In the past, sinking into oneself was considered esoteric spinning. The exercises have now become an integral part of behavioural, pain and addiction therapy
The secret of serenity is only revealed by a deep look into the head. That is why the Dalai Lama sent his monks with the most meditation experience to the laboratory of brain researcher Richard Davidson in Wisconsin (USA). With their eyes closed, the eight lay lost in the creaking tube, while the magnetic resonance tomography ( MRT ) made their brain areas visible layer by layer.
The recordings showed what happens while meditating: the left frontal cortex, which can keep negative emotions in check, was running at full speed. The brain structure of the monks was also visibly changed compared to those who did not meditate. Scientist Davidson optimistically concluded: “Happiness is a skill that can be learned like a sport.”
Active despite the flow of thoughts stopped
What has served as a ritual in the Far East for thousands of years to become spiritually one with the cosmos, has been medically investigated in numerous clinical studies, especially in the past 15 years. “Meditation is like applied neuroscience. Except that in the past you didn’t have a brain scanner to observe the mechanisms,” explains meditation researcher Dr. Ulrich Ott. “Today we see many exercises in a new light.”
The psychologist works at the University of Giessen, which was able to demonstrate in a large study how meditation changes the so-called default mode – i.e. the state of the brain when it is not doing a consciously controlled task. “But it is precisely then that it is extremely active; this state actually consumes more glucose than other brain activities,” says Ott.
During these phases, people subconsciously work up memories or plan their future. And this is exactly where meditators can press the pause button. Instead of responding to stimuli that trigger chains of association, emerging thoughts are neither spun out nor evaluated. Advanced learners can sometimes master meditation so well that they completely stop the flow of thoughts.
Good for the heart
In your head it’s quasi quiet, you have arrived in absolute relaxation – like Buddhist monks, for example. The consequences can be seen not only in the head but also in the body. The cardiologist Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School was able to prove in the 1970s that meditation had a balancing effect on heart rate and blood pressure.
There is now much more clinical evidence. Last resulted in the world’s largest meditation study ReSource at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig that the self-initiated deep relaxation, the concentration of stress hormones in the blood  lowers. And scientists from Calgary University (Canada) have even tried to prove the effects of meditation on the cellular level.
Who can meditation be problematic for?
- Mentally unstable people should only practice under the guidance of a psychologically or psychotherapeutically trained meditation trainer. Meditation can initiate mental processes that may come to a head in a crisis.
- If you are mentally ill, it is best to speak to the treating doctor before registering for a meditation course.
- For psychosis and schizophrenia, scientists advise against meditation. This could intensify delusional perceptions.
Medical practice shows that certain patient groups benefit from mindfulness exercises. This includes, for example, the chronically ill or cancer patients. “If the body is only a source of pain, they no longer want to feel it,” explains psychologist Ott.
With the help of meditation, one can turn inward – with benevolence and not with defence. Even if the cause of the complaint does not go away, the negative attitude towards oneself is changed – and as a result, the feeling of pain as well.
“In the long term, meditation realigns the world of emotions,” says Ott. Therefore, patients with depression, panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder could learn to partially free themselves from anxiety spirals and states. In sleep disorders, it also acts often positive.
In the meantime, mindfulness is present everywhere as the key to more resistance to stress. Adult education centres offer intensive courses, monasteries tempt you with seminars in silence, and mindfulness training is even on the schedule at some high schools. Meditation has even arrived in the German penal system. The association “Yoga and Meditation in Prison” wants to help inmates nationwide to look less fearful into the future with its offers.
How to Meditate Correctly
1. Is it only possible to meditate in the lotus position?
No. Advanced users usually sit in a full or half-lotus position with their legs crossed on a mat. But it is more important to be comfortable. Cushions, a yoga block or a bench are ideal in the beginning.
If that is too strenuous for you: Mindfulness exercises can also be done while sitting in a chair. Anyone who meditates while lying down can easily fall asleep and no longer concentrate on body awareness. However, for this very reason, some use meditation in the evening to help them fall asleep.
2. Just think of nothing – is that even possible?
It is normal to have a lot of thoughts wandering through your head at the beginning. So don’t get angry and put yourself under pressure. Just try to let feelings and thoughts flow by without judging them.
If one is distracted, gently redirect attention to breathing. Alternatively, you can fixate on a symbol or an object, such as a candle.
3. What is a conscious breath?
You breathe through your nose into your stomach, and later also into your chest. The breath is only observed and not influenced further.
A hand on your stomach helps to feel the rise and fall of the abdominal wall and watch the airflow in and out of the body.
4. Do you have to sit still for hours?
No, just 15 minutes a day will already make a huge difference. If you can’t sit still, walking meditation is an alternative for restless natures. When walking upright and slowly, one focuses on the movement and the feeling of the feet touching the ground.
The focus is more on body awareness and not on the breath. Another alternative is Qigong, a Chinese form of meditation that works with calm and flowing movements.
5. Do you have to sing Om?
The small syllable Om is a mantra, sacred saying or meditation syllable in Buddhism. The vibration calms you down and helps you focus.
Those who do not feel comfortable can also repeat calming words like “calm”, “silence” or “let go” while breathing in and out. That preoccupies the mind at first. You can also just sit in silence and concentrate on your breath or on a sound outside of yourself (e.g. fridge).
6. How should I sit?
Your back should be straight from your pelvis to your neck. Leaning is allowed in pain. The head is an extension of the spine, the chin parallel to the floor.
The shoulders hang relaxed. Close your eyes or look forward to the floor. Put your hands on your thighs.
7. Is It Better To Meditate Alone?
A group makes it easier for many. Especially guided meditations make it easier to get started. The voice of the facilitator helps guide mindfulness.
Soft music initially relaxes. If you can’t find a course on-site, you can use apps or videos.
With yoga against stress and inner restlessness
The enthusiasm for mindfulness goes hand in hand with the popularity of yoga. In Australia about one in six adults practise meditation, around one in three has already had experience with Indian teaching.
Meditation forms part of the yoga practice. A breathing meditation at the beginning of a yoga class can help to focus on the body and bring more calm. At the end of a yoga class there is deep relaxation.
Hustle and bustle cause a lot of inner restlessness, which can cause digestive problems and sleep disorders. If you can manage to balance your breath, it has an immediate calming effect on the functions of your body.
Enjoy raisins with all your senses
Over the decades, the esoteric nimbus of mindfulness has also been broken. In the 1960s, hippies seeking meaning followed the call of gurus, sometimes as far as India, in order to expand consciousness with meditative marathon sessions. Today, the relaxation method is firmly integrated with behavioural, addiction and psychotherapy as well as in psycho-oncology.
The American molecular biologist Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn played a large part in this. 40 years ago, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he examined the different meditation practices of Far Eastern cultures, such as Hatha Yoga and Zen Buddhism, and developed the eight-week mindfulness training Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
The program consists of exercises that build on each other. Among other things, the view of details is sharpened again by taking time for seemingly mundane things. For example, the participants dedicate themselves to mindfully eating a raisin with all their senses.
This form of mindfulness exercise is practised in a modified form in almost all psychosomatic facilities. “Meditation has a long tradition with us and is an integral part of structured everyday life,” says Dr. Auer.
Why do you want to meditate?
He works as a psychologist, mindfulness coach and head creative therapist and integrates meditative moments into individual and group sessions on a daily basis. He not only teaches his patients facts and backgrounds about meditation but also gives them specific exercises as homework.
A “room of silence” is accessible around the clock in the Clinic. Different types of meditation are offered every evening – from qigong to walking meditation. “Everyone has to try out what best suits their needs and the corresponding situation,” says Auer. Restless natures often don’t feel so comfortable in a quiet position, while others are looking for just that.
Auer first asks new patients about their motivation for meditating. “Wanting must be the driver. Only then can you get out of the retracted autopilot and let go of old habits in order to try out a new health concept.”
When everyday life comes in between
Many of his patients – mainly teachers, executives, police officers, officers and doctors – have lost touch with their own bodies and feelings. “The senses are no longer connected to the sensation. People have removed themselves from themselves,” reports Auer.
Meditation can then help to untie a knot. Many affected people learn anew to perceive the simplest things – such as the seat cushion under their bottom, the backrest on their back or the soles of their feet on the floor. Sometimes it becomes difficult when the patients leave the clinic and are on their own.
If you let yourself be determined by the hectic pace and continue just as you did before the therapy, nothing is gained. Therefore, the patients learn mechanisms and small exercises that they should incorporate into everyday life.
Do I really need this?
This includes simple building blocks such as conscious stretching and stretching at the office table or short mindful breaks during the working day. For example, a few minutes of reflection in the morning before breakfast. In the evening, a short meditation helps to let go of topics from work and not to take them with you into your private environment.
“Meditation is certainly not a panacea,” emphasizes Auer. “But we are mentally capable of making ourselves aware of what is good for us and what is endangering our health.” The psychologist is therefore convinced that mindfulness exercises can also help overweight people. “They basically know everything about nutrition, but have forgotten it when they stand in front of the refrigerated shelf.” If the sausage is in the shopping cart, it is already too late.
Here, too, according to Auer, you can learn to press the stop button with the help of mindfulness meditation. The pause raises questions like: Do I really need this? Why do I want to reward myself now?
“Meditative exercises could generally play a greater role in prevention in the future,” believes researcher Ott and refers to the latest findings in dementia research. “In fact, there is increasing scientific evidence that meditation slows down the aging process of the brain.”
In a similar way to how we train our muscles, we could use targeted mental training to curb the risk of illness and minimize the number of treatments. What remains here, too, is the eternal struggle: If you stop meditating and do not immediately integrate the exercises into everyday life, all positive effects disappear.