What is meditation?
By Martine Batchelor
(posted 12th December 2019)
Meditation – along with language-learning and health education – is one of the mental training activities being trialled in the Silver Santé Study to assess its impact on mental health and well-being in the ageing population.
Although meditation – or mindfulness – is now commonly referred to in everyday life, there are many misconceptions about what it is. One, for example, is that meditation is about clearing the mind of all thought. Another is that meditation is a religious practice. While most religions involved some kind of contemplative study, like meditation, the meditation studied in the Silver Santé Study is entirely secular and, while based on Buddhist meditation, it has been adapted especially for potential use for medical purposes.
Rather than clearing the mind of thought, meditation is about cultivating certain qualities that we already have but to a greater degree. One of the bases of meditation is to cultivate focusing, concentration, and anchoring and this means that you are given something to focus on – such as the breath, the body, a sound, or a question. Should your mind wander and start thinking about other things, you simply bring your thoughts back to what you were focusing on and you do this with a positive, friendly attitude. Each time your thoughts wander, you bring them back to what you were focusing on. So both elements are important – the technique, i.e. the focusing, and the attitude with which you do it, i.e. in a friendly way. Once you cultivate the focusing element, it helps you to become calmer.
It’s also important to remember that the aim is not to become the greatest meditator, it’s about helping us become calmer, clearer and more compassionate in daily life.
There are different types of meditation. Mindfulness, for example, is where you focus on something like the breath, the body, a sound, feeling or mental state and then you keep coming back to it in a friendly way. With that technique, it’s about being aware of the change of the breath, the change of sensation, etc. There are other types of meditation too – some focus on a question, while others, like loving kindness meditation, focus on being compassionate to oneself and to others. There are types that are reflective and others that focus on repeating phrases.
Meditation is suitable for most people to some degree. It’s just like sport – it’s generally good for most people but not suitable for everyone. There are very few negative effects associated with meditation as long as it’s in light conditions. For example, a 7-day silent retreat is not suitable for everyone, but a weekly two-hour mindfulness session every week should be fine for most people.
My advice to anyone wanting to try out meditation would be to find a local course to get some guidance, and then to practice it regularly to see some benefit. Some people find that meditating 10 minutes each day works for them but others meditate for longer – whatever suits you best. It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t need to be sitting down to meditate, you can do it walking, standing, sitting or lying down.
Watch Martine explain meditation in our short video: