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Meditation: What is it, how can it help, and which is best suited to me?

This page created 16th January 2014

By Kara (ADAVIC Volunteer)

During my time on the phones at ADAVIC, many clients have told me that they have tried to use meditation as a technique for reducing unpleasant symptoms of anxiety and depression. Given clients’ interest in meditation, and its increased use amongst psychologists and psychiatrists as an adjunct to their clients’ psychological and medical therapy, I thought it relevant to explain what meditation is, its potential benefits, key forms of meditation, and types of meditation that best suit your needs and personality. It is hoped that this information will demystify meditation and make it a more accessible practice.
What is meditation and how can it help?

Meditation is a long-standing tradition in many Asian countries, including India and China. Whilst originally associated with religion, secular forms of meditation have more recently been developed. Secular meditation is a form of exercise for the mind; it teaches the mind, through regular practice, to be free of distraction, which connects you with your inner-self and leads to true happiness.  
Although mental conflict commonly arises initially, after practice, meditation leads to a state of consciousness that brings relaxation, clarity, stress reduction, and self-improvement. This is the case during meditation sittings as well as during the hustle and bustle of everyday life outside of sittings; a more relaxed, clear mind can better cope with the inevitable stresses of life and tells the physical body that it does not need to be tense and on guard, allowing your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to function naturally and effectively.
Key forms of meditation

There are many different systems of meditation, all of which use different techniques and tools.  Some are described below:

Mindfulness Meditation

This is probably the type of meditation that most of us have come into contact with, requiring the individual to direct their attention toward the present moment. The individual practices to be calmly aware of their own thoughts and actions as well as the stimuli around them at that very moment, such as the feeling of their clothes on their skin or their own bodily functions. This awareness is to be done without judgment. This Buddhist tradition is being increasingly employed by Western psychology to prevent and treat certain mental disorders, particularly those characterised by anxiety. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation is capable of decreasing stress, improving mood, and enhancing immune function.

  • How to do it: sit on either a chair or the floor. Become aware of your breathing, focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe. Feel your belly rise and fall, the air enter your nostrils and leave your mouth. When thoughts arise, simply note them, without judging yourself, and then return to your breathing.
Transcendental Meditation

Like mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation (TM) is a heavily researched and widely practiced system of  meditation. It involves the use of a sound or mantra, which is repeated and is returned to when one becomes distracted. TM is practiced twice daily for 15-20 minutes each sitting. As well as assisting with relaxation and stress reduction, TM has been said to support increased intelligence and creativity. However, the scientific effectiveness of TM is contentious; while some study results have been clinically significant, others have been inconclusive.   
  • How to do it: sit in a relaxed posture or even on a chair with your eyes closed. Breath slowly and deeply. Softly say the mantra (of your choice) for about one minute. Make your voice softer and softer. Once you have said the mantra as softly as you can, mentally repeat the mantra in your head for the remainder of the sitting.

Loving-Kindness Meditation

This type of meditation fosters positive emotions including gratitude, joy, love, and hope. Possessing positive emotions opens us up to our environment, as we are no longer fearful, which in turn leads to greater experiences and opportunities. Further, studies have found that this meditation improved participants’ social relationships and feeling of purpose.  Strength of this type of meditation: as the individual is able to generate unique images of different people every time, the positive emotions do not habituate; that is, the experience continues to be powerful every time.

  • How to do it: loving-kindness meditation requires an individual to form an image, in their mind, of someone they love unconditionally (e.g., their own child). The individual then tries to think about the feelings they usually experience toward this person (e.g., warmth, tenderness, and hope). Next, the individual directs these positive feelings and thoughts toward themselves. Subsequently, these same feelings are extended toward other people in their lives (e.g., their friends, work colleagues, and even people they don’t get along with well).  
Stillness Meditation Therapy (SMT)

Developed by the late Melbourne psychiatrist Dr. Ainslie Meares, SMT distinguishes itself from all other forms of meditation on the basis that there is no technique needed to do it; the individual isn’t meant to do anything, so as to not stimulate their brain. SMT aims to facilitate a state of complete rest, where the mind is still, almost like a daydream state. Further, SMT involves the therapeutic touching of the meditating individual. The purpose of the touching is to reassure and comfort the person without the use of words. When thoughts do arise, the individual is to look beyond them and recognise that it is not important at that point in time.  

Which system of meditation am I best suited to?

  • Loving-kindness meditation: good for improving interpersonal relationships.
  • Body scan meditation: good for individuals who are time poor, as you simply lie down and focus on all of your body parts from your head to your toes.
  • Walking meditation: if you regularly walk, you can incorporate this form of meditation into your daily routine.  Simply focus the mind on each step. When your mind wanders away from your steps, you just refocus it back to the steps.  
  • Movement meditation: if you’re active and enjoy moving. This system of meditation involves the combination of breathing and gentle, flowing movements. The focus is the movement of the body.
  • Breath and navel meditation: good types of meditation for beginners. Simply sit in a relaxed posture and concentrate on your breath, nostrils, and your abdomen.

The 30-second meditation

If you’re time poor, or feel that you’re unable to make a long-term commitment to meditation, rest assured! Engaging in the following two simple practices, when you most need them, may be of use to alleviate your anxiety:  
  1. When you feel that you are becoming negative, employ the 30-second meditation technique by focusing on the 'in' breath and the 'out' breath for a total of 30 seconds.
  2. When you recognise that you have tension in your body, simply let it go. Releasing your muscles will tell your nervous system that there’s no need to be in the fight or flight response mode, lessening your anxiety.

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