Meditation is really remarkably simple: it consists of focusing all of one’s attention on a single thing — a mantra, a mandala, one’s breath — and quieting the logical mind that is used to leaping from one issue to another. The problem with this “monkey mind” (so called because it suggests the image of a monkey swinging from branch to branch) is that it tends to make one feel scattered and out-of-focus. In that state, we are purely reactive: a stimulus appears, and we respond; another stimulus appears, and our attention is yanked away from the first. This goes on and on until we are mentally exhausted and physically drained. This is one reason why meditation has so many well-documented health benefits: the way it effectively disrupts the anxiety/illness/more anxiety/worse illness loop makes us both mentally and physically more sound.
The decrease in anxiety and depression that accompanies meditation has received a good deal of publicity, and with good reason. The use (and abuse) of barbiturates and antidepressants is on the rise all over the developed world. The natural quieting of the mind is clearly a much better way to go. As we meditate, we feel our breath deepening and our scattered thoughts drawn together. Our body is released from its hypervigilant state, one that is always ready to run from a predator or fight off an opponent (we’ve all inherited the equipment our hunter/gatherer ancestors had in the ancestral environment). This hypervigilance is terrible for our health, especially if it persists over a long period. It has been shown to cause (and exacerbate) hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, heart disease, and a host of other ills. Being in such a perpetually-stressed state is also harmful to our mental and emotional health. It can cause chronic anxiety, depression, and if it persists long enough, can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Have you ever awakened from a particularly disturbing nightmare to find your heart racing, your breathing fast and ragged, and your mind responding as if the threat in your dream were real? Even if you can’t quite recall all the details (usually a fortunate thing), your mind and body both “think” the threat is real. This is an excellent time to go into an immediate deep meditative state. Just ten minutes of deep breathing, focusing on the breath or a mantra, can bring these physical and emotional reactions under control. This will tend to counteract the familiar post-nightmare effect in which you spend the day feeling irritable, easily overwhelmed, and just generally lousy.
Meditating for 20 minutes once a day is generally considered ideal. If this is unrealistic, doing ten minutes in the morning and another ten in the evening may actually be more advantageous. Your morning meditation will make for a less stressful day, and the evening meditation will help you relax and enjoy a deeply restful and nightmare-free sleep.
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