De-Stressing Your Brain: A Meditation Primer

July 30, 2009 at 5:42 pm Leave a comment

This gorgeous "Zen" image by gryhnd on Stock.XchngIn my first post on meditation this week, I promised a follow up with recommended  resources, common types of meditation and what to expect in a beginning meditation practice. That may be a bit of an ambitious agenda for one post, but let’s get started and see how much ground we can cover!

Since meditation has many different forms, it isn’t easy to pin down into a simple definition.  But for our purposes of reducing stress and training the brain to be stronger and healthier,  I’ll define it as a disciplined practice of relaxed yet focused awareness.  One of my teachers referred to the state as “effortless concentration” and I found that the concept described it perfectly!

Types of Meditation

Buddhist Meditations are probably the best known forms of meditation in the US.   Qualified instruction is readily available in most parts of the country, and there are some excellent CD’s and even online courses available.   There are many different practices within Bhuddhist traditions, but the basics focus on developing a disciplined, mindful state of awareness,  compassion and empathy towards yourself and others.  They often use neutral concepts like your  breath, a set of beads, a series of chanted words, or even the motion of walking as a focus point.  The non-denominational, neutral focus makes these meditations are appropriate for everyone, regardless of their spiritual orientation.

More advanced practices begin to cultivate specific positive traits and may involve contemplating religious or spiritual figures.   The specific figures depend on the individual’s orientation, and some people adapt them for non-Buddhist spiritual figures.

Because the Dalai Lama  has taken a notable interest in studying the effects of meditation on the human brain, neurologists have had a chance to do quite a bit of research on the impact of Tibetan Buddhism. For more information on the studies that have been done, see the book “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” by Sharon Begley. Many of the results have been fascinating!

Transcendental Meditation (or TM) is another form that you’ll find referenced in some studies of meditation and cognitive function, but it’s far more controversial.  A very a specific (and trademarked) form of mantra meditation introduced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during the 60’s,  a course in Transcendental Meditation will cost you about $1500.  (Yipes!)   Some of the research results have been called into question, because of ties between the researchers and the TM organization, and the organization itself has been accused of being a cult.

Since there’s no evidence or  reason to believe that the effects of TM practice on the brain or stress levels are  any different from other methods (and there’s no mystery or particular uniqueness to TM, it’s a very simple “mantra” form) it’s easy to steer clear of the controversy and learn more trustworthy methods, without the pricey ties to the TM organization.

“Other” There are seemingly endless varieties of meditation, many of them based on traditional Buddhist or Indian forms, but changed to suit other spiritual or secular purposes.    Some are good, some are not so good, and a few (like TM) have questionable aims.

My advice? Become familiar with a basic Buddhist discipline first.   The teaching methods are tried and true, they’re generally applicable for just about everyone, and if you still want to adapt the practice for your own purposes down the road, you’ll be able to apply the solid foundation skills you’ve learned.

What to Expect:

Your first experience or two with mediation will probably seem easy –  after all, it isn’t all that difficult to sit still and count your breaths in, and out!

But within in 3-5 days, the mind tends to get bored, and start wandering.  Suddenly, you’ll find the most uncomfortable itches, or muscle cramps, or you’ll suddenly remember important tasks that you simply feel you *must* attend to right now!  It’s easy to get frustrated, and try and force the mind into stillness, but that instinct to “force” stillness is the opposite of the “effortless concentration” meditation works to develop.

I find that approaching meditation as part of brain fitness helps – it reminds me that the practice is *supposed* to be difficult, and that the goal is to stretch my brain in new ways, encouraging neural growth in a way that’s very similar (but not identical) to the workouts from brain training systems like Dakim’s!

Good Resources:

If you’d like a very basic walk through of a Buddhist influenced meditation, Tara Brach’s A Moment of Calm (available as a flash file from Belief.net ) is a good place to start.  Belief.net also offers online Christian meditations,

For more indepth instruction, WildMind.org offers an excellent series of free  courses online (the full listing is here… I’d start at the posture workshop, then work your way down the page) as well as online courses with mentors, and both free and for-pay downloadable mp3’s.  I took one of their courses years ago when they were first starting up, and it was very helpful.

Another excellent resource is the book/CD kit from Sharon Salzburg, “Insight Meditation: A Step by Step Course On How To Meditate” (Available from Amazon)

But the possibilities are endless – you may find local instruction through a community education program, a local college,  a UU church or local meditation group.   Wherever you choose to learn, make sure they cover the basics of posture (which can really trip many of us up!)  and stress that this is an ongoing, disciplined practice with many challenges along the way!  Whatever it’s form, your method of instruction should offer many reminders and tips for sticking it out through the rough spots, ongoing support or information of some sort, and repeated encouragement to be gentle with yourself.  For this reason, I don’t recommend the popular single-page online “meditation instruction” articles.  They may seem like all you need at first, but in practice, their advice is just too simplified to get you past that first week’s struggles!

Brain Benefits to Remember:

Meditation shifts your brainwave patterns into a relaxed but focused state,, helping you to let go of stress which is harmful to your brain and body..  Mediation has  been shown to lower blood pressure, as well as reducing insomnia and anxiety — all of which are good for brain health. It changes the blood flow in your brain, reducing negative emotions that increase stress, teaches you better awareness of yourself and your surroundings, which helps keep your mind alert and connected to the world, and helps you learn the discipline to be compassionate with yourself and others.  And it’s just an overall  good brain exercise, engaging the brain in new and challenging ways, stimulating neural growth along with all of the other benefits.

So what are you waiting for? You can start with as little as five minutes a day.   Meditation really is an excellent addition to your brain fitness program, working along with all of the other keys to brain fitness to help support your brain functions throughout your life.  You’re never too old (or too young!) to start.

Entry filed under: Be Mentally Active, Reduce Stress, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , .

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A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
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Authored by Tori Deaux
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