lactate (stress hormones)
Decrease in high blood pressure
Drop in cholesterol levels
Improved immune system
Meditators have a thicker insula (part of the brain responsible for emotion and awareness)
Reduction of free radicals (impacts lifespan)
And the psychological benefits include:
Self-actualization - utilising the brain’s plasticity to reprogram old thought patterns and behaviours
Increased calm and happiness
Increased emotional stability
Decreased depression and anxiety
Increased clarity of thought and reasoning
Increased vitality and rejuvenation
Increased brain wave coherence
Increase in cognitive ability
What is mindfulness meditation?
Many people come to meditation thinking it will ‘silence their minds’. While a regular practice will certainly enable you to quieten your mind, mindfully meditating means disciplining, rather than silencing the mind. We don't try to control our thoughts or 'try not think'. Instead, the practive involves becoming aware of our sensory experience without reacting to it or trying to alter it in any way. We pay attention to the sounds around us, our emotions, our thoughts, physical sensations, spacial awareness, vision, taste and anything else we can become conscious of experiencing.
A very useful description by Jon Kabat-Zin defines mindfulness as ‘moment-by-moment, non-judgemental awareness’.
The ‘non-judgemental’ aspect is the key. The more we practise listening without labelling, the easier it becomes for us to stay present and not get swept away by our thoughts. This frees us from endlessly imagining the past or the future – useful concepts in some contexts, but a major source of suffering in others.
The silence we enjoy as a result of this isn’t the silence of a mind that has been beaten into submission – it is the silence of non-judgement.
What's the difference between 'mindfulness' and 'meditation'?
Mindfulness meditation is simply a type of meditation (there are also various concentration meditations). Concentration is the most important part of mindfulness; without being able to concentrate for an extended period of time, we have no hope of being able to watch our own experience without becoming distracted. Mindfulness meditation involves concentrating on your experience 'as it is' without using language or symbols to label it or put it in a box. Mindfulness itself is a way of being, and you could actually substitute it with the word 'awareness' in most cases. Some people find it helpful to imagine meditation as the practise, and mindfulness as the shift in perspective that comes about through the practise.
Just remember you can do anything mindfully – sit, eat, walk, laugh, cry, cuddle – anything. The more regularly you meditate, the more mindfully brilliant life becomes.
Do I have to sit cross legged and chant in order to meditate?
No, though a good posture is important. This question really points to a concern about a standardised, regimented form of practice, often presented in a cultural context alien to our own.
In Open Meditation we focus on what works, rather than what we’ve been told works. We do teach the importance of a good posture as it increases airflow to the lungs and has a number of physiological effects that aid meditation. However, we also teach lying down meditation, running meditation, dancing meditation, sitting on the tube meditation and much more.
Meditation is about being mindful of yourself in the present moment. This can be done anywhere, any time.
Can meditation help me quit smoking or lose weight?
Yes, absolutely. Working with us to develop a daily practice will enable you to become mindful of the behaviours that aren't serving you, what lies behind them, and what actions are needed to drive change. We will teach you how to be mindful not just when you are meditating, but throughout the entire day. Especially when you find yourself in difficult situations which test your will power. Most importantly, we'll be with you throughout the transition to help inspire and motivate you.
I've tried meditating before but never been able to stick with it. What if it just doesn't work for me?
If you have a human brain, meditation is for you. At the beginning, it is much the same as any other skill you’ve learned – take riding a bike for example, or playing an instrument. At first it seemed impossible, but with enough perseverance it became second nature.
Often people come to us because they’ve tried a class in which the teacher, even though they had the best intentions, didn’t manage to explain what they were doing, or the point of it, in a way that translated to the student.
The founders of Open Meditation have extensive experience studying, debating and simplifying the complex dynamics of our inner worlds. It was in part our frustration with the lack of good, simple explanations and science-based approaches to meditation that led us to create the organisation.
If I start meditating, will I change? What if I start acting differently and my friends stop liking me?
We are all changing all the time. If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you aren’t the same person you were when you were 17. Likewise, you won’t be the same person in 10 years. Either our environment changes us, or we change ourselves. Regardless, change happens.
With this in mind, it’s worth asking yourself whether you want to be changed or do the changing. One way you can decide for yourself who the updated you is going to be, the other way you can’t.
To answer the second question – you’ll be surprised how many friends who start out saying “meditation’s for hippies,” end up meditating once you’ve done the scary bit, taken the leap and proved it’s for everyone. A daily practice will almost certainly make you calmer, happier and more empathetic. If your friends don’t like these qualities, there are plenty more fish in the sea.
Do you have to be a Buddhist or a Hindu to meditate?
Definitely not. While we have the utmost respect for religious approaches to meditation, our courses are designed to be integral, meaning they integrate different perspectives and practices from science, spirituality, sociology, ontology, psychology, sport, literature and more. The goal is to develop as full a picture as possible of ourselves, our societies and our environment.
At Open Meditation we encourage people not to get attached to certain approaches – what matters is what works. When a better model for understanding the mind comes along, we feel it’s best to drop or revise our old models and evolve.
I'm devoted to my religion, but still interested in meditation. Is this a problem?
Most of the world’s major religions have rich mystical and contemplative traditions. Islam has Sufism, Judaism has Kabbalah and Christianity has Gnosticism. Meditation is about your experience, not your beliefs. This means you can integrate it into your religious life – and you may find that it enhances your faith in ways you didn’t expect. You may find it useful to research to the work of Ken Wilbur and the Integral Institute who have looked at this question in depth.