MINDFUL MEDITATION 101: A MUSLIM’S GUIDE TO MINDFUL MEDITATION (PART 2)
In Part 1, we discussed what mindful meditation is and how it can assist in improving the quality of our salah. In this highly researched article, we’ll explore what latest science has to say about meditation and how we can utilise it to optimise our life.
What science says about meditation?
In his outstanding book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Dr Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading scientists studying about well-being, consolidate all the scientific studies about meditation in a few words:
“Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it?
The pill exists. It’s called meditation.”
The “side effects” of meditation are unbelievably long. 1000s of scientific studies do verify the efficacy of meditation and its benefits. I wouldn’t be able to summarise all of them in this small article. However, my goal is to mention some of the most important benefits based on rigorous scientific studies.
The list of benefits you find below is extracted from 100s of scientific studies I’ve read from research papers and books, such as The Happiness Track by Dr Emma Säppla, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson and many other books I’ve referred below.
- Mindful meditation improves our immune system. If we want to become healthy, we need to strengthen our immune system. A mere 8-week clinical training programme in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable positive effects on the immune system.
- Mindful meditation decreases pain. The decrease is evident just after four sessions of 20 minutes of meditation! Flabbergasting, huh? The researchers say “we found that the increased capacity to reliably focus on the breath in a non-evaluative manner following brief training can effectively reduce the subjective experience of pain.”
The role of meditation is that it helps you change the experience you’ve with the pain, but not the pain itself.
Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, once said, “It’s not the things that happen to us that are upsetting but the view we take of those things.” This truth applies to the physical and psychological pain that happens to us as well.
- Mindful meditation reduces inflammation in our body. Acute inflammation is necessary for a healthy life. However, uncontrolled acute inflammation or chronic inflammation is a curse for our health. It’s one of the main reasons for many modern diseases. So one of the essential health markers is reduced inflammation in our body.
- Mindful meditation increases our focus, attention and even memory! What is fascinating is the effects of meditation on multitasking performance. Multitasking is bad for us, and it increases our stress level; however, it’s quite inevitable if you are working in an open office environment with many distractions.
In an exciting research, human resource (HR) personnel were given eight weeks of training in either mindfulness meditation or body relaxation techniques. The participants were given a stressful multitasking test both before and after training. (A third group, a control group, received no intervention during the 8-week but was tested both before and after this period.)
At the end of the eight weeks, overall task time and errors did not differ significantly among the three groups. The result confirms that multitasking isn’t helping us work faster. However, the meditation group could mitigate some of the negativity of multitasking.
The researchers concluded: “The meditation group reported lower levels of stress and showed better memory for the tasks they had performed; they also switched tasks less often and remained focused on tasks longer.”
- Mindful meditation boosts our happiness. Research shows that merely an 8-week training programme in mindfulness meditation increases happiness by increasing our positive emotion and decreasing depression, anxiety and stress!
Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s leading scientists studying well-being, also mentions in her ground-breaking book The How of Happiness about a series of studies conducted at the University of Rochester.
“These studies focused on people ‘high in mindfulness’, that is, those who are prone to be mindfully attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing mental health. Relative to the average person, they are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident and satisfied with their lives, and less likely to be depressed, angry, anxious, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive or neurotic.
Furthermore, people who are habitually mindful of their current experiences are more likely to experience frequent and intense positive emotions, to feel self-sufficient, competent and to have positive social relationships, while those who are not usually mindful report more illness and physical symptoms.”
- Mindful meditation increases our self-control by improving our ability to regulate our emotions. Increasing our self-control, aka willpower, is not a trivial thing. Hundreds of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.
Dr Kelly McGonigal also confirms in her book The Willpower Instinct that a type of breathing meditation helps to improve our willpower instantly:
“You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.”
- Mindful meditation reduces stress. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “70% of all illness, both physical and mental, is linked to stress.”
- Mindful meditation helps us to fall asleep faster. Arianna Huffington in her Sleep Revolution tells us: “A 2009 Stanford study found that a six-week mindfulness meditation course helped people who have trouble sleeping fall asleep twice as quickly, in fifteen minutes instead of thirty-three minutes.”
- Mindfulness meditation helps us to control our mind. Achieving control over our mind is perhaps the most significant benefit of meditation. In Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, authors Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson mention how meditation helps us to control our mind:
As these stressful thoughts were presented, the patients used either of two different attentional stances: mindful awareness of their breath or distraction by doing mental arithmetic. Only mindfulness of their breath both lowered activity in the amygdala— mainly via a faster recovery— and strengthened it in the brain’s attentional networks, while the patients reported less stress reactivity.
How meditation helps to calm the mind
Want tranquillity in your life? Who doesn’t, right? The tranquillity of your life depends on the tranquillity of your mind. Regular practice of mindfulness meditation is one of the fastest ways to achieve that tranquillity.
If you wonder, how just focusing on your breath brings so many health benefits, then I want you to understand the underlying changes that happen in your brain and autonomic nervous system.
Meditation lowers our brain-frequency:
There are five major categories of brain waves, and each activates different centres in the brain. While all five brain-frequencies have different roles to play, it’s the lower brain-frequency that helps us to calm down. Studies show that meditation enables us to move instantly from higher frequency brain waves to lower frequency brain waves.
The slower the wavelengths of our brain, the more time we get to choose our thoughts, which enables us to be more aware of our current thoughts. This mental status equips us to respond appropriately when we are challenged with a negative stimulus such as our boss’ negative remark, our child’s whining or our co-worker’s inappropriate comment. Moreover, this status also reduces our knee jerk responses that we regret afterwards.
So when our brain waves are at a lower frequency, we are calmer and can choose the right thoughts, for the right reason at the right time.
That’s a big win-win for all of us!
Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system:
The autonomic nervous system controls our response to stress. Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are the two main branches of the autonomic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system takes care of our “rest and digest” system. It’s the soothing, relaxing and restoring part of the nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” system. Whenever our body needs to respond to a threat or danger, this system gets activated by releasing adrenaline, speeding up the heart, increasing the respiratory rate, raising the blood pressure, and redistributing blood flow to the muscles of the arms and legs so that we can “fight” the threat or “flee” from the danger as fast as we can.
Understandably, we need both these systems. However, our modern life has thrown us into a near-constant arousal state with our sympathetic nervous system working overtime, which leads to all the stress and dysfunction and burnout we don’t want.
Perform this “mini-meditation” to activate your parasympathetic nervous system instantly. By focusing on your breath for a few moments, you can get some of the long term benefits of meditation right when you need them.
- Breathe for 5 seconds (through your nose),
- Hold your breath for 2 seconds and
- Exhale (again through your nose) for 7 seconds
- Repeat these steps five times
Try this out, and you’ll be amazed how quickly you can switch your nervous system to parasympathetic nervous system.
Appreciate your salah
The more I learn about meditation, the more I appreciate salah (prayer)!
As I alluded in part one, salah is undoubtedly the supreme form of meditation. Its spiritual and health benefits are way more than we can ever comprehend. Salah’s benefits we enjoy in this world is a fraction of what awaits us in the next world.
I’ve elaborated some of the scientific benefits of mindful meditation because I want you to understand and appreciate how salah’s benefits are extending to our health and well-being too. Knowing all these mind-boggling positive impact salah has on our lives, both in this world and in the aakhira, is another reason to prolong our sujood little longer.
Now, you may wonder why to practice mindful meditation when we know our salah is already a form of meditation, if not the best form. Here are two reasons:
- We should perform salah solely for its spiritual benefits: While performing salah, our soul goal should be to please Allah and to enjoy the communication with Him. We don’t pray to train our body or mind. Of course, it’s an added benefit of salah, but that’s not the reason why we pray. So when I stand for salah, I want to do it solely for the spiritual benefits of salah, not for any other purposes.
- Mindful meditation is an exercise for our mind, but the purpose of salah isn’t to exercise our mind but to exercise our spirituality. Just like we work out our body for well-being, we should also regularly train our brain for the betterment of our mind.
What’s the best way to become better at anything? Practice. Practice. Practice.
Think meditation as a practice to improve your salah and everything else in your life.
Define your why
If your why is strong, your way is easy – Unknown
If you want to make meditation a part of your life, you need to define why you want to meditate daily. Otherwise, the chances are very high that you’ll quit soon.
Why do you want to develop a meditation practice?
Here is a quick look at my “why”: I want to live this life to its fullest in order to achieve the greatest success in the aakhira. Living my life to its fullest requires mindfulness in every act I do. Meditation can bi’idnillah help me to improve that mindfulness.
How often and how long to meditate
To achieve the benefits I’ve discussed so far, you need to do a minimum of 10 minutes of meditation every day. Consistency is more important than quantity. So try doing it every day. Once you’ve established the consistency, you can slowly increase to 20 minutes.
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