"Yes, but what exactly does meditation do?" If I had a pound for every person who's asked me that question I'd be sunning myself on a beach in Antigua with a cocktail in one hand and a Havana cigar in the other. Seldom has a term been shrouded in such a fog of confusion, misunderstanding and downright misinformation as the word meditation. Until recently it was still widely associated with hippy culture, considered by many to be a bit woo-woo and most probably synonymous with drug-use also. In the eyes of certain fundamentalist religious extremists it was even regarded as something deeply sinister - the Forbidden Knowledge of the Garden of Eden and a gateway to the occult. At the very least it probably conjured images of bearded yogis sitting atop a Himalayan mountain in the lotus position chanting mantras - not something the average westerner could readily relate to.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that meditation is in fact a rather loose umbrella term covering a wide array of practices, most of which have as their common aim the focusing of a person's concentration to a level of laser-like intensity in which great things become possible, not least the experience of states of deep calm, bliss and internal wellbeing. These techniques can include everything from yoga, Tai Chi and Chi Gong to Buddhist Mindfulness-based practices, as well as work involving the use of sound and colour. Many of the methods used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) - particularly its New Code games - are also designed to induce the same high-performance state. Even everyday tasks such as washing the dishes can be turned into a meditation if you know how. Put simply, meditation is a superpower with the capability to change anybody's life for the better and with an infinite number of performance-enhancing real-world applications. Think of a Jedi - calm, focused and masterful under pressure - and you get some kind of an idea of what's possible. Is it easy to master? No, but nothing worthwhile ever is. It takes time, patience, dedication and a hell of a lot of practice, but the rewards are bountiful for those prepared to put in the work and you can't put a price on something that unlocks the door to maximising your full human potential.
Thankfully ever greater numbers of people in the west are awakening to the profound benefits of meditation and mindfulness, thanks in no small measure to initiatives such as this week's World Meditation Day - a global campaign aimed at teaching people how to unwind from the stresses and strains of daily life. Here at Phoenix we're firm advocates of the power of meditation and the profound benefits it offers to mental health. It's no exaggeration to say that meditation saved my life after I was left completely burnt out by years of sustained work-related stress. Suffering from depression and deep anxiety, I was referred by my psychologist to a wellbeing class run by the fabulous Caroline Miller of Homeopathy Fife. Here I was taught an arsenal of different techniques, from mindfulness and Chi Gong to body scan meditations and the curative power of Tibetan singing bowls. It was, quite simply, a game-changer which turned my life around and launched me upon the completely new path I'm following today.
One of the most potent things Caroline taught me was the power of stopping unhelpful rumination by grounding myself in the present moment. We're all guilty of spending much of our lives mulling over past mistakes or fretting about an imaginary future that might never happen instead of fully appreciating the Now. The past is done. We can't change it and we gain nothing by expending vital mental and emotional energy reliving it. Similarly, the future hasn't happened yet and we don't benefit ourselves one bit by envisaging worst-case scenarios which might never come to pass. It's true that we can't stop thoughts from popping into our head but we can choose whether or not to indulge them. When we indulge thoughts, they grow arms and legs and frequently snowball into something much bigger which bears very little, if any, relation to reality. For example, say a co-worker walks past us in the corridor one day without speaking. Our paranoia immediately kicks in as we start to wonder whether that person has a problem with us. Have I done something to upset him? Does he know something I don't? Is my job at risk and is he afraid to look me in the eye because he knows about it? In all likelihood that person was just having a rough day themselves and was too absorbed in their own thoughts to notice you at that precise moment. But that doesn't stop your mind from building the most elaborate, and frequently inaccurate, conspiracy theories out of the smallest and most trifling things. A terrific analogy which my meditation teacher Caroline used was to view one's thoughts as if they were a train sitting at a station platform. It's fine to stand on the platform and observe the train but if it isn't heading for where we want to go then we don't want to actually get on board. It's the same with our thoughts. It's fine to observe them but you don't need to follow them to their ultimate destination and let them take you to dark places you don't want to go.
The benefits of present-moment awareness are outlined brilliantly in the highly-acclaimed book The Power of Now by German-born spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle. Anyone who hasn't already read this seminal work, I strongly recommend you do so as it serves as an incredible "how-to" guide for grounding yourself in the present and connecting with the true self at the very core of your being. Such skills have never been more badly needed than they are today. We live in a society that is over-worked, over-anxious and burdened with worry. The financial crises of recent years have taken a huge toll. An austerity-driven agenda of relentless cost-cutting has led to vast swathes of job losses, zero-hours contracts, mass unemployment plus burgeoning workloads and longer hours for those “fortunate” enough to have kept their jobs. The cost of living has continued to rise whilst wages have been squeezed, leaving many people worse off than they were a decade ago. It's no wonder we’ve become trapped in our fight-or-flight mechanism which our ancestors only used as a response to life-threatening situations.
The fast-paced nature of today’s world has also made it increasingly difficult for us to switch off. Smartphones, the internet and social media have created a culture in which we’re always on the go and where people have multiple ways of getting in contact with us at any time of the day or night. The result is that our brains have become overstimulated, over-anxious and over-reliant on other people’s feedback and approval. Meditation can help us to switch off, slow down and find a state of internal stillness and quiet. It's the practice of being aware in every possible moment, while keeping a non-judgemental outlook and, at the same time, observing your own bodily and emotional responses. It's about taking that extra moment to fully appreciate the scent of a rose, the shape of an ancient tree, a cloud formation, the sound of running water or the ornate stonework of a building we're passing. In that moment, we cease to be a slave to our own thoughts and the emotions that they generate. We become a Jedi.
But there's no need to take my word for it. The benefits of meditation are increasingly being backed by hard science. An eight-week study led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital a few years ago documented for the first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain’s grey matter. Participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practising mindfulness exercises, and this was all it took to stimulate a major increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Crucially, none of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time. Scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology have identified at least eight different regions of the brain affected by meditation. Neuroscientists have also shown that practising mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self.
Meditation isn't just beneficial for stress relief but also as a means of achieving excellence in every area of our lives. By cutting down on internal chatter and learning to monitor our thoughts more closely, we can make our mind single-pointed and focus it like a laser on achieving specific goals. This is the high performance state sportsmen refer to when they talk about being "in the zone". Tennis star Novak Djokovic credited the practice of meditation with contributing towards the near-superhuman levels of intensity he was able to achieve during a phenomenal period of dominance in 2015-16 which saw him become only the third male player in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously. This same high-performance state can be applied to a myriad of other applications, including business, music and performing arts, enabling people to reach their full potential by freeing themselves from the restrictive shackles of tension and stress and channelling the full power of their innate mental energies into achieving excellence in whatever their chosen field or goal.
So if it's that crash-hot, why isn't everyone doing it?, I hear you ask. The trouble with meditation is that too many people give up if they don't get immediate results. They have difficulty silencing their internal chatter and staying in the present. Their mind wanders, intrusive thoughts creep in so they decide "It's not working" and they abandon it. But the practise of meditation is much like building muscle. It's a gradual process which has to be built upon, one day at a time. You wouldn't walk into a gym and expect to immediately start bench-pressing 200 lbs if you'd never lifted a set of weights before in your life. You need to start small and grow. In the same way, you can't expect to gain automatic control over your mind and thoughts and reach supernal heights of bliss at the first attempt. It takes time and patience to gradually bring the mind under control. But if you stick with it, follow tried and tested techniques and allow new habit-patterns to form around it, you will start to experience the benefits in time. Will you still suffer setbacks and bad days? Yes, of course because negative experiences are part and parcel of life and there's no escaping them. But meditation will massively increase your ability to cope with such knocks when they arise. It will minimise the impact and make you more robust and resilient, enabling you to maintain a plateau of serenity from which you cease to be buffeted about like a ship in a storm by life's trials and tribulations. Persevere for long enough and something rather magical will start to happen in your life. Trust me, I'm speaking from personal experience here.
I was so blown away by the techniques I'd learned from Caroline Miller that it wasn't long before I began to delve deeper into the various different types of meditation practised throughout the world and came across the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda - the Indian guru credited with introducing yoga to the western world. Yogananda was a fascinating and inspirational character - a real-life Master Yoda - who travelled from India to the United States in 1920 and founded Self-Realization Fellowship - a non-denominational organisation designed to disseminate worldwide his teachings on India's ancient philosophy of yoga-based meditation. Regarded with initial mistrust by elements of a prejudiced western audience suspicious of his Hindu origins, he was subjected not only to horrendous abuse and smears in the press but also to surveillance by US and British intelligence and was placed on a US government watch list. However, he eventually overcame the narrow-minded bigotry of his critics, embarking on a cross-continental speaking tour and addressing the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, spreading his powerful message of the essential underlying unity of all religions. Today his teachings and extraordinary corpus of written works are held in widespread esteem. His fabulous and inspiring Autobiography Of A Yogi has been in print for over 70 years, been translated into 52 languages and was listed as one of the "100 Most Important Spiritual Books of the 20th Century", earning the title of "the book that changed the lives of millions". One of those admirers was Beatles' guitarist George Harrison, who was so profoundly moved by the book that he used to leave copies of it lying around his house for visitors to find and read. Yogananda's image was also among those to appear on the cover of the famous Sergeant Pepper Beatles album. Other admirers included Mahatma Gandhi and the botanist Luther Burbank, both of whom were initiated by Yogananda into the ancient science of Kriya Yoga. An award-winning biopic, AWAKE - The Life of Yogananda - was released in 2014 and is well worth a look by anyone serious about wanting to explore the consciousness-expanding benefits of higher levels of meditation. The organisation Yogananda founded - Self-Realization Fellowship - is still flourishing today, disseminating the Kriya Yoga teachings to a wordwide audience through a comprehensive correspondence course.
Yogananda was among the most successful of those enlightened teachers to demonstrate tangibly that meditation is not a mere fad for cranks and dropouts. It's a science which is taken extremely seriously by many who are well qualified to understand its power. As a result of my own personal forays and investigations into this field, I now belong to a number of international organisations which use meditation as a means of exploring the infinite potential of the human mind. The membership of these bodies is made up of professional people from all walks of life, including doctors, scientists, judges, teachers, healthcare professionals, law enforcement officers and even members of the security services. What they all share is a genuine interest in self-improvement and a burning desire to help others and to create a more peaceful and united world. These are not members of some crackpot lunatic fringe, opting out of life and indulging adolescent fantasies. They're highly intelligent experts in their respective fields with a genuine interest in helping to bring about the next phase of human evolution in order to try and help build a better and more harmonious world for our children and grandchildren. We can all be a part of that evolution and it starts by working on ourselves in order that we can then become better and more efficient vehicles through which to help others. We're not going to change the world overnight but we can do it one small step at a time. As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day.
Actual teaching of meditation techniques lies outwith the scope of this article but if you're keen to find out more and to embrace your inner Yoda then please do get in touch. Phoenix runs a range of meditation and mindfulness courses throughout the year, specifically tailored for a modern audience and to meet the demands of today's crazy, hectic world. We'll also soon be launching our own online correspondence courses packed full of information and exercises you can practise within the comfort of your own home. As I said before, meditation doesn't have to be undertaken as a religious practice, nor does it have to involve painful contortions or yogic postures or mantras. You can make a meditation out of walking to the shops, kicking a football or washing the car. It can be done lying down, sitting in a chair or on the move. The where and when isn't the most important thing. What matters is your state of mind and awareness. The key is to make it into whatever form of activity (or inactivity!) works best for you. So, whether you're looking for a form of stress relief or to enhance your performance in business or sport, or just to tap into your own natural reservoir of internal bliss and wellbeing, we can devise a programme to help you become the best possible version of yourself. Interested in being a part of the next phase of human evolution? Visit phoenixcoaching.co.uk or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest and find out more about what Phoenix can do to help you unleash the power within. And if you enjoyed this blog, please feel free to like and share it and check us out on Facebook and Twitter. Lots more to come on these subjects in the weeks and months ahead as well as exciting news on how you can get involved! May the Force be with you.
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