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Meditation: Finding Peace

Hassan Jawad talks about the importance of meditation in times of crisis and isolation.

Meditation: Finding Peace

A person might be forgiven for thinking that we currently live in a pretty depressing time. The pandemic has swept across the world, claiming untold lives. The millions of the deceased represent people with families and loved ones as well as people with responsibilities and importance to their communities.

The crisis has also deprived many of us of our “Joie de vivre”, from the warmth of embraces and hugs to laughing with the sound of music and the buzz of a drink. From the excitement and euphoria of raves to the exhilaration of a competitive sport. This has not been easy, for some people it has been soul-crushing.

The economic difficulty came to add to our grief and struggles. The isolation of online work and study oftentimes increased our anxieties, without the opportunity for the social escapism we use to relieve our angst and stress.

Many of us would see depression either setting in or lurking around the corner, slowly creeping in into our lives sometimes without us even noticing.

But we must not give in, isolation does not have to be a bad thing. It can actually be an opportunity.

Across history and throughout different cultures, isolation has often been the driver of spiritual discovery and enlightenment. Isolation can guide you into tranquility instead of loneliness, into self-growth, resilience, and refinement instead of despair. All you have to do is take charge of your own destiny, your own mind, and steer its reins in the right direction.

This might sound a little bit abstract and even obscure, but It can be just as simple as breathing if you have the patience and commitment. In fact, it mostly rests on breathing. What I’m talking about is meditation.

Before delving into this practice, it is important to have a few caveats. Meditation is a practice that is surrounded by many mystical, new age, and pseudoscientific assumptions that have no real scientific basis. However, it can still be practiced in a “secular” setting and recent scientific research has highlighted its many benefits and importance.

One of the simpler and easier to practice meditation techniques that have a scientifically proven track record of improving your life and overall mental health is mindfulness meditation.

This technique consists of sitting down in a comfortable position, with your back straight to maintain alertness and observing the different bodily sensations and thoughts that traverse your mind.

As an “anchor” and in order to limit distraction and mind wandering, it is useful to choose a specific sensation to focus on. Breathing is usually chosen because it is an ever-present function of your body, a feeling of which does not leave you. But a person can choose any other sensation such as the feeling of sitting in a chair, the feeling of your hands resting on a surface or even the feeling of a constant breeze caressing your skin.

During this observation, your mind will start noticing different sensations such as an itch, a numbness, physical discomfort, or even relaxation. The mind will also inevitably get lost in various daydreams and your day-to-day worries.

These worries typically revolve around your pressing responsibilities, anxieties, problems, insecurities, desires, and pain. Instead of letting your mind get lost in this maelstrom of sensation and feeling, you should try to remember your main activity, observing your breath, and return to this “anchor”. This act of returning is at the core of the meditative practice.

In terms of experience at first, you will feel like you might be doing a useless exercise, you might think that you are wasting your time and that it is underwhelming. What you must do is observe these thoughts of doubt, take note of them and continue observing the breath.

You must treat your thoughts, emotions, and sensations as passing clouds in the sky of your consciousness, you will notice that in reality, you do not really have control over them, in fact, you have been operating on automatic mode for most of your life and you have just begun to notice it. The Buddhist call these uncontrolled thoughts ”the monkey mind”. Meditation is the practice that allows you to put that monkey mind in check and take the reins of your consciousness away from him.

If you feel that all this is confusing, rest assured. There are plenty of youtube tutorials and even applications that could provide you with guidance while meditating, one of my favorites is “Waking Up: Guided Meditation & Daily Mindfulness”. It is an app developed by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. It not only contains various guided meditations but also gives you access to podcasts where Harris interviews researchers, philosophers, and scientists to discuss what it means to be spiritual without falling into the trap and allure of metaphysics as well as the benefits, and ongoing research on meditation and various other topics.

Ten percent Happier is another free application that contains guided meditations and connects you with expert meditators if you have questions or if you need advice.

Both of these apps are available in both the Apple Appstore and the Android Google play store.

When it comes to the scientific perspective on this practice, interest has spiked in the last twenty years driven by the positive health effects documented as a result of this practice in clinical and non-clinical conditions. The practice has been long shown to positively affect attention and emotional regulation. Recent studies have also focused on analyzing its effects on personality.

According to research by Christiano Crescenti from the University of Udine and Viviana Capurso of the University of Rome La Sapienza, mindfulness meditation functions by training the practitioner on observing the transient and changing character of all mental phenomena, including the sense of self, this, in turn, leads to a detachment from identification with a rigid sense of self which would be experienced instead as an event. This experience leads to a “deconstruction of the self” which induces changes in personality. 

Furthermore, the practice promotes a new way of experiencing and facing life events which would also lead to personality changes.

The results of studies analyzing mindfulness meditation show an increasing level of self-acceptance, self-esteem, and more positive self-representation.

Higher mindfulness was also negatively related with the neuroticism trait, and positively towards agreeableness and conscientiousness traits. It has also been shown to facilitate creative collaboration among individuals. 

Expert meditators have shown to have positive growth in the character components of personality traits.

Studies have suggested that Mindfulness meditation promotes positive changes in the practitioner’s self-concept and personality through the inducement of a changed perspective on the self. Specifically, the experience of the self as a transitory event instead of it being a rigid and unchanging entity leads to a detachment from identification and allows for an increased capacity for objectivity about internal experiences which is followed by an ability to experience more authentic ways of being and lower psychological suffering.

Reaping the benefits of meditation, however, requires commitment and daily practice. One has to continuously strive to maintain the habit of meditation and not be defeated by boredom, disinterest, and the need for instant gratification.

This is especially true in our social media age and in light of the availability of enormous sources of entertainment at the click of a button.

While binge-watching a thrilling series might feel better instantly, it will not necessarily improve your mental state and health in the long term, especially in a time where socialization has become difficult.

Meditation requires you to have diligence and patience but what is amazing is that it also increases your ability to have diligence and patience. Developing a strong sense of these two qualities will surely get you through the depressing times in your life and you might even get another perspective on what depression is. I personally have been meditating for several years and making it a habit has been the best choice I ever took.

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4310269/

Text by
Hassan Jawad