You’ve heard of meditation as a mind-calming exercise. Is that really true? If so, how does the whole process work?
The answer: yes, it can and does. The reason is two-fold. On the one hand, meditation empties and clears the mind of thoughts that might otherwise create or elevate panic (and often do during one’s highly alert and active day). On the other hand, studies are showing that labeling emotions before “letting them go” during meditation helps decrease anxiety. Let’s take a closer look at these ideas.
1. The goal of meditation is to stop all thought.
Meditation’s primary goal a majority of the time — and its basis throughout ancient history to the present — is on emptying the mind.
Anyone who has tried this knows just how deceptively hard it is to do. It’s along the lines of that old educational exercise, “For the next three minutes, DO NOT think about an elephant.” Most people find their minds darting back to that darned elephant over and over again. That’s because it’s actually harder not to think than it is to think. That’s just how our logical, compartmental minds work.
2. “Not thinking”: difficult, but not impossible.
Our minds also work by making associations. One thought tends to lead to another. Unfortunately, when stress enters the picture — and for the average person, it often does — these “strings of thoughts” create stimulation in the brain that is definitely not desirable.
In other words, it ends up being as snowball effect: the more you worry, the more stress registers in your brain, and the more stress that’s bouncing around in your brain, the more you’re stimulated to worry and have other negative feelings.
3. So what can you do about it?
The cure? Stop the cycle dead in its tracks by teaching yourself not to think. Spend 5 minutes each day at a quiet time to sit and literally not think. At first this will be hard — your brain will be fighting to put every feeling you have into words. Don’t fight these thoughts; acknowledge them, give them a mental nod and allow them to pass on through.
As you get better at the process (and you will), work up to 10 minutes a day, then 15.
Some people find their best results doing two 10-minute or two 15-minute meditation sessions a day. Find what works for you.
4. Paradoxically, acknowledgement also decreases anxiety.
The second half of the mind-calming equation would seem to be the exact opposite of the above: it involves addressing your thoughts. But actually, these two factors work closely together during the meditation process.
Have you ever noticed that the monster in a horror movie is always scarier when you can’t see it? That’s because our imagination naturally takes over, attempting to fill that gap (invisibility/lack of knowledge). And our imagination is going to create potentially far worse, more stressful scenarios than the inevitable reality in an attempt to cover all the bases.
5. It’s psychological and biochemical.
Conventional psychology has long relied on actively addressing issues and stressors in order to make them smaller, so to speak, in our minds. That takes away their power over us. Now scientists are saying the “acknowledgement” part of the meditation process (just before letting the thought go) is an essential part of the process of producing that sense of calm.
Check out this study for more information on the actual study and its results. In short, the scientists found that when thoughts entered the minds of the meditating subjects and they acknowledged them before letting them “flow through” and dissipate, a key element was addressed, namely that putting a name to negative emotions directly calmed the brain.
6. Don’t “overfocus.”
Don’t confuse this with overfocusing on negative emotions. According to studies, this will bring back the very effect you don’t want: more brain confusion and more stress. Simply acknowledge the thought you’re having, give it a mental nod, and allow it to flow through and on past you. Visualize this happening easily and effortlessly.
I hope you find this as fascinating as I did while researching it. As an avid meditator, I’m always interested in the psychology behind why it works (and it does). Good luck on your journey and may you find peace and enlightenment all the way.