‘Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that helps you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realizing your deepest values.’
What is Meditation?
It might be easier to start with what meditation is not! There are many myths around meditation, primary myth it that it is sitting cross-legged for hours on end with a still mind, a perfectly empty and pristinely clear mind.
An empty mind! - How is that even possible?
Maybe you have tried it… Sat down, closed your eyes. All good intentions. Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution. Maybe a minute ticked by and you listened to your mind talking about your day, worrying about tomorrow, planning the weekend, remembering you need to put the bins out later, giving you a hard time about your co-workers reaction to something you said or did at work, ad infinitum…
Maybe then you snuck a look at the clock, concluded that this attempt at meditation was a ‘fail’ and heard your mind tell you that based on this experience you couldn’t meditate?
Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone, worry not.
To bust this myth right here and now, meditation isn’t about emptying your mind. (And, you can do it, honestly!)
Your mind is an expert planner, it is an expert at jumping quickly from one thing to another, filling your time with song lyrics, plans, fantasies, past memories and future forecasts. This is known as the monkey mind. It is a wonder at many things and it’s very agile, particularly adept at solving problems, and imagining hypothetical situations – this is what is designed to do. And doing is its specialist subject. It’s a creative and explication marvel!
However in our present time your mind is in danger of becoming over-stimulated. It used to be that bedtime was at sundown and time to awaken was with the sunrise – if only! Nowadays electric lights, neon lights, all-night lights and noise, cars, constant interaction with screens: phones, computers, games, TV and advertisements all bombard your senses.
What the senses take in is food for your brain. So if your brain is being fed a high concentration of stimuli it comes to have a jarring effect on the nervous system, it feeds the monkey mind. The constant steam of information is like an artificial jungle for the monkey. As a result you come to find yourself, without actually realising it, stuck in the canopy, swinging incessantly from thought to thought, judgment to judgment.
You find yourself in what Mark Williams and Danny Penman in their seminal bookMindfulness, a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, - in “doing mode.”
Check out the questions from Mindfulness below - if you answer yes to most or all of them the likelihood is that your mind is keeping you in doing mode:
- Do you find it difficult to stay focused on what is happening in the present?
- Do you tend to walk quickly without paying attention to what you are experiencing along the way?
- Does it seen as if you are ‘running on automatic’?
- Do you rush through activities without paying much attention to them?
- Do you get so goal-focused that you stop paying attention to the here and now or what you are doing to get there?
- Do you find yourself living in the past or preoccupied with the future?
Mostly yes? Don’t worry…
The good news is that meditation and mindfulness offer the opportunity to create a relationship with the monkey mind and through repetition (a few minutes each day) you can develop the mind-muscle allowing you to witness the monkey and turn down the chatter.
What Is Meditation?
In the original Pali language the word we translate into English as meditationalso meant cultivation– as in to cultivate plants, flowers, grains, the fruits and seeds of nature in the natural landscape. Cultivation is a metaphor of the nurturing and tending to the garden of your mind as you meditate.
Coming back to the initial question of what defines meditation - meditation is not a religion. Is doesn’t require a cross-legged position (this is optional!). It doesn’t take hours. It is not complicated, and not about success or failure. It will not deaden your mind nor leave you at the mercy of fate.
A meditative state is taking time to sit or lie in a quiet place, with the spine straight, bringing your awareness inwards. Usually the attention is invited to rest on, and return to one thing.
The object might be your breath, or the object might be your thoughts, witnessing them as they pass (mindfulness meditation), or the object might be a physical thing such as the flame of a candle (Tratak meditation, steady gazing), or the object could be a mantra (as in Transcendental Meditation, TM). Mantras are chants that are repeated in the mind.
The idea of the focus upon one object is that returning to it gradually and with practice (like any new skill it takes a little practice!) the focus on the object comes to replace the busy rhythm of the chattering mind. Incidentally the word mantra means “instrument of the mind.”
According to Anodea Judith in her book Eastern Body, Western Mind, in the case of TM: ‘Research has shown that silently chanting one’s mantra creates a meditative state by synchronizing brain waves between various lobes of the brain.’
There are a great many techniques of meditation and you might find, either by trying them, or perhaps from their instinctive appeal, that you have a preference to or are drawn to a particular style. For the purpose of this Ebook the focus will come to rest on that of mindfulness meditation.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is, simply put, paying attention, bringing your attention to the here and now, noticing the thoughts and stories of the monkey mind, but not becoming them.
It is consciously noticing your thoughts and emotions as an observer, without judgment.
It is ‘smelling the roses’ – bring present with what is, which allows you to take pleasure in this moment, rather than being distracted, and absent, owing to being caught in the artificial jungle of the monkey mind.
It doesn’t want to forget the past or never plan for the future but brings them together in the present, allowing them to enhance and inform the moment (instead of taking you out if it and into an imagined wonderland or disaster zone).
Mindfulness encourages us to see and to sense the world as it is, rather than how we want or expect it to be, or fear that it might be according to the monkey mind. It encourages a state of being rather than doing.
By stepping out of the mind stories and repetitions, and by bringing your awareness into your present state, paying attention to sensation and noticing thoughts as a witness to them, brings us into ‘being’ mode.
Being and Knowing
More than simply a shift in perspective this is what Mark Williams and Danny Penman call a different way of knowing.
In other words you come to see, come to know, how your mind distorts reality to fit it around a story, or stories of wounding, which includes over analysing, over-thinking and judging.
With this different way of knowing life’s difficulties become downgraded to challenges instead of difficulties or catastrophes. They become handled very differently as your internal landscape changes. Your well being then doesn’t revolve around external factors but is internal.
- Spilt coffee down your jumper?
Oh well, it’ll come off. If not, no problem, it’s only a jumper, you’ve got a shirt underneath which is just fine.
- Forgot your raincoat and it’s started to pour?
Ah, nice excuse to shelter for a moment and enjoy a sense of community with the others who are also soaking!
You are cultivating your garden.
‘If Doing mode is a trap, then Being mode is freedom.’
How Does It Work?
Mindfulness works in two ways: the mindfulness meditation practice, a short daily meditation developing awareness of thoughts and feelings, and practicing being present with what is, without judgment. It also serves to break the patterns of unconscious self-judgment and self criticism.
A mindful approach means creating new mental habits. Cultivating new ways of approaching your inner self, planting new seeds of observation, presence and non-judgment - planting a new garden. Watering it with your compassion and attention.
There is no need to judge the garden as you might simply look with gentle satisfaction at a newly planted flowerbed. While the seeds are germinating, as you start your exploration into mindfulness meditation, you wouldn’t be prodding the soil on a daily basis demanding results! You would be attentive to the new life stirring beneath.
‘Mindful awareness – or mindfulness – spontaneously arises out of this Being mode when we learn to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, to things as they actually are.’ 
As a result mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation helps you to recognize negative thoughts and thought patterns as they arise, helping to stop the spiral of negative thinking and feeling.
It then creates greater mental clarity, creates a vantage point from which you are the observer.
Doing Mode – Being Mode
The Doing mode is not a foe - it doesn’t need to be defeated. It in itself it is not a problem, the issue arises when the Doing mode (upon which our focus is based in the West) muscles it’s way into ‘solving’ emotions.
Mindful awareness offers up the choice to recognise emotions and switch modes between the Doing and Being mode. In Mindfulness Mark Williams and Danny Penman give seven characteristic differences between these modes, and by noticing where your head’s at gives you the choice where you put your attention.
· Automatic Pilot versus Conscious Choice – automatic pilot is great for our life habits such as dressing yourself and driving a car, once you have learnt the skill; your autopilot makes sure you don’t have to spend all day everyday re-learning the same things.
However when left unchecked your automatic pilot can take over and gets you automatically moving through life, eating, thinking, driving and walking without awareness. It robs you of your time in the here and now by taking you out of the present moment and into a habitual, repetitive pattern of thinking and doing.
Being mode – mindful awareness – brings you back to conscious choice so that you’re not wasting time going over automatic thought patterns and related behaviours.
· Analysing versus Sensing– Doing mode is thinking mode, it is a useful, analytical tool, which is often over used. It takes you out of your senses and into your head so you miss experiencing the world directly.
Mindfulness brings you back in touch with your senses so that you re-awaken your sensory curiosity.
· Striving versus Accepting– your Doing mode is an expert judge. It will always strive to compare reality as it sees it, with your hopes, dreams and fears. It concentrates your attention on the ‘gap’ between what it sees as the goal (what you are striving for) and where it thinks you are. The ego assumes that the gap in Doing mode is down to some kind of short-coming or even failure on your part (it's not!).
Being mode invites you to observe without judgment, to temporarily suspend those comparisons and look at the situation with acceptance, in other words as something that just is.
In this way it offers an open, creative vantage point, rather than being confined to the ‘gap’. This kind of acceptance isn’t a resignation to whatever life throws your way. Rather it is a vantage point from which to view things, where whatever is occurring is not judged, condemned or attacked.
As such it prevents a spiral of self-critical thinking and automatic self-judgement to spiral out of control. It therefore liberates us from those automatic thinking patterns, liberating you from anxiety, unhappiness, fear and exhaustion. It allows you to deal with challenges creatively, in the best way possible, and without taking them personally.
· Seeing Thoughts as Solid and Real versus Treating Them as Mental Events– in Doing mode thoughts and ideas are currency, they have value. Indeed when you are going to the shop to buy your groceries you make your list, plan your journey and go, in this situation thinking, planning and your ideas will get you to the shop and buy your groceries.
It wouldn’t make sense to doubt the truth of your thinking, am I really going to buy groceries?
If however you find yourself stressed you might find yourself saying this is terrible, it’s driving me nut’s, I should have been able to sort this out.
You might find yourself taking these thoughts as truth as well, as a result your mood drops, you feel terrible, you give yourself a really hard time about how weak or ineffectual you are, so you push harder, ignoring your tired body and perhaps the advice of others around you.
Here your thoughts have become the master, not a particularly compassionate master at that.
Mindfulness teaches you that thoughts are just thought, they are simply mental events. By observing them and choosing not to take them as truth in this kind of situation means that you are free from a harsh, grinding, disempowering internal commentary. By realizing your thoughts are not ‘you’ and not ‘reality’ you are free to choose your path.
· Avoidance versus Approaching– your Doing mode not only holds onto your goals and desired outcomes but also onto your ‘anti-goals’, the things or outcomes that you don’t want. This is great for avoiding the area of town that is jammed with traffic on your route home but not so much when it comes to avoiding states of mind.
If you try to solve the problem of feeling tired and stressed your mind will want to avoid exhaustion and burnout. It will create numerous fears and scenarios it wants to avoid, and in repeatedly doing so it will lead you closer to that place of breakdown.
Your Being mode does the opposite; it encourages you to turn towards those things that Doing mode seeks to avoid.
It has a compassionate curiosity towards those difficult states of mind, or the tired places, it doesn’t discredit them by saying don’t feel like that! - Instead it gently acknowledges your tiredness and fears, compassionately allowing time for rest and space for the fear to naturally lift.
· Mental Travel Time versus Remaining in the Present Moment– when you are stressed it affects the way you see your past and your future. From a stressed perspective you remember all the bad things that have happened and imagine all the potential disasters just around the corner. You are robbed of your optimism.
Meditation trains the mind so that you can consciously see your thoughts as they are occurring so that Being mode can approach thoughts of the past as memories and thoughts of the future as plans. This leaves you free of the pain of reliving past events and pre-empting impending doom, remaining in the present moment is freeing you from the shackles of mental time travel.
· Depleting versus Nourishing Activities – Doing mode is the expert on making the to-do list: the jobs, the chores, the tasks, all those things you ‘should’ be doing. While some of these things are essential, like childcare, paying bills and the like, not all of them are essential, not all of them need to be ticked off now, now, now.
Doing mode is expert in keeping you busy, doing to the detriment of your pleasure and well being, gradually giving up the pastimes that nourish you, while depleting your inner resources.
Being mode helps you sense the things that nourish you and those that deplete you. By doing so it gives you the choice and courage to choose things that nourish, redressing the balance and bringing back the nourishment into your life.
Reaction – Response: the benefits of mindfulness and meditation
All of this awareness and entering into a Being mode leaves you less reactive, more responsive. It gives you more choice, more empowerment, more quality time for you:
‘Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, New York, have discovered that more mindful people engage in more autonomous activities. That is, they do not do things because others want them to or pressure them into doing them. […] those who are more mindful spend more time doing things that they truly value, or that they simply find fun or interesting to do.’
It also allows you to connect with your natural state of inner joy and calm, which is usually drowned out by mind chatter or the endless problem solving of the monkey mind.
‘Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average. These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.’
It also helps you become more compassionate and patient, both with yourself and others: ‘Scientific research using brain imaging (fMRI) has shown that the insula becomes energised through meditation. This is hugely significant because this part of our brain is integral to our sense of human connectedness as it helps to mediate empathy in a very real and visceral way. […] With it comes true compassion, true loving-kindness. […] Empathy and feeling genuine compassion and loving-kindness towards yourself and others have hugely beneficial effects on health and wellbeing. The longer a person has meditated, the more highly developed is the insula. But even eight weeks of mindfulness training is sufficient to show changes in the way in which this critical area of the brain functions.’
It helps you become a healthier, happier person and a better leader: ‘Professor Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have proved that mediation focusing on loving-kindness for the self and for others boosted positive emotions which then led to a greater zest for life. After just nine weeks of training, meditators developed an increased sense of purpose and had fewer feelings of isolation and alienation, along with decreased symptoms of illness as diverse as headaches, chest pain, congestion and weakness.’
In other words, you become more effective and more resilient, equipping you with a positive mental attitude and a glass half full perspective.
It will even help with mental health issues such as depression. ‘Research has shown that an eight week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy course [which lies at the heart of the Mindfulness book, developed by Mark Williams and colleagues] significantly reduces the chances of suffering from depression. In fact, it reduces the likelihood of relapse by about 40-50 percent in people who have suffered three or more episodes of depression.’
Why are meditation and mindfulness such buzzwords? Should you believe the hype?
Yes... One word: stress.
Right now you live in an age where it is easy to become overloaded by sensory stimuli. This is having a massive impact on health on a world-wise basis.
Ok then, get your lab-coat on, lets look at the science.
The Science of Stress
Stress in itself is not all bad news. Fundamentally stress in the body prompts action through a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, your stress hormones, priming our muscles and organs for action. It thickens the blood by increasing the platelets, in other words it readies the body for wound reparation, and boosts the white cell count to counter any potential infections. Blood sugar and fats are mobilized for a readily accessible source of energy for activity.
We refer to this as the ‘fight or flight’ response, in physiological, bodily, terms this stress response is a result of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) being activated. In a balanced scenario after the threat or perceived threat has passed your ‘rest and digest’ state, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) would kick back in, leaving the body’s stress response and returning you to a relaxed mode of being.
In this digital age you and your co-workers might be looking at your phones hundreds of times a day, having emails calls, social media alerts, news stories popping up repeatedly. All the worries you might have about finances, relationships, work etc., threats as your body perceives them, are no longer physical and quickly resolved. Instead they tend to be low-level, long-term stresses, a bit like radio white noise, constantly hissing in the background.
It is this that keeps the body’s SNS, fight or flight system firing, keeping the cortisol and adrenaline pumping. Without the return to the rest and digest mode the constant or repeatedly re-activated SNS, fight or fight mode, starts to cause disease in the body: ‘[…] stress fuels some of the biggest health problems of our time, including type 2 diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, heart attacks and strokes, as well as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis.’
The Effects of Stress on the Body
An elevated level of cortisol in the system has adverse effects on the body in a multitude of ways. For example it causes raised blood pressure, higher triglycerides, high blood sugar and insulin resistance. Each of these examples is a contributing factor to heart disease. Higher levels of cortisol also effects your relationship with food, leading to “food seeking behavior” and binge-eating in humans.
If you do overeat cortisol ensures that the excess fat is laid down in the abdominal area, and science now knows that extra fat in the intra-abdominal area vastly increases the risk of heart disease and type two diabetes. Additionally an oversupply of cortisol has also been linked to lowering bone density (leading potentially to osteoporosis), depression and also to immune function.
As already mentioned with a surge of cortisol there comes a boost to the immune system as a natural defense to the body as it readies itself for potential fighting or fleeing. However a sustained, raised level of cortisol comes to have the opposite effect on the body and actually begins to erode the immune system, weakening the body’s defenses and making it more prone to contracting illnesses.
Not only does an increased cortisol level effect the body, it might come as no surprise that it also has an effect on the mind.
The reason why traumatic or stressful events become seemingly imprinted on the brain is down to the extra cortisol in the system. However long-term raised levels serve to impede, reduce, memory function and lead to permanent changes in the brain: ‘Some studies link the tendency towards stress to the subsequent development of Alzheimer’s disease (although there is no proof of a causal connection). Chronic stress, however, probably does accelerate the decline in mental function in someone who has the disease and may contribute to other forms of dementia.’ 
How Mediation Can Help
The great news is that: ‘Meditation appears to increase immunity in instances where that’s helpful, as well as lower it in the case of auto-immune diseases, marked by inappropriately aggressive immune function. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, former director of the University of Massechusetts Stress Reduction Clinic, conducted a study of people with moderate to severe cases of the autoimmune skin disease psoriasis. Those who listened to a guided meditation tape while they received the standard treatment of ultraviolet light therapy were almost four times as likely complete clearing of their skin. Says Kabat-Zinn, “The power of that study is that it shows that the mind can influence a healing process all the way down to the level of what has to be gene expression and cell replication.”’
Fortunately mindfulness meditation is a tool that effectively stops the mind from working against you: ‘Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.’
Choose a New Groove
By observing your thoughts and becoming a witness to them you are no longer caught in the mental loops. You can choose to step outside the thought pattern - you can choose a new groove.
You can get happier and develop more fulfilling relationships: ‘Regular meditators better and more fulfilling relationships.’ 
With a little bit of practice, the advice is daily, tuning into your breath and coming into a short meditation to observe your mind fluctuations, you will come to notice that those things that used to be stressful and bothersome are perhaps not important.
‘[…R]esearch at the University Medical Centre at Gronigen, the Netherlands, shows that increases in positive mood and well being are directly related to becoming more aware of routine daily activities, observing and attending to the ordinary experiences of life and acting less automatically. By contrast, decreases in negative mood are more closely related to accepting thoughts and emotions without judgment and learning to be open and curious about painful feelings.’
Without being the present moment you are at the mercy of the constant flitting of the mind through fantasies, judgments, stories: old glories or past trauma, how we are succeeding or failing, what they have done to us, how life could be better, the list is infinite! Your mind would have you believe in all it’s stories and keeps you stuck in these mental grooves.
The Health Benefits
Meditation, and the practicing of meditation, as you now know, is a conscious choice to step out of your busy mind. And with that comes a reversal of those detrimental effects that stress has on the body.
‘One study, funded by the US National Institutes of Health and published in 2005, discovered that the form of meditation that has been practiced in the West since the 1960s (Transcendental Meditation) leads to a massive reduction in mortality. Compared with controls, the meditators showed a 23 percent decrease over the nineteen-year period that the group was studied. There was a 30 percent decrease in the rate of cardiovascular mortality and a 49 percent decrease in the rate of mortality due to cancer in the meditation group compared with combined controls. This effect is the equivalent to discovering an entirely new class of drugs (but without the inevitable side effects).’
Mindfulness meditation teaches you that beneath the constant flow of words, songs, images and fantasies that the mind is churning out there is a quiet place, a place to just be, to just breathe.
While of course rational thought has its place and you don’t want to abandon it altogether, what you do want is to be able to turn it down once in a while. Turning it down enables you to be centered, present and flowing with a sense of connection.
Go With The Flow
With practice you will find yourself in a meditative ‘flow’ state.
You have probably been there before, it is the effortless feeling of simply being in the moment, of being completely absorbed in the enjoyment and sensation of the present.
Flow is a documented and well-researched area of psychology, on which the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively. Flow state is built into the way you are wired, however with all these gadgets, distractions, stresses and the modern day tendency to live in Doing mode, it takes practice to learn how to get there… and meditation does just that: ‘The feelings of calm connection and meaning we experience when we fully occupy the present tend to shift the balance toward the PNS, potentially undoing some of the damage [caused by stress].’
Mindfulness meditation actually and remarkably changes the structure of the brain. Recent scientific studies have allowed these changes to be observed and recorded.
Changing the way you think and taking time in meditation and observing your thoughts creates new neurological pathways.
It was thought that each individual was born with a happiness set point, a combination of being genetic and formulated during childhood.
This myth was busted by a body of research by Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin) and John Kabat-Zinn (University of Massachusetts Medical School) who found that mindfulness training actually changed their participants’ emotional set points according to their brain activity.
Brain activity can be measured by recording its electrical impulses through the scalp by an fMRI scanner. The afore mentioned Richard Davidson found that the part of the brain known as the right pre-frontal cortex lights up more than the left when people are anxious, stressed, depressed or otherwise upset.
Conversely when people are happy, optimistic and energized the left prefrontal cortex lights up more than the right.
Dr Davidson devised a “mood index”based on the ratio of this activity, literally a happiness index, or happiness score. If the ratio shifts to the left you are in a joyful, positive mood: the approach system. If the ratio shifts to the right you are likely to be feeling low, deflated and gloomy: the avoidance system.
Davidson and Kabat-Zinn decided to use their happiness index to measure the effects of mindfulness meditation on a group of tech workers who were taught mindfulness meditation over a period of eight weeks. They became happier, less anxious and more energized, the index switched to the left on Davidsons’ scale. Furthermore this ‘approach’ system remained the norm even when the participants were subjected to slow, sad music and unhappy past memories.
It was clear that the mindfulness meditation had an uplifting, lasting effect on mood and also changed the way the brain works, suggesting that mindfulness has a deep-rooted and positive effect on the way the brain functions.
An additional and unpredicted effect of the mindfulness course on the workers above was that they saw a boost to their immune systems – researchers gave the group a ‘flu jab and monitored their white cell count. Those with the ‘approach system’ had a greater concentration of ‘flu fighting antibodies, and therefore a higher functioning immune system as a result.
Take a Deep Breath.
There is wisdom in those words - the emphasis on tuning into the breath, as you do in any meditative practice, is based in science.
The breath has profound effects on the nervous system and if consciously controlled can have an energizing or relaxing effect.
Slowing the breath down and gently extending the exhalation activates your ‘rest and digest’ mode (the PNS). It works likes this:
Slow deep breath = Relaxed nervous system = Calm mind = Sense of connection
‘[…T]he breath is used to relax the nervous system, which in turn calms the mind.’ In this state ‘[…] you have access to deeper wisdom from within, and both creativity and healing are facilitated.’ 
So next time your feeling stressed, maybe even on a daily basis:
- Tune in
- Take your time
- Take a deep breath (several)
- And when you wake up, make time to smell the roses
It really will be doing you the power of good.
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