Meditation as a way to navigate the dancing torches of thought?
“Oh, I practice mindfulness now” has become a very common –or almost a very trendy– phrase today. This increase in attention to certain yogic practices, such as mindfulness-based meditation, may be attributed to recent findings about how meditation and yoga can offer peace of mind in day-to-day life (Sengupta, 2012). By popular knowledge, it is believed that the practice of meditation involves sitting silently, focusing solely on breathing, and chanting a particular mantra. This made me wonder: how can sitting silently and focusing on one thing help people relax? How can it help them reduce anxiety and stress? Are their thoughts not running and jumping from one place to the other? Are their thoughts not going to all of the things they need to finish in time? To debunk these doubts I held, and to understand the practice of meditation better, I delved a little deeper into understanding the intricacies of this practice.
Types of meditation
While researching, I came to understand that ‘meditation’ is used as an umbrella term to refer to various ways of practicing a deep state of relaxation and focus. The various meditative practices are primarily born out of two forms of meditation: concentrative and mindfulness meditation (Valentine & Sweet, 1999). Concentrative meditation refers to the practice of focusing on a particular activity, such as awareness of breathing, focusing on an external object such as a flame, or the sound of a particular syllable. The most commonly known type of concentrative meditation is pranayamam or yogic breathing, a practice of deliberate inhalation and exhalation of breath.
The second type of meditation is mindfulness meditation, which helps in focusing on internal mental cognitions, thoughts, imagery, and feelings (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999). In practice, people are encouraged to tend to the present moment without any judgment and cultivate it as a habit (Goldberg et al., 2023).
How can sitting silently and solely focusing on your breathing help achieve such a peaceful mental state?
These two branches of meditation are often combined and lead to multiple forms of meditation. For example, the combined form involves practicing yogic breathing to achieve a state of mindfulness which is about being fully present in the moment and helping focus on the range of emotions one might be going through (G.Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999). It became evident through Hasenkamp et al (2011) that practicing this form of meditation can help increase focus and attention which helps in reducing wandering thoughts that may cause stress.
While I understood the concept of meditation theoretically, one question still stood. In practice, how can sitting silently and solely focusing on your breathing help achieve such a peaceful mental state? Thinking and reading about this question led me to a metaphor that I thought may help a beginner understand how it really feels like to practice mindfulness and meditate.
The dancing torches of thought
Imagine this scenario: you are walking through a dark tunnel, trying to find your way. This represents your journey of trying to find a solution to a problem you are facing. Now, torches light this tunnel, but they are dancing and shining light in random places and spots. Although they provide light and attract your attention, they actually make it harder to find your way through the tunnel – or to find the solution to your problem. The dancing torches represent the various negative thoughts that one constantly encounters while facing a problem, like a loop of circulating thoughts and rumination – a state of mind where the focus is only on negative aspects of events from the past and present (Sansone & Sansone, 2012). Given this scenario of a dark tunnel with dancing torches, these lights clearly are not helping you find what you’re looking for, nor are they helping you exit the tunnel safely because you can’t see clearly. This represents your state of mind: it is neither helping you find a solution for the problem nor helping you calm down.
When the mind is in this state of stress, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes control of the body’s physiological responses (Jerath et al., 2015). The SNS is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and is responsible for the fight-or-flight response; during episodes of anxiety, it increases the heart rate and breathing becomes irregular (Tindle & Tadi, 2020). In the context of our tunnel metaphor, activation of the SNS is what causes the torches in the tunnel to dance. However, if one has been practicing mindfulness-based meditation, two things happen. The yogic breathing involved in this practice acts as a switch that slowly helps the process to make the torches stop dancing, in other words, actively shifting the control from the SNS to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The parasympathetic system, also part of the ANS, helps induce calmer alertness and reduces the increased heart rate, and regulates breathing (Brown & Gerbarg, 2005). Meanwhile, the mindfulness part of the practice helps to focus on a single thought at a time, allowing you to deconstruct the problem and leading you out of the tunnel of stress safely, because now all the lights are focused on one spot, allowing you to see the way out. Therefore, sitting silently and solely focusing on breathing and meditation helps our body switch to the PNS which is a calmer but alert state of mind, allowing us to navigate through negative thoughts and feelings.
Although mindfulness-based meditation seems to have clear benefits and may help you get out of your tunnel, it’s not always easy to do – or to keep doing.
Furthermore, research evidence shows how attention-based mindfulness practices affect the brain and can have long-term benefits. For example, a study by Tomasino and Fabbro (2016) showed that breathing during mindfulness increases activity in the dorsal prefrontal cortex, which is involved in sustaining the focus of attention, indicating that focusing on breathing during mindfulness helps sharpen their focusing and attention skills. The study also showed deactivation of the rostral prefrontal cortex, which is usually responsible for spontaneous streams of thoughts that could be a starting point of anxiety and stress, therefore deactivating ruminating thoughts.
Although mindfulness-based meditation seems to have clear benefits and may help you get out of your tunnel, it’s not always easy to do – or to keep doing. Although various studies have shown the benefits of different kinds of meditation, most of them are longitudinal studies, suggesting that the effects of meditative practices show results after a certain period of time (Bhimani et al. 2011). This is disadvantageous in contrast with western anxiety medication, especially during acute stressful life situations, because negative thought processes may reduce the motivation to practice mindfulness-based meditation. To reap the benefits of mindfulness-based meditation or any of the yogic practices, it has to be taught as part of one’s lifestyle as a preventive coping mechanism that will help navigate through difficult instances in life in an easier manner. Therefore, now that you and I have some insight into the practice of mindfulness-based meditation, maybe give it a try in practice and see if it helps focus the dancing torches in our minds.
Image credit: photo by Riziki Nielsen; licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.
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