Over the millenia of human existence, in many far flung places, explorers of the human condition have found that we human beings possess greater potential for being, for living, for expression.
And these explorers developed meditational training methods to help us reach this potential. Whether from Japan, Myanmar, Tibet, India, the Middle East or medievel Europe, these practices have much in common. Meditation is a concept that is often misunderstood.
Somewhere in recent history, the word has become entangled with crystal balls and kooky mysticism. Some meditation styles come with the trappings and trinkets of cultism. Certainly for thousands of years the concept has been often connected to religion or faith.
But meditation is not religious. It can be and should be entirely secular, especially in our modern world where we can use hi-tech neuro-science to track the positive effects of meditation on our brain and body.
But is it a "spiritual" practice? Well that depends on how you look at the "s" word, a word so laden with baggage, that many have developed a slight allergy to it.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (who explored the far reaches of both Buddhist wisdom and modern science before developing the MBSR meditation program) opined:
“Spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense.”
That makes perfect sense to me.
So perhaps we can say that meditation is the practice of exploring and experiencing this wholeness or interconnection, the exploration of one-ness. In that sense you could say its a spiritual pratice. Or you could say its simply about realizing your full potential as a human being.
Kabat-Zinn again hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” Simple.
There are no negative effects but many profound positive effects on the mind and body. Enough for a full article in itself.
Alpha-Theta is the most common brain wave associated with meditation, but neuroscientists have also found high levels of gamma brainwave activity in experts, which some people have associated with having high levels of intelligence, self-control, compassion, and sustained happiness.
Gamma waves have also been linked to creative decision making when in the flow state. Meditation practice has also been attributed with increasing memory, emotional range, immune system, creativity and intuition. All of this with zero side effects. It has to be the most powerful tool we have at our disposal.
What is Mindfulness?
You may have heard of mindfulness, an ancient practice passed down through the Buddhist tradition. It is incredibly simple to explain yet takes years of practice to master. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, the most simple, unadorned, accessible method I believe.
It can be defined it as the very deliberate, non-judgmental attention to the contents of consciousness in the present moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to help people deal with pain, anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and boost immune system. It also has been proven to improve cognitive function as well as actually changing the density in areas of the brain related to memory, self awareness, learning and emotions.
Mindfulness involves practicing to solve the problem of thinking when we don't know we are thinking.
The problem is not thoughts. It's being unaware and without control of our thoughts. The most common practice is to pay attention to our breathing, noticing when our thoughts stray from this, and bringing our attention back to the breath.
Mindfulness can be practiced in every walk of life, by deliberately paying attention to the thing we are doing, in a non-judgemental way. You can eat mindfully (or mindlessly) for example. It's always amazing for me to suddenly realise I am mindlessly eating, and switch to mindful eating. The difference is a dramatic down shift of gears, from frantic, distracted shovelling of fuel into my face, to a calm and measured nourishment experience featuring a fuller appreciation of flavours, textures and colours.
The benefits of training your mind to be more present are huge. You will gain the ability to live in the moment for longer, appreciate what you have, gain the ability to forget the things on that to-do-list when you want to forget. You will reduce the amount of anxiety around future events and regrets about past happenings. You will get some more space around all of the chatter and dialogue that is constantly running in your mind. You will strenghen your access to your subconscious, and achieve a sharp and focused clarity of mind.
What is the connection between Meditation and Flow?
Meditation and flow states have long been connected by researchers- after all the common target for both states is full attentional control. Both states are characterized by a deep focus and concentration, and experienced meditators talk about a feeling of effortless attention similar to flow, which is probably actually the same as flow. In both states practitioners report a loss of the senses of time, space, self and sensations of one-ness, inseparation with other people and surroundings.
Feelings of euphoria and bliss are another commonality. On a neuro-electric level, the Alpha-Theta and Gamma brain waves prominent in meditators are also active in the brains of those in flow states. In fact, we could say that the meditative state is the flow state. Therefore when we are in flow, we are in a sense meditating.
When you look at it this way, you could say that meditation is the most powerful thing we can do to boost our potential to flow through life.