Everyone encounters stress and we are living through a challenging time right now. Some stress is necessary and when it causes anxiety or fear, it may not be healthy. Mindfulness meditation calms the mind and settles the body. Jon Kabat Zinn, the “father” of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” The human mind is very active and when we are still, thoughts inevitably stream into our awareness. We follow our thoughts into imagining, inventing and creating beautiful objects, ideas, and stories. That incredible thinking can also be stressful because some of these thoughts are filled with worry, anxiety, and ruminating; stories of what has already happened or has yet to occur. Paying attention to the present moment in a particular way is a helpful tool to relax; it benefits the brain, body, relationships and is something anyone can do; anytime, anywhere.
There are many types of meditation and people from many cultures and traditions have been meditating for generations; it is called a practice because it takes time and repetition to master. The three most widely accessible for the general public are Concentration, Insight practice and Mantra or Affirmation meditation also known as Loving Kindness. Mindfulness meditation is a concentration meditation practice that Jon Kabat Zinn introduced to medical centers over 40 years ago to help patients who were not demonstrating pain relief from conventional medicine and treatments. Being aware of the present moment by focusing on an attention anchor — sounds, sensations, or most commonly, the breath — is the fundamental principle of concentration-based meditation. Being aware of the present moment and doing it over and over trains the mind and body to relax into stillness.
Meditation quiets the mind and settles the nervous system. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is a bodily system that determines how we respond to emotional experiences. It is made up of the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. “These two systems are activated in times of arousal or recovery. Put simply, SNS activation leads to a “fight or flight” response, and PNS activation leads to a “rest and digest” response.” (Roxanna Salim, November 12th, 2019, Imotions.com) Although, as the name suggests, the ANS is automatic, we can stimulate the PNS response through meditation. By quieting the mind’s reactivity and calming down our attachment to emotional thoughts, we settle the fight or flight reactions of the SNS, thereby stimulating the PNS which helps our body and mind come back to homeostasis.
The multitude of benefits of regular meditation are explined in “Altered Traits” by NYT bestselling authors, Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson. Some of the benefits beyond neurological relaxation and pain relief are increased selectivity of attention, awareness of body sensations and reactions, and ability to avoid being triggered by emotions. In the words of Richard Davidson, “Among meditators with the greatest amount of lifetime practice hours…the amygdala hardly responded to the emotional sounds. But for those with less practice… the amygdala … showed a robust response.” (page 243). The Amygdala is part of the SNS which, as explained above, is connected to “fight and flight” responses; in other words, being triggered and protecting humans from danger is what the amygdala does. When the brain isn’t triggered as described by the response of the long-time meditators, emotional resilience moves to the frontal cortex areas of the brain. In this frontal area mindfulness awareness and desensitization allows the meditator to regulate emotional responses.
Any amount of meditation will help regulate focus and emotional responses over time, however, the more time a person practices the more “plasticity” will come to the brain. This is similar to an athlete working out regularly. The muscles of an athlete get stronger and more resilient as they become more fit. The same is found with long-time meditators and those who increase their practice. One way to increase practice is to plan a retreat. There is nothing better than a silent meditation retreat in the peaceful mountain setting of a meditation center or monastery. However, during this time of pandemic restrictions, a home-based retreat can be a beautiful escape from the daily grind. This is more easily done by signing up for a virtual meditation retreat which is more and more common these days. Most well-established meditation centers offer virtual retreats. In my area, the Mountain Cloud Zen Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers a variety of retreats that can be done from home. These can be viewed on the MCZC website at https://www.mountaincloud.org/schedule/events-sesshins/.
From personal experience as a meditation practitioner for over 20 years and an experienced mindfulness teacher for about 7 years, I would not recommend that an adult novice meditator sit for more than 10-20 minutes at a time at the start, nor try to meditate alone. However, after regularly meditating for 20 minutes, it will be easier to stretch a practice to 30, 40, 45 minutes, especially while listening to guidance from a teacher and in a restful setting. Meditating in a natural setting such as a park or forest are great places to sit and the fresh air rejuvenates the brain and body.
I do not recommend doing long meditation practices alone unless the practitioner has acquired the experience and knows a wide range of meditation approaches. Another reason jumping into long meditations is not recommended for novice practitioners is that the increased introspection and emotional release could trigger uncomfortable past memories of trauma that have been suppressed for a long time. Working through these memories are best done with the guidance of a meditation teacher who is trained in trauma-responsive practices. When done with guidance and when the practitioner has built up their meditation practice, longer sits can be an expansive experience.
As for when to “fit in” a meditation practice, it’s a matter of personal preference and schedule. Many meditators profess the benefits of meditating as soon as they wake up, whereas others prefer meditating at the end of the day. It really doesn’t matter as long as a regular routine is established. Consistency is more important than when and what type of meditation approach. The best way to build a strong practice is simply commit to sit. Consider it as important as mealtime, exercise time and sleep time.
Mindful Frontiers, (mindfulfrontiers.net) offers guided video practices as well as one-on-one online meditation instruction and coaching programs for any level meditator. Anne-Marie Emanuelli, creative director at Mindful Frontiers believes that meditation is the way to build a mindful future.