In 2017, I graduated from the Faculty of Social work at the University of Ljubljana, with my diploma thesis titled ‘Integration of meditation in the youth social work’. The following text is an excerpt from the theoretical part of my diploma and is written entirely by myself.

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What is meditation?

Types of meditation

Meditation through the lens of science

Meditation in schools and abroad

 

What is meditation?

Meditation is an ancient technique that uses observation of breathing and relaxation of the body to shift our attention from external to internal world. It is a process of self-awareness that enables us to become conscious observers of our lives. With meditation, we stop the flow of our minds, experience deep relaxation and connect with our souls.

Meditation is the highest form of yoga. The actual purpose of yoga is to cleanse and stretch the body so that the person can enter the state of meditation. The term meditation is generally well known, but only rare individuals have truly experienced it. It is a very subjective term, hard to describe since every experience of meditation in unique and one of a kind.

This ancient method was originally practiced by Hindu monks as a spiritual practice, but meditation itself has positive effects on individuals when used as a modern relaxation technique for stress reduction and psychophysical improvement. We enter meditative state by following certain steps that let us reach deeper levels of our “self”. Through controlled breathing, gradual relaxation of body parts and strong concentration with meditation and through controlling our own mind, we can change our perception of reality. Meditation is usually connected with spirituality and religious practices, but in fact this is a technique that can be used by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs to make a positive impact on their lives. We take one step from our regular mind in order to deepen it.

Meditation can be described as the art of looking inside oneself, without the learned involvement of reason in the process. It is self-regulatory behaviour and action in which the individual’s attention is drawn toward experiencing the present moment; withdrawal of attention and thinking as well as insight into the self without any cognitive process. The state of meditation demands extraordinary concentration and presence in the moment, conscious observation of the self, actions, thoughts and feelings. At the same time, the state of meditation could be described as observation of our activity from a distance. When a certain thought appears in the process of entering the meditative state, we don not occupy ourselves with it or allow it to interrupt the calm meditative state. We rather have to learn to let those thoughts go by or remove them consciously. There are different types of meditation, some of them described in the following part.

Types of meditation

In November 2016, I completed the course “Meditation Teacher Training Certificate – MTTC 300h, Shree Mahesh Heritage Meditation School Rishikesh” that took place in India. I have gained verbally transmitted knowledge of various kinds of meditation that had gradually spread from the eastern cultures to Europe and America in the last century. Some types of meditation are common, while others are less. All techniques lead to equal or very similar effects on the psychophysical state of an individual. In the following, I will list some descriptions of certain forms of meditation that are not common, but rather foreign to the West. I came upon some of them in the course of my training. I intend to use this valuable knowledge in my professional and business path.

Mindfulness meditation is one of the oldest traditional techniques of meditation. It originates in the Buddhist culture. Its purpose is to overcome human suffering. The technique emphasises the observation of our internal processes, the conscious attention is directed to breathing, the sensations in the body and external stimuli from the surroundings. The main element of mindfulness is presence in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation is prevailing in the West, thanks to the simplicity of its performance. It is important to note that practising mindfulness does not require any religious affiliation or belief in any higher power. It does not include any difficult mantras or other steps that are usually present in the more difficult types of meditation.

Transcendental meditation – TM was developed by the Indian yogi Maharshi Mehesh in the 1950s and was spread to the western culture in the 1970s. The Beatles played an important role in the recognition of this type of meditation, as they spent some time practicing and studying it from Maharshi. Transcendental meditation can only be performed under the guidance of certified mentors, who underwent extensive and costly training. It is very common in the western culture and stands as a base for most scientific research on meditation. Although being a protected trademark, its performance is relatively easy – it consists of a personalized mantra, assigned by the mentor.

Vipassana meditation is as common as the former techniques (mindfulness and transcendental meditation) and was introduced to the West by the spiritual mentor Satya Narayan Goenka. It is a demanding form of meditation, performed only in the specialised meditation centres by highly qualified teachers of vipassana. An individual, practicing this kind of meditative experience that last for 3, 10 or 14 days, begins by cleansing the body of all the toxins with a special diet. This is followed by continuous meditation in seated or standing position through the day, which enables to gradually turn off one’s thoughts. The person refrains from talking to other participants, as well as any eye contact, reading, communication, writing and carrying objects that hold any significance to them (religious objects, crystals, telephone). The purpose of vipassana meditation is to transcend the mind by complete relaxation and deep continuous meditation.

Body scan meditation (for relaxation) is always performed lying down. First, we concentrate on breathing and calming our mind and then slowly shift our attention to each part of the body. We can either contract and relax individual muscles or simply send energy to a certain part of the body by breathing. Usually, the relaxation is gradual – from the feet to the head and back. This meditation technique is particularly simple and suitable for beginners.

Meditation with mantras uses mantra as a tool for concentration of the mind. Mantra can either be one or more words (e.g. Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu), most often taken from the Sanskrit language, which is where this kind of meditation derives from. The most common is meditation with mantra Om or Ohm /aʊm/ that stands for the sound of the Universe in Hindu tradition. Mantra can be any word in any language of the person’s choosing. The main goal is to concentrate solely on the chosen word to achieve a calm state of mind.

Meditation with chakras focuses on seven energy centres in the body, located in the vicinity of glands. The word “chakra” derives from the Sanskrit word meaning “wheel”. Chakras are energy wheels, directing energy through the body. In the state of meditation, we focus our attention on a certain chakra. The most common form of this meditation is visualisation of the colours flowing through a certain point in the body.

Meditation of the heart beat is a technique that focuses the attention through breathing on the observation of the person’s heartbeat. This can be achieved by pressing hand on the neck or wrist to follow the heartbeat. This way, the mind concentrates on the heartbeat and slowly the thoughts calm down as well.

Meditation with visualisation is fairly common. With this technique, we visualise colours, places, feelings etc., which triggers the focus of the mind on a certain story, positive word or sensation. We mentally project the world or our inner happenings. Visualisation is very suitable for children and adolescents, while developing the skill of visualisation takes more effort with adults. It takes particular practice and continuation for an individual to clearly envision desired or guided visualisation.

Meditation through the lens of science

American psychiatrist Shapiro (1984) describes the effectiveness of practising meditation as a self-regulatory technique in connection with anxiety, alcoholism and border personality disorder. At the same time, he describes a study which researches meditation and its connection to reduction of fear of public performance. Subjective coverage of the behaviour changes in the early stages of research on meditation in the 1970s (Shapiro, 1984: 20) mainly includes positive changes of psychological state and personality, as well as self-discovery. Subject research solely through individual perspective and experience of meditation did not result in reliable empirical results about the verity of meditation effects. This is why the research gradually became scientific and reached the field of neurophysiology. They began systematic research on physical changes following a continuous practice of meditation.

Initial research conducted by Hoelzel, Luders and other scientists in the period during 2005 and 2009 showed correlation between meditation and increased structure density in cortical structures (grey matter) which leads to improved level of attention, working memory, perception, self-reflection and empathy. Early scientific research on meditation was substantiated by psychiatric neuroscience research centre from Massachussets, USA. They were the first ever to observe the transformation of the grey matter, triggered by 8-week programme of continuous mindfulness meditation. Participants in this research spent approximately 27 minutes a day in meditation and the neurological results indicated the growth of grey matter in part of the brain that controls memory, learning, self-awareness, empathy and introspection (Meiklejohn et. Al., 2015:5). Similar conclusions were drawn by scientists from Harvard University that conducted the research “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density” and proved that the brain structure (grey matter) changes with meditation.

Greeson (2009) examined the results of scientific research on meditation and its effects on the mind, brain activity, body and human behaviour. He selected 52 most consistent studies, conducted between 2003 and 2008. The results indicated that continuous mindfulness meditation practice causes emotional distress reduction, positive state of mind and improved quality of life. The author notes that meditation practice positively affects brain and autonomic nervous system activity, stress hormones, immune system, health state, including eating and sleeping habits, drug abuse (Meiklejohn et. al., 2012:4).

The author of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Zen Meditation for Depression, Anxiety, Pain, and Psychological Distress, William R. Marchand from The University of Utah notes that in the last few years, meditation became a common complementary therapeutic technique in medical service and psychology due to its general psychophysical effects: improved concentration, reduced recurrent thoughts and mood swings, increased self-acceptance and self-love, reduced blood pressure, improved immune system, lower cortisol levels.  The author describes reports on the reduced level of stress and increased pain threshold from research on the effects of zen meditation. Meditation triggers higher level of self-awareness and consequently affects individual’s attention control and eases emotion self-regulation, which is confirmed by research on meditation using electroencephalography (EEG).

Meditation practice is not only a useful tool for psychological empowerment but also positively affects physical health of those who meditate regularly. In 2012 in Middle America, they conducted research with 441 women participants who filled out questionnaires before and after 10-week meditation practice. The results show that the participants affirmed positive effects of meditation on healthy eating habits, quality of sleep and better physical health (Murphy, M., et. al., 341:2012).

 

Sources:

Shapiro, D.H., Walsh, R.N. (1984). Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Aldine.

Meiklejohn, J.,  et. al. (2012). Integrating Mindfulness Training into K-12 Education: Fostering the Resilience of Teachers and Students. Springer Science and Buisness Media. New York: Springer Science Business Media, LLC.

Vangel, M., Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. & Lazar, S. (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Neuroimaging. 191. 36-43. Zda: John Wiley & Sons, American Society of Neuroimaging.

Marchand, W.R. (2012). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Zen Meditation for Depression, Anxiety, Pain, and Psychological Distress. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, Vol. 18, No. 4. ZDA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Murphy, M. J., Mermelstein, L. C., Edwards, K. M., & Gidycz, C. A. (2012). The Benefits of Dispositional Mindfulness in Physical Health: A Longitudinal Study of Female College Students. Journal of American College Health, 60(5), 341-348. Philadelphia: American College Health Asociation.

Meditation in schools and abroad

In some foreign countries, meditation practice is already integrated in the school system and each year there are more schools that integrate meditation into their curriculum. In 2015, I visited Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, California, who were the first ever to include meditation as a part of their regular lessons. In the conversation with the school staff, I learned that the students meditate for 15 minutes, twice daily and call the time spent meditating “Quiet Time”. Non-profit organization The Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, funded by David Lynch foundation provides experts that educate students and teacher on meditation. The foundation has a long list of schools, waiting to receive funds for integrating meditation into curriculum, since it positively affects the atmosphere and students. School employees noted that meditation completely transformed their school – the students are calmer and more relaxed, violence has reduced and the students feel better at school. We cannot overlook the fact that the school is located in a poor area, a ghetto, where murder, violence and social distress occur daily. For the children living there, relaxation and emotional balance are of great importance.

Fourteen experts from USA, Canada and Great Britain, note the importance and the effects of meditation on children, adolescents and their teachers. Neurobiological research on meditation among adults confirms that continuous mindfulness practice improves emotional self-regulation and flexibility of teachers and students. Since 2005, experts have been observing and participating in 14 studies of programmes in which integration of meditation gained wide range of cognitive, social and psychological positive developments. There have been 6 studies involving elementary school students and 8 studies involving high school students.  Improvements occurred in the following areas: memory, concentration, social skills, emotional regulation, self-confidence and self-image, well-being, reduction of anxiety, stress and exhaustion. In the article, authors list descriptions of curriculums, target population and main features of ten curriculums with integrated mindfulness meditation. Even though mindfulness derives from Buddhist tradition, it is highly recommended by experts to be used in the formal educational system due to its positive impact on psychophysical activity of a person. Many authors stress the importance of practicing meditation among teachers, as they are the ones responsible for maintaining adequate atmosphere for the students’ well-being, who often follow their example.

Gouldin and Gross (2010) conducted a study at Stanford University and reached the conclusion that 8-week continuous mindfulness meditation alleviates stress and anxiety. The same year, another research was done in a Los Angeles elementary school, including 64 children from the ages of 7 to 9 years. Children practiced meditation 30 minutes, twice a week for eight weeks. Their parents and teachers filled out questionnaires before and after meditation practice. Researchers established that meditation had a positive impact that was particularly evident among children labelled as restless and disturbing in class. During the meditation period they became more composed and relaxed (Flook, L., et al. 70: 2010). The results of the research Mindfulness-Based Approaches with Children and Adolescents (Burke, 2009) suggest practicing mindfulness meditation as a way to help young people suffering from anxiety disorders.

 

Sources:

Flook, L., Smalley, S. L., Kitil, M. J., Galla, B. M., Kaiser-Greenland, S., Locke, J.,  Kasari, C. (2010). Effects of Mindful Awareness Practices on Executive Functions in Elementary School Children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95. London: Routledge.

Burke, C. (2009). Mindfulness-Based Approaches with Children and Adolescents: A Preliminary Review of Current Research in an Emergent Field. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18(3), 1062-1024. New York:  Springer Science Business Media, LLC.

Goldin, P. & Gross, J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion. 10, 1. 83-91. New York: American Psychological Association (APA).

Meiklejohn, J.,  et. al. (2012). Integrating Mindfulness Training into K-12 Education: Fostering the Resilience of Teachers and Students. Springer Science and Buisness Media. New York: Springer Science Business Media, LLC

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