“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
There are many reasons we can lose our sense of safety and ease. And the current Covid pandemic has added a whole new dimension to the stresses of modern life. From isolation to confinement and loss, its challenges have left many of us experiencing feelings of fear, grief and anxiety.
The good news is that meditation can help. The practice of awareness and receptivity to the present moment – now known as mindfulness meditation – has been revered for thousands of years as a resource for calm and wellbeing.
The benefits of meditation
In truth, uncertainty is always with us. But we resist this knowledge, holding on to illusions of security and control, only to experience suffering when life goes in unexpected or uncomfortable directions.
Meditation offers us another way. The practice stills the mind, bringing an inner tranquillity that is not dependant on external events. Over time, it helps us to cultivate a feeling of deeper strength, ease and grace, allowing us to hold all of our experiences with greater equanimity.
It is not that things cease to matter. But we are better supported to deal with what we can, and to be at peace with the rest. We begin to move with the flow of life, rather than struggling against it.
“Meditation is running straight into reality,” says Bhante Gunaratana in Mindfulness in Plain English. “It does not insulate you from the pain of life but rather allows you to delve so deeply into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier and go beyond suffering.”
The science of mindfulness
This is not just an abstract concept. Numerous studies confirm the psychological and physiological benefits of mindfulness meditation, showing that it helps to ease stress, anxiety and depression and promote overall wellbeing.
Research shows that we are far happier when we are fully engaged in the present moment. We also have an increased mental and emotional resilience, making us better able to cope with difficult situations. Studies have found that greater present-moment awareness is linked to a stronger perceived ability to handle stressful circumstances. And it makes us more likely to respond in ways that relate to our values and lead to better health and wellbeing.
Sustained practice can create profound changes within us. After an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation, the amygdala – a part of the brain integral to our fight-or-flight stress response – has been shown to reduce in density, in line with reported reductions in stress. In turn, the concentration of grey matter increases in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation, self-awareness and perspective taking.
Shifting out of our body’s primal survival mode – where we often can’t think straight or process properly – changes the lens through which we view the world. We can see with greater clarity, released from the reactivity created by tension and fear. From this space, we are able to respond in a way that is more loving, centred and insightful. This also has powerful physical benefits, reducing biomarkers of stress and inflammation that are associated with disease.
Meditation is not a quick fix or a panacea. But it can be a wonderful support as we navigate the challenges of life, helping us to meet them with greater ease and serenity and attune to a deeper sense of peace.
Meditation practices for inner calm
These mindfulness meditation practices anchor us in the present moment, helping to create a calmer and more grounded state.
- Take a longer exhale
The practice of 2-to-1 breathing (exhaling for twice as long as the inhale) activates our parasympathetic nervous system, promoting feelings of calm and relaxation. Taking slow, steady breaths, try a few rounds of inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 8.
- Scan your body
Starting from the top of the head, slowly scan through your body, systematically moving your attention to each part. Allow yourself to feel each physical sensation, simply noticing and accepting it without judgement.
- Tune in to your senses
Sitting still with eyes open, take in your surroundings through your senses. Observe what you can see, hear, smell, feel and taste, exploring the tone of each with openness and curiosity.