Tools for Inner Peace: Exploring Mindfulness and MeditationJan 29, 2021 07:30AM ● By Marlaina Donato
The practices of mindfulness and meditation, although closely related, offer individual, science-backed benefits for both body and psyche. Mindfulness has been shown to amp up immunity and increase gray matter in the brain, and 2018 research published in Experimental Biology shows that just an introductory hour of meditation using breathwork and awareness of thoughts significantly reduced anxiety. The study indicates that when applied regularly, mindfulness minimizes arterial pressure and cardiovascular health risks associated with long-term nervous system stress.
Immersion in the Moment
Mindfulness—cultivating present-moment awareness by noticing body sensations, thoughts and details in our environment—not only makes life more enjoyable, but enables us to acknowledge life experiences and emotions without aversion and judgement. Mindfulness techniques are now being used in psychotherapy for insomnia, eating disorders and addictions. Physiological benefits are also significant. Harvard Health Publishing, referencing the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, highlights mindfulness for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal conditions, as well as clinical depression.
For healing arts practitioner Evelyn Hall, in Santa Cruz, California, mindfulness is a lifestyle choice. “When my mind runs off into the future, it can create not only anxiety because I fear the unknown, but also worry about all the ‘what ifs’. When I find myself lost in the past, it can bring me sadness and regret. I have learned from mindfulness that these are just mental habits.”
Cara Bradley, a mental fitness coach in Philadelphia and author of On the Verge: Wake Up, Show Up and Shine, says, “To be mindful is to show up to experience the moment as it is, with all your senses—when we eat, when we walk, whatever we are doing.”
While mindfulness can be the simple act of noticing the geometric design of a flower or the variety of tastes on a dinner plate, meditation brings awareness to the deepest levels of consciousness through a variety of focused techniques, including breathwork, chanting, visualization or gazing at a candle flame.
Contrary to common assumption, meditation need not be associated with religious structure. Neuroscientist Tony Nader, who heads the global Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization in 100 countries, underscores, “When you say meditation, there are numerous kinds of meditation with different origins. It can’t be assumed that just because meditation involves the mind that it involves dogma, or that meditation is religious because it has its roots from the Eastern traditions. Over time, some traditions integrated aspects of these ancient techniques into their own religions, yet not all meditations are religious.”
Meditation can bring us into the eye of the storm. “The ocean is a great analogy for understanding different approaches to meditation. Just as the ocean can be turbulent on the surface with innumerable waves and quiet at its depth, so, too, the mind is active on the surface with innumerable thoughts, but it is also naturally, profoundly quiet, deep within.”
TM, taught in personal, one-to-one instruction by a certified instructor, is one of the most thoroughly studied approaches and does not involve breathwork or repetition of chants. “There are 600 scientific research studies about the effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation technique to develop the full brain—actually, the full potential of the human nervous system,” says Nader.
Today, meditation has moved into the mainstream, with more than 2,500 digital apps offering quick, convenient access to every type and tradition. With names like Calm and Headspace, they were downloaded by more than 52 million first-time users in 2019—and that was before the anxiety-inducing pandemic. Most can be easily customized: Insight Timer, for example, offers 45,000 free meditations that can be sorted by need, duration or style.
By practicing meditation, mindfulness is also cultivated. “You can think of it as a workout for your mind, a way of becoming familiar with our mind and training our mind,” says Bradley.
Meditation can simply help to lower blood pressure or boost memory, yet it can bring mindfulness to a more spiritual level. “In a meditative state, I can feel how everything around me is alive and communicating with their own tongue and song,” says Hall. “I feel peace, no longer lost in wishing, praying or pleading that things be different. I am free from the burden of having to do something.”
Marlaina Donato is a body-mind-spirit author and composer of visionary music.
Meditative Approaches to Try
Cara Bradley: There are times in life, during a busy workday or after watching the news, when you can feel that your mind has gotten very small and fixed. One of my favorite, super-simple practices is called Tibetan sky-gazing. Go outside or look out your window and look up into the sky. Use your inhale to help you expand your breath, but also your mind; allow your mind and your eyes to widen to the peripheral, and as you exhale, you just let go of any fear, worry or control. Inhale—expand up and out; exhale, let something go—tension, struggle, expectation.
Evelyn Hall: Close your eyes, take a couple of nice belly breaths and relax. Send waves of relaxation through your entire body, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. As you do this, just listen to the sounds around you, both near and far. Then notice what you smell, both near and far. How does the air feel on your skin? Expand all your senses to experience what is present in this moment.
Once you are deeply relaxed, just rest within the present environment, doing nothing. Unplug, reset. Try three to five minutes to reboot. Tip: It’s helpful to remember a time when you were totally relaxed—in nature or on vacation. The mind and body love to work together; think it and the body will respond.