Meditation is the practice of being in the here and now. Researchers have long observed that meditation, or the sense of presence, has the ability to:
Meditation has the ability to fundamentally change the way you live. Researchers have observed individuals who meditate and have discovered that the human mind wanders nearly half of the day. Moreover, research suggests that a wandering mind is a better predictor of happiness, independent of financial security. In essence, if your mind is wandering, you are much less likely to be happy. The sense of the present moment determines happiness.
Meditation develops two important skills to help keep the mind from wandering. The first is the ability to remain focused and attentive. The second, is the ability to recognize when the mind wanders so that it can gently be returned to the present moment.
An crucial concept to grasp before diving into meditation is the relaxation response. In the modern world, stress is chronic. The modern world is deluged with a vast amount of information and moves at such as fast pace, and this places everyone experiencing it in a state of stress. This often results in a surge of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones released by the adrenal glands, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response. As a result, the mind turns outward, seeking to evaluate and resolve anything that is the source of the stress. Unless you are relaxed, out of fight or flight, you cannot meditate. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system must occur (the mind must be turned inward) in order to practice meditation. This balance can be achieved by learning the relaxation response. Relaxation is the first step to meditation.
The key to the relaxation response is noticing what happens in your body when the response is activated. What physiologic cues are revealed to you when you are relaxed? It is different for everyone. Some may experience a release of tension in the shoulders, others in the neck, many in the jaw. What is important is knowing when your body is relaxed and is ready to begin meditating.
In 1975, Herbert Benson wrote the book "The Relaxation Response". As a cardiologist, he noticed that many of his patients who had high blood pressure felt worse with the medications that he prescribed. Patients simply visiting him made matters worse. Benson discovered that stress was the culprit and relaxation was the cure. Benson reluctantly began working with transcendental meditation meditators because they claimed to be able to reduce their blood pressure. He observed that they were in fact correct. The meditators were able to successfully reduce their heart rate, metabolic rate, and breath rate. Benson coined this effect the "relaxation response". After researching this phenomena more he discovered that the relaxation response could be triggered easily, quickly, and anywhere.
Just as stress can be triggered in a variety of ways, so too can relaxation, including meditation. Benson later discovered four key components underlying the relaxation response:
Eventually, Benson later discovered that only the last two are required, a mental device and an allowing attitude, to activate the relaxation response. This means that anyone can tap into the relaxation response anywhere and anytime.
Benson, H., & Klipper, M. (2000). The relaxation response. New York: HarperCollins.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013262
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