Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW
During this worldwide Covid-19 health crisis, many of us are looking for ways to decrease our anxieties and reduce our stress. We don’t know how long our world will feel so disrupted, and we might find ourselves struggling to stay positive when so many of our normal coping mechanisms are not currently available. Meditation is one strategy that we can use to cope, and there’s no better time to start than right now.
Several years ago, when the term meditation was mentioned, many of us chalked it up to being a New Age, West Coast trend or an ancient component of certain religious cultures. In other words, many of us did not take it very seriously. However, this mindset is gradually evolving. Over the past several years, there has been a lot of hype, and more and more people are asking if meditation really lives up to all that hype. Researchers are now suggesting that the answer is yes.
As it has become more popular in Western culture, researchers have started seriously studying the impacts of mediation, and the data is mounting. Empirical research is showing that meditation is incredibly helpful in multiple areas, including for both mental and physical health. Essentially, it is one of the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal, but most of us don’t understand it; we don’t really know what it is, how to actually do it, or how it can benefit us.
So, what exactly is meditation? The actual mechanics of meditation are quite simple. At a basic level, all meditation practices involve the same simple premise. When we meditate, we use an object of attention, such as the breath, a word or phrase, or a sensory experience, to focus and quiet the mind. Whenever we become aware that our mind has wandered, we gently bring our focus back to the object of meditation that we have chosen to utilize. Meditation does not mean that we stop thinking or achieve a state of perfect nirvana – it is simply helping us begin to change our relationship with our thoughts and feelings. When we observe our own minds in quiet non-judgment, we can separate ourselves from the thoughts and feelings that we may be experiencing.
The mounting evidence shows that meditation is extremely beneficial for us, and its benefits can be recognized even in young children. In many US schools, and particularly in Australia and the United Kingdom, there are numerous classrooms that are implementing mindfulness meditation with young children. They have been noting multiple benefits, including increased attention, a bump in attendance and grades, improved focus, a reduction in mood and anxiety disorders, increased self-regulation, improved social-emotional development, and increased pro-social behaviors.
The research for adults is even more extensive. There are numerous studies pointing to significant health and well-being benefits for adults, many of which are the same ones that researchers are noting in children. Meditation has been shown to affect us very organically, affecting many of our physiological and mental systems over time. New studies are showing positive effects on our blood pressure, heart health, immune system, anxiety, mood, concentration… the list goes on.
There is much still to be understood, but science is showing that the neural networks and even the physical structures of the brain are measurably affected soon after a person begins a mindful meditation practice. We actually change our brains when we meditate. Over time, it is a true transformation – we can fundamentally change the way we understand our own minds, and how we connect to others and the world around us.
Just think! If we can train our minds to be present in the moment, we become capable of commanding our focus, redirecting negative thought patterns, and stopping anxious downward spirals. We become in control of our own minds, instead of our minds controlling us. Consider that for a moment. We can let go of unwanted habits, better deal with difficult and traumatic events, become more productive, develop more compassion, reduce our stress, and calm our own anxieties. We all hold this power within ourselves. We just need to learn how to get in touch with it and develop it.
We are all so busy, with so much coming at us every day. Most of us find ways to distract ourselves – whether we use alcohol, food, sex, gambling, screens, or drugs, we are pretty adept at knowing how to make ourselves feel some sort of high. Most of us have an extremely difficult time simply sitting and being, with no stimulus. It can be very difficult to be settled and focused on our own mind, and to be fully present with no judgment. It sounds easy enough, but if we try it, we see that it is far from easy.
And that’s exactly what happens. Most people try meditation a few times, then stop because they feel that it is too difficult and they don’t see any immediate benefit. However, as with anything, mindful meditation takes repetition and practice. We can’t go to the gym a few times and expect to look or feel much different. Likewise, many like to think of our minds as a muscle. When we start our meditative practice, that muscle is weak and small. However, every time we work that muscle through mindful practice, it becomes stronger and we have more command. It becomes easier over time to observe our minds without judgment. And, gradually, that is where the transformation happens.
Many people like the idea of meditating, but feel overwhelmed with how to begin. Again, there is a stereotypical image of meditation that many of us hold; we imagine someone sitting with their legs crossed, with their palms facing up on their knees, chanting a mantra. And yes, that is one form that meditation can take. However, meditation can take many different forms. There is no one “right” way to meditate.
Ways to Get Started with Meditation:
- Take a mindful minute in the classroom or at the workplace – sit in silence for 1-2 minutes and focus on your breath
- Download the Calm app or Headspace app, and listen to the guided daily meditations
- Join a yoga class (you can even do these online!) and link your movements to your breath
- Close your eyes and mentally do a scan of your body from head to toe
- Utilize meditative prayer or link your meditation to another religious practice
- Go take a walk out in nature and find a spot to sit in silence
- Turn on relaxing music and meditate to the music
One of the reasons that meditation is so powerful is that the mind is one of the very few things in life that we have the ability to control. There is so much that happens to us and around us that is not in our control. However, when we get to know our minds better, and recognize our thought patterns, we can better control how we react to these events in our lives. Science is proving that meditation can give us the ability to control and choose our reactions to things that have felt very out of control for us. It can be truly transformative.
Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for adults, adolescents, couples, and families dealing with relationship/interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma, among many others. Cari utilizes a variety of therapeutic techniques, but finds tremendous value in doing emotion-focused work so that authentic growth and lasting change can occur. In addition, Cari offers presentations and seminars to schools and other organizations on a variety of topics. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives.