Are you interested in wellness, mindfulness, different philosophies and their practices? If so you’ve most likely considered meditation. Our increasing awareness of mental health has popularized meditation in the West. It’s even incorporated in schools, offices, and prisons.
You may have heard stories, but are they true? Does meditation make you happy? And what are the best methods that resonate with you?
As well as dedicating myself to deepening my practice of acupuncture in Denver, I’m also invested in spreading meditation in Denver. It has deeply changed my life; let me tell you how!
What is meditation?
First, let’s look at what meditation is. Merriam-Webster defines “to meditate” as “to engage in mental exercise (like concentrating on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” Simply put, it involves turning your gaze inward. Bearing witness to your thoughts and sensations without judgment.
This, in turn, calms what Buddhists refer to as “the monkey mind.” That’s the voice that goes on and on, leaving you feeling unsettled, restless, or confused. There’s no end to how much you can explore with meditation. One of the ways you can go deeper into the practice, and my preferred method, is mindful meditation!
A long history
Some of the earliest mentions of meditation can be found in Indian Hindu texts. Other forms of meditation would then soon develop in Confucianism and Taoism. As well as early Buddhism, throughout China and India.
It’s true that the ‘60s were important for the spread of Eastern practices and meditation in the West, but it became known in the region much earlier. In fact, it was already popular as early as the late 19th century!
A variety of techniques
Nowadays, meditation holds a world of varieties and techniques, but there are still distinctions to be made. For example, meditation is used to cultivate two things: calmness and insight, or Samatha and Vipassana. Many meditation techniques even combine elements of both.
Here’s a quick overview of some of the different ways people meditate:
- It’s normal for your mind to wander while you meditate, and some practitioners use mental noting to stay in the present. This technique acknowledges the distractions, thoughts, and feelings as they pass through you. allowing them to do just that: move on like a leaf flowing down a river.
- If you’ve participated in different relaxation techniques you might be familiar with body scans. Here you bring awareness to each part of your body in a scan-like motion. This both helps you stay grounded and also aims to sync your body and mind.
- Leaning more towards insight, loving kindness meditation (also called Metta Bhavana) is geared towards cultivating love, kindness, and compassion towards yourself, and then onto others. This does not only extend towards those for whom you feel positively; rather, it’s a selfless feeling of goodwill towards all others.
- Focused attention meditation, also called concentrative meditation, is when you focus on a single object or action and use it to center yourself. You can do this with a mantra, a body part, an action (like counting beads), a sound, an image—the list goes on.
- Open awareness (also called open monitoring or non-directive) meditation. The goal is to keep your mind open and aware of everything you perceive around you. This could be smells, sounds, and sensations. You also keep you mind open to what’s going on inside you—like thoughts, feelings, or memories. But, instead of opening yourself to distraction, you bear witness without judgment.
And these are just the beginning! Other traditional types of meditation are transcendental, chakra, yoga, qigong, zazen, and more.
Mindfulness, meditation, and Lamrim
Do both focused attention and open awareness meditation sound appealing? One of the most practiced types of meditation is mindfulness meditation, which, in a way, combines elements of both!
Here, you both remain grounded by drawing your focus on an action, an object, or a thought, while also staying aware and present to what is around you. Techniques can vary, but they generally involve a breathing practice, mental imagery, awareness of bodily sensations and thoughts in your mind, as well as muscle relaxation. Black and White Breathing meditation is a way to practice this, take a look at my how-to video here!
One type of mindfulness meditation is Lamrim, translating to “stages of the path” in Tibetan, acting as a set of instructions within the Kadampa Buddhism practice [https://kadampa.org/buddhism/stages-of-the-path]. It consists of 21 meditations, to be practiced in order in a three-week cycle. Some of the concepts to meditate on include “Our precious human life,” followed by “Death and impermanence,” and many more.
The Science Behind Meditation and Happiness
So, back to our original question: can meditation make you happy? Like all interesting questions, the answer is not all that straightforward—both yes, and no.
First, it may be that not all singular emotions brought up through meditation are happy: some feelings that are quite powerful, even uncomfortable, may come up with the good ones. And, of course, happiness means different things to different people: there isn’t a quick and easy way to define it.
Still, meditation has, time and time again, been shown to increase feelings that often foster happiness, as well as decreasing those that don’t. It’s no coincidence that the so-called “world’s happiest man,” French-born Matthieu Ricard, is a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
Mindfulness, meditation, and happiness
But it’s not just monks who are concerned with the links between happiness and meditation. In 1992, the Dalai Lama invited neuroscientist Richard Davidson to his home in India. He famously asked him: if scientists study depression, anxiety, and fear, why don’t they devote their work to studying qualities like happiness and compassion?
Failing to find an adequate answer, Davidson dedicated himself to working with the Dalai Lama to establish links between Buddhism and western science. Since then, he’s gone on to conduct much research on how mindfulness meditation benefits practitioners and leads to a happier life, even with Ricard himself. And, he’s not the only one to have noticed a scientific link.
In one study, participants were offered six hour-long sessions on loving kindness meditation, over a seven-week period. After having been asked to meditate at least five times per week for around 15 minutes or more, “Results showed that this meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions, which, in turn, produced increases in a wide range of personal resources (e.g., increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms). In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.”
Meditation is also known to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic calls it a “simple, fast way” to do so, adding that “spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace.” Some of the benefits it attributes to the practice are ultimately the goals of many of the types listed above, such as “increasing patience and tolerance, “focusing on the present,” and “increasing self-awareness.”
When it comes to mindfulness meditation, research seems especially conclusive. Studies show that regular practice can reduce anxiety, and more specifically, aid people who suffer from social anxiety, in whom it apparently “enhances emotion regulation.”
A review study at John Hopkins, meanwhile, even found that mindfulness meditation reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain—rivaling even the effects of some antidepressants. And while no one thing is a panacea for depression, it can indeed be a helpful tool.
As well as directly leading to more positive and fewer negative feelings, studies show meditation to be a tool to help you create your own happiness.
Meditation (and mindfulness meditation in particular) has been proven to improve your focus and emotional control, something also verified by over 20 studies. It’s also been shown to help regulate your emotions, giving you control over how you react to different situations.
Indeed, meditation has also been proven to change your brain. It’s shown to increase tissue in the area known to be involved in maintaining attention and controlling impulses, as well as decreasing the size of the right amygdala, an area linked to negative emotions like sadness and anxiety. What’s more, regular practitioners have been shown to have reduced activity in the insula, responsible for the perception of pain.
It’s also important to remember that this is a practice, a strengthening of an ability that you can learn more over time. Many sources stress the importance of consistency—even if it’s just a few minutes a day!
Ways to try meditating at home
Think you’re ready to give it a go? There may be some courses, workshops, or guided sessions near where you live, but you can also start with something smaller, like an app! Some options out there are names like Mindfulness, Calm, Buddhify, Sattva, and Stop, Breathe & Think. Here you’ll find a variety of choices, including meditation, yoga, and acupuncture videos! You can also light a candle to help get yourself more relaxed.
Meditation and acupuncture
Meditation is often done in perfect harmony with other activities, such as yoga, tai chi, or acupuncture. Acupuncture induces a state of clarity, relaxation, and even a meditative-like state. Both meditation and acupuncture, additionally, positively alter the brain while also combating stress.
Feel like helping yourself reach those 2020 meditation goals and de-stress yourself? Book a session with Wellnest here.