Thursday, 18 February 2016

Think Meditation Isn't For You? Think Again...

Written by Joe Saxon

For many, meditation is something reserved for celebrities, monks, and people with an evangelistic love of quinoa. They have heard people describe it as being beneficial, but often, the thought of sitting cross-legged on the floor while listening to whale music seems anything but.

Sound familiar? Probably. A recent study by The Mental Health Foundation found that only 26% of people in the UK have ever practised meditation, and only 14% claim to meditate on a regular basis. Even GPs are reluctant when it comes to meditation; the same study finding that 75% of GPs believe they have prescribed anti-depressants to patients who may have found alternative therapies to be a more suitable option.

Although many remain hesitant, the number of people meditating is on the rise. This is particularly true in schools, where meditation has been found to reduce stress, improve concentration, and even help in the treatment of long-term mental illnesses. 

Academic achievements are important, but so is allowing young people to live up to their full potential," argues Yoga Bowers, head of the Mindfulness in Schools Campaign. "Many politicians now support the creation of an education policy that acknowledges the importance of wellbeing. It’s important to encourage the flourishing and wellbeing of a healthy nation.”

The growth in popularity of meditation in society comes as no surprise to the campaigner, who has been promoting simple meditation techniques, such as controlled breathing, for decades.

“There have been hundreds of studies that have found people who practise meditation, not only have an enhanced performance at school or work, but also experience reduced stress levels in their day-to-day lives. It’s really a no brainer.”

Although Bowers often felt ignored when setting out on his campaign all those years ago, there are now professionals in a range of fields arguing for more of us to take up meditation.

Dr. Elena Antonova lectures Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College London, and has carried out extensive research into the effects that meditation can have on our wellbeing. She believes that the practice of meditation can bring huge benefits, both professionally and personally.

“I first became interested in habituation when I found a study, dating back to 1966, that analysed monks who regularly practised meditation, as they watched very boring and repetitive clips. Normally when clips like this are played to non-meditators there is a dramatic drop in response, but the monks’ response remained the same throughout.”

Antonova is currently researching the relationship between meditation and long-term mental health conditions, and believes her findings could help many within society. “Meditators’ brains are much more efficient, so it is the opposite of what we would normally see in people diagnosed with conditions such as Anxiety, Depression, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).”

“When people with these conditions are carrying out a task, the default nerve-network activity doesn’t slow down. It creates a kind of running commentary that can lead to things such as anxiety. Meditation has increasingly been found to prevent this.” 

Matthew Kynaston, 27, is a London-based Marketing Executive. He decided to take up meditation two years ago, when he began struggling with stress and anxiety brought on by his job.

“I began taking time to sit in a quiet room and listen to recorded meditation sessions. I found as soon as I got back to my desk, I would get worked up again though. Like most people, I expected a quick fix and thought it wasn’t working.”

It wasn’t until Kynaston went backpacking some months later, and enrolled in a meditation retreat in order to gain access to the free food and accommodation, that the benefits of meditation became clear.

“While meditating I reached some incredible points of total euphoria. When I returned home I decided to give meditation another go, and I began attending weekly meditation gatherings. They were made up of all different types of people. Doctors, teachers, and police officers… not a bunch of hippies like you always expect. I can soundly say that meditation has changed my life in an amazing way.”

There are various approaches to meditation that, as Matthew’s experience demonstrates, can have varying degrees of success from person to person. Joe Krohn, from the London Buddhist Centre, believes that although taking up meditation alone can work for some, a deeper understanding of meditation is sometimes needed for the practice to seem beneficial.

“There are a number of different recordings out there that people can use. They can sometimes help people do things like control their breathing, and become more aware of their surroundings, but they are only really able to offer guidance.”

Lack of tuition before meditating is something Krohn believes can lead to unsuccessful results, and may be the reason so many believe meditation to be nothing more than a fad.

“I would definitely recommend classes or events that focus on meditation tuition first, because then you can understand how meditation actually works, and how to make it work for you. You don’t just meditate, you learn about its history, and the teachings behind it. You can talk to people about what’s on your mind. It becomes much more beneficial.”

As Krohn highlights though, meditation recordings do work for some and can often be a great place to start. Bryony King, 29, is a Political Caseworker from Leeds. She turned to meditation when she began having trouble sleeping, and found meditation recordings particularly helpful when trying to incorporate the practice into her own life.

“For a while I was finding it really hard to sleep, and I had read that Stephen Fry once used similar recordings to help him deal with his stress and anxiety, so I thought I would give it a go.”

Although hesitant at first, King soon found meditation to be helping her in ways she hadn’t thought possible. “I don't actually pay attention to the sounds or the instructions anymore. I just play the recordings in the background. They really help me deal with stress in every area of my life. Now I set aside a little time each day to focus on simple things, like breathing and clearing my mind. It’s definitely something worth doing.”

Despite what many may think, a collection of scented candles, and a tranquil spot on the side of a mountain range, are not in fact requirements when taking up meditation. Even the whale music is optional. All you really need is a spare few minutes. So why not give it a go? You never know, you might find it makes your life that little bit easier after all.

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