If you’re like most people, you probably have days when it feels like your life is out of control. You may be overscheduled, trying to squeeze grocery runs and healthcare appointments between work obligations and extracurricular activities. You may feel overwhelmed by the number of choices you’re forced to make every day regarding different products and services, from cereals and soaps to credit cards and health-insurance policies. You may be drowning in communications – emails, voicemail messages, junk mail. I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before there’s a TV reality show that pits multitaskers against each other to see just how many balls they can keep in the air.
In the midst of such busyness, many of us secretly long for a simpler life – one that reflects a slower pace, where we are able to relax, breathe and enjoy some peace of mind. We may fantasize about getting away from it all or leaving our responsibilities behind. But rather than retreating to a cabin in the woods or moving to a mountainside monastery, the real solution is to learn how to maintain a sense of inner peace while still living and participating in our all-too-crazy world.
After all, the quality of your outer life is, in many ways, a reflection of the quality of your inner life – not the status of your career, checkbook or relationship. If you want your outer world to be peaceful, calm and filled with joy, you don’t need to find more time or take a vacation from life. You need to cultivate an inner state of serenity.
One great way to achieve this sense of inner stillness is through the practice of meditation. Properly harnessed, meditation reins in your racing thoughts and channels your brain waves into a calmed, harmonious state.
Science Meets Silence
To understand how silent meditation works on the body, it’s important to understand how brain waves work. As neuroscientists develop new technology to observe brain-wave patterns and physiologic changes during periods of deep silence, the benefits of meditation are becoming more apparent. Let’s start with the basics. The brain operates in four patterns:
- Beta. This is the most active brain-wave pattern and the primary state that most of us operate in throughout the day. This is the general pattern of normal waking consciousness, and when our brain produces high levels of beta waves, we tend to feel anxious and restless.
- Alpha. The second brain-wave pattern, alpha, is the state associated with a deeper, more relaxed state of mind. This is the pattern that most meditators experience. It’s also the “in-between” state we experience just before falling asleep.
- Theta. Theta is the brain-wave pattern of dreaming sleep. This pattern is associated with higher levels of creativity, improved memory function and increased ability to learn new skills. Long-term, experienced meditators can enter this state while remaining aware of their surroundings.
- Delta. Delta is the slowest brain-wave pattern of all: a deeply relaxed state usually associated with dreamless sleep.
At any moment, all four of these patterns are present to varying degrees. For example, while you’re communicating or analyzing information, your brain is making lots of beta waves. At the same time, it’s making delta waves that regulate body functions. When we meditate, we increase the amount of slower brain-wave patterns, particularly alpha waves, and in doing so, we gradually enter into deeper states of relaxation.
So, if you’ve had a busy day and you’re feeling stressed, there’s a good chance that your brain-wave function is being dominated by beta patterns and you’re operating in what’s called a “high beta state.”
When you begin to meditate, it’s not uncommon to have difficulty transitioning from this state. As a result, you may feel irritable or unsettled at first. Fortunately, using a mantra, repeating a prayer or focusing on your breath will automatically slow down your brain waves (see “Creating Calm,” at below). As a matter of fact, simply closing your eyes will result in increased alpha (relaxed) brain-wave patterns.
The good news is that the more you practice, the easier it will be for you to slow your brain-wave cycle and enter into a deeper state. (For more on the scientific insights into meditation’s benefits, see “Measuring Meditation”).
Solace for the Spirit
The idea of quieting your mind in this way may feel like an impossible feat, especially with all the stimulation that exists in the world today. But you can do it, if you’re patient and willing to take it one small step at a time.
Most people give up too soon because they can’t sit still or they can’t stop thinking about everything they have to do. But it’s important to know that it’s normal to feel restless, agitated or bored when you first begin to meditate. It’s like trying to cool down an engine that’s been revving too high, for too long.
Remember, too, that any period of stillness, regardless of the quality, is nourishing to your body, mind and spirit. As a matter of fact, once you enter a deeply relaxed state, don’t be surprised if you fall asleep, especially if you’re sleep deprived. Even if you do fall asleep, you’ll still get something from the experience. When your brain waves slow down, your mind becomes more balanced and integrated, and this will help you feel rested and refreshed when you wake.
Peace and Quiet
Going into the silence is like taking a bath in pure, white light – it clears you, calms you and quiets you; and it helps you manage the stress of normal everyday life. It’s in the silence that we have our greatest opportunity to access the power of grace.
The idea of spending time in silence and stillness runs contrary to the messages we receive from the world around us. Instead, we’re rewarded for our ability to multitask, and to be productive, fast and efficient. This is exactly why so many people feel spiritually restless.
The more you make stillness a priority, the sooner you’ll be released from the fear and anxiety that come from living in an uncertain, ever-changing world. Over time you’ll come to realize that the peace and joy you seek can only be found within – in that very special place in your heart that speaks the voice of your soul.
If you’re just beginning a practice of meditation or quiet reflection, it can be helpful to have a peaceful environment and a few tools to focus your thoughts. Consider the following:
1. Create a sanctuary. To enhance your meditation experience, create a private sanctuary in your home. You don’t need to have a special room or a large area, just some space you can call your own. You might even create an altar where you can put sacred pictures, statues, prayer beads or candles.
2. Condition your mind and body to meditate. For years, religious institutions have used rituals to promote a relaxed, spiritual mood. The use of incense, hymns and ritual movements (standing, sitting, kneeling; hands in prayer, folded, etc.) activate sensory memories that support our ability to quiet our minds and go within ourselves. You can use this same idea to enhance your meditation experience. For example, you might light incense or a candle, listen to music, or even start your meditation by writing in a journal. Such activities may help clear your mind of anything that might prevent you from achieving silence.
3. Use a chant, mantra or prayer. Choose a sacred word, phrase or prayer. Then, while sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, quietly repeat the mantra to yourself. Each time you become aware of intrusive thoughts, gently return your focus to your mantra.