“Don’t think, feel!” – Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon
In our mile-a-minute lives, we seldom take breaks to sit and just be. Even in moments when we try to relax, our thoughts are still fixated on unfinished tasks, and on the next moment. For many, the tension of everyday life has subtle side-effects — poor memory, headaches, poor heart health — things that often go unnoticed or untreated.
In her book The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation, neuroscientist Shanida Nataraja argues that meditation improves health by “optimizing brain function and health, from cognitive abilities to cardiovascular wellbeing.”
Westerners are especially in need of meditation, according to Nataraja, as they tend to rely far more heavily on the left brain, which is primarily connected with logic, analytical powers, and rational thought. The constant thought-stream is a source of tension in our lives, and is highly unbalanced, “leaving us stressed and unable to take a calm step back and realize this is not all that we are.”
Nataraja’s book is based on her research at John Hopkins School of Medicine using galvanic skin response meters and electroencephalograms to measure emotional changes through the skin and electrical activity produced by the brain during meditation. Her primary finding was that during meditation there is higher alpha brain wave activity, which means that the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, lowering stress levels and improving heart health.
But meditation, as mentioned above, is sometimes very difficult. Even rudimentary practices, such as silently counting breaths as you take them, are overwhelming to us, but mostly because, as Nataraja says, we take a “punitive approach” to meditation, meaning that we berate ourselves for not being able to completely empty our minds right away.
There are many approaches to meditation; Nataraja encourages people to “put aside 15 minutes at the beginning and end of every day to quietly sit and focus on being ‘in the moment’.” Whatever you do during this time, just allow thoughts to come and go, acknowledging them, but not following them.
For Nataraja, yoga is an effective way to coordinate body and mind and focus on the here-and-now of existence. Some people use mantras, which are very helpful for beginners, but can become restrictive later. Others simply sit and breathe deeply.
Whatever you do, don’t try too hard. Nataraja’s book demonstrates that putting pressure on yourself while trying to meditate actually is a detriment to the process, and that “the electrical activity in the brain recorded by EEG suggests that a relaxed state is hard to come by when you’re trying too hard.”
Focus on the pleasantness of being, on your breath, and remember that meditation is fun, and can actually save your life.
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