In my ongoing campaign to reduce stress and anxiety, increase my levels of gratitude, and embrace optimism, I have taken up meditation. Actually, I should say that I have taken up meditation again. I have long been aware of the reported benefits of meditation. I first learned how to meditate in a college course on “Stress and Health”. At the time, my professor emphasized both the emotional and physical benefits of meditation. However, when I gave meditation a try as part of a homework assignment, I had a panic attack.
That experience stuck with me for a long time. I finally gave meditation another shot a couple of years ago, when life events sent my stress levels off the charts. I knew I needed to reduce my stress and anxiety or I was going to be heading to the doctor. This time around I had a much better experience, and have been meditating at least semi-consistently ever since.
So I learned how to meditate, downloaded a couple of meditation apps, and started practicing regularly. I have since reaped the benefits of meditation. My stress levels are definitely lower now that I meditate. Despite juggling three jobs, two teenagers, and the financial challenges posed by a child heading off to college. Meditation also helps me to sleep better and think more clearly.
Benefits of Meditation
There have been a large number of studies about the effects of meditation on both emotional and physical health.
Mental and Emotional Benefits
Studies have shown meditation to reduce anxiety, chronic stress, and even reduce addictive behaviors. Meditation acts to reduce cortisol (a stress hormone) and increase serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of well-being). A study of teachers conducted by UCSF has found that meditation can increase compassion and general calm. The Mayo Clinic adds creativity, patience, and an increased tolerance of others to this list of benefits. Finally, meditation can also improve your critical thinking skills by teaching you to clear your mind of intrusive thoughts.
If the emotional benefits aren’t enough to convince you to try meditation, check out this list of medical conditions that meditation may help to prevent offered by the Mayo Clinic:
- Chronic pain
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Sleep problems
- Tension headaches
Meditation may also help you get better sleep at night, promote weight loss, ameliorate the symptoms of menopause, and even slow aging. There are studies indicating a variety of benefits, although few have been large enough or replicated widely enough to be the final word.
As a Poker Pilgrim, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the positive effects of meditation on my poker game. Regular meditation helps me to stay even-keeled at the table and avoid a poker player’s worst enemy: tilt. Tilt will sabotage your poker game faster than anything. Any tool which helps avoid tilt provides a huge advantage over the average player. I also recently came across this great article on CardPlayer Lifestyle about staying mentally tough at the poker table. For those hoping to stay off tilt, the Fibonacci Sequence is your new best friend.
Types of Meditation
Meditation has been around for thousands of years. As you can imagine, a practice so old has many variants. The goals of most variants include encouraging calm and relaxation. They also help us train our “monkey mind” to remain focused on a single thing, rather than jumping from topic to topic. However, there are a few types of meditation that are currently most popular in the United States.
Breath Awareness Meditation. Breath Awareness Meditation involves breathing in and out slowly and focusing on the breath. The goal is to gently push all thoughts that enter your head away and return your focus to the breath.
Mindfulness Meditation. Similar to Breath Awareness Meditation, in Mindfulness Meditation you seek to keep your attention on the present moment. Thoughts of past and future events are gently pushed away. There is a focus on non-judgement of yourself or your intrusive thoughts. This type of meditation can be practiced anywhere (in a traffic jam, or waiting at the doctor’s office for example).
Progressive Relaxation. This is the one that in college my 19 year old psyche just couldn’t handle. However, it is a pretty benign practice. You scan your body from head to foot, seeking areas of tension and focus on relaxing those areas. This type of meditation is often used at bedtime to relax and help ease one to sleep.
Loving Kindness Meditation. This one is a little woo woo for me, but appeals to many. In Loving Kindness Meditation, the focus is to cultivate loving kindness toward the entire world. You focus on the idea of love and kindness and try to send these feelings out into the world.
There are a wide variety of other types of meditation. Some move more into the spiritual realm (Transcendental Meditation) and others are included in variants of yoga. Even Tai Chi is considered a type of meditation, with its intense focus on a particular set of slow movements.Basic Breath Awareness or Mindfulness Meditation are easy to learn, can be practiced anywhere, offer emotional and health benefits, and are absolutely free. It doesn't get much better than that.Click To Tweet
How to Meditate
Basic Breath Awareness or Mindfulness Meditation are easy to learn, can be practiced anywhere, offer the great benefits above, and are absolutely free. It doesn’t get much better than that.
How to Meditate Using Breath Awareness
- Find somewhere calm and peaceful.
- Sit with your back straight in a comfortable chair or on a cushion on the floor.
- Set a timer. I would start with 5 minutes and increase the time gradually as you become more comfortable. Those first sessions will seem like an hour, trust me. I typically set my timer for 10 minutes, but others meditate for much longer than that.
- Close your eyes and breath in slowly through your nose. Then slowly out through your mouth three or four times.
- Return to your normal breath and focus on each breath. You can focus on the breath coming in and out of your body.
- If a thought other than breath focus comes into your mind, push it away gently and return your focus to your breath.
That’s it! Couldn’t be more simple. And yet it may take weeks to maintain focus on your breath for even a minute. Meditation emphasizes non-judgement. So don’t get down on yourself if you find this simple act intensely difficult. They call it “practice” for a reason.
How to Meditate Using Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation is similar to Breath Awareness. In fact the first four steps are the same. Once you have centered your breath, instead of gently pushing away any stray thoughts, you will note them. In a detached manner, simply notice a thought as it intrudes. Perhaps label it as “reminiscence”or “planning” or “worrying.” Then, once you have noted it, gently push it away and return your focus to the breath. In Mindfulness Meditation, focus also may expand to surroundings external to your body. You’re trying to stay in the moment, but you may notice the room’s cool air, or a bird singing outside. You do not need to maintain a singular focus on your breath.
Meditation can be practiced in any quiet room with no aids. However, it’s helpful for beginners to use a meditation app to start. If you are looking for some extra assistance or just want a pro to come along for the ride, an app might be right for you.
The iTunes store offers a number of free meditation apps (as well as others which cost a small fee). My favorite is Insight Timer. Insight Timer offers a wide variety of guided meditations of all different types. You can select by length of meditation, teacher, popularity, or a number of other factors. It is easy to save your favorite guided meditations for use again in the future. You can even join groups to connect with others who are meditating as well. As its name implies, you can also use the app as a simple timer. Just set the length of your intended meditation and select your preferred alarm noises and background sounds.
If Insight Timer doesn’t do it for you, other popular apps include Calm, Inspace, and Stop, Breathe, and Think.
Meditation offers positive effects for the mind, and body. There are a wide variety of meditation types. One of them will likely fit with your habits and lifestyle. Once you learn how to meditate, you will find the practice simple and easy to fit into even the busiest of schedules. Hopefully you will find, as I have, that the daily struggle to clear your mind pays off in spades.
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