Despite its popularity, most people – myself included – know very little about mindfulness in its various forms. While I’ve followed a few short mindfulness sessions on an app at home, I confess that I couldn’t tell you the difference between mindfulness and meditation or about the different types. So when I had the opportunity to try out some meditation techniques as part of my work managing communications for the Silver Santé Study, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more.
The project’s coordinating team arranged for all the project’s partners to take part in a morning-long session trying out a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques as part of the project’s annual meeting in Liége, Belgium, late last year. Leading the session, for 22 participants, was experienced meditation instructor and author, Martine Batchelor, who has been teaching meditation for many years and has led sessions with the volunteers taking part in the Study’s clinical trials.
At the start of the session, our first job was to sit comfortably, upright in the chair or on the floor – whichever was more comfortable – and to make sure our feet were connected to the ground. We were then asked to close our eyes and to concentrate on our breathing – breathing in….breathing out… allowing ourselves to breath naturally but taking notice of the rhythm of our breathing and how it made the different parts of our bodies move as we inhaled and exhaled. As I listened to Martine’s gentle voice and focused intently on the rhythm of my own breathing, I could feel myself becoming more and more deeply relaxed. At one point, I actually fell asleep for a few seconds.
Breathing, and being mindful of each breath, appeared to be at the core of all the meditation techniques that followed in our session.
Next we tried out body scan meditation, which involved concentrating on one part of the body at a time and working our way from head to toe – each time being encouraged to notice any sensations, whether it was being aware of a foot touching the ground or how our clothes brushed against our skin. If our thoughts wandered, we were encouraged to gently bring them back to the present moment, to experience the here and now, being aware of any background sounds in the room.
We moved on to another technique – standing meditation – in which we stood behind our chairs with legs slightly apart and hands either by our sides or comfortably resting on the backs of the chairs. Personally, I found it harder to meditate while standing, but perhaps with more practice it becomes easier.
The next meditation type experienced was gratitude and appreciation meditation which focuses on contemplating the things for which we feel grateful – for example, our good health, loved ones or nature. In our session we were encouraged to think about our own bodies and to tell ourselves that we appreciate certain features we’re happy with. I wasn’t the only person to struggle a little with this concept but perhaps that’s a sign that we need it more than others!
Lastly, we tried compassion or loving kindness meditation, which is said to help you become more compassionate towards yourself and others. We were asked to think about ourselves, someone we care about, someone we feel neutral about, and someone we have a little difficulty with and to recite silently, inwardly, a series of phrases. Thinking of each person in turn we said:
“May you have happiness, may you be free from suffering, may you experience joy and ease.”
The repeating phrases element of this technique came less naturally to me than the more basic breathing and body scan techniques. Perhaps, in time, I would grow more accustomed to it, but this was a completely new experience and a technique I certainly didn’t take to immediately.
By the end of the session, I felt both relaxed and invigorated and came away with a very positive view of meditation and with a few useful techniques, such as breathing and body scan meditation, which I will definitely put to good use at home to help with relaxation and to de-stress.
It is hoped that the results of the Silver Santé Study, the first of which are expected in 2019, will contribute to important discussions about how the general population can maintain a good quality of life and help decision-makers devise policies that will help reduce the cost of care for age-related illnesses. But, perhaps most importantly, the project team hopes the results will enable its team of experts to develop specific tools and techniques that we can all use to help safeguard our mental health in later life, allowing us to be healthier and happier throughout our lives.