One of the most common beliefs about meditation is that the end goal is to empty your mind of all thoughts for a set amount of time. If you’ve never meditated before, that can feel unachievable and off-putting. You might give it a try and notice all kinds of thoughts popping into your head, causing you to abandon the idea altogether. Or you might wonder what type of meditation is best… Should you try zen, sound, chanting, silent, object, yoga nidra and body scan, visualisation, prayer, mindful meditation, mantra meditation or Transcendental Meditation? Or are you now so overwhelmed you just want to give up before you begin?
In developmental psychology, there’s a concept known as ‘good enough’ parenting. Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, believed that the way to be a ‘good mother’ is to be a ‘good enough mother’, reminding us that it’s impossible to be a perfect parent 100% of the time.
When it comes to meditation, the same applies. Just start. Anywhere. ‘Good enough’ meditation might look like a period of time you commit to regularly, during which you can stop for a while and still your body. Stilling your body and focusing on the breath is one way to help still your mind, or redirect those normal thoughts floating through your mind. Or turn to technology. There are plenty of apps out there to hold your hand and guide you through. The most popular include Headspace (which offers a range of courses and one-off meditations sorted by how you want to feel) and Insight Timer (which gives a platform to thousands of meditation teachers around the world, with 90,000 free meditations to choose from). These can give you the tools you need to figure out what works for you – trial and error might well be the way forward.
There is an ever-increasing body of research that outlines why meditation is so beneficial to our health. The Maharishi Foundation (the not-for-profit organisation behind Transcendental Meditation or TM) has pursued the bulk of the academic research backing meditation and its benefits. Without TM, we might not know as much as we do about how meditating brains function differently. Neurologically, TM results in a high level of alpha wave activity in the brain, across both sides of the brain and from front to back; brain patterns that are similar to daydreaming. Meditation of all types has been shown to significantly lower our brain’s ancient stress response – that familiar flight, fight or freeze instinct, which raises our heart rate, releases adrenaline into our bloodstream and reduces blood supply to our digestive organs.
In the 1970s, Dr Herbert Benson conducted a study into meditation and the parasympathetic nervous system, showing a direct correlation between meditation and relief from high blood pressure, an improvement in sleep and pain sensation reduction and relief. There is also substantial evidence to show that regular meditation can lower cholesterol levels, as well as improving our immune system and reducing inflammation. Long term meditation actually changes the structure of the brain, increasing the grey matter of the hippocampus. Because the hippocampus is known to be crucial in learning, memory and structures involved with introspection, compassion and self- awareness, there is a direct connection with an improvement in our lives in those areas.
Finally, research shows how regular meditative breathing triggers the brain to release the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins, the natural chemicals proven to increase happiness and motivation. Through meditation, these are released into the body simultaneously, a process that cannot be achieved by taking a drug.
My personal experience of meditating regularly is that I’ve noticed how much less fiery and more measured I’ve become in stressful situations. Things that seemed important at the time just aren’t that big of a deal. And I’ve noticed I have greater resilience, compassion and empathy. All of which is incredibly useful in life, at work and especially when parenting! Parenting can feel intense and relentless but as mindful meditation benefits the relationship we have with our emotions, we can recognise when and why they arise, which allows us to gain perspective and space from negative emotions. Mindfulness meditation is also helpful for teaching children how to recognise and regulate their emotions.
Strive to be a ‘good enough’ meditator and you’ll be more likely to stick at it. Paradoxically, not giving yourself a hard time for thinking busy thoughts or missing a meditation will become easier the more you meditate. That compassion I mentioned before? All part of the mindfulness that will become second nature. What’s more, the message you’re sending to yourself when you allow yourself to stop and rest is that you are worthy of taking care of your own needs, as well as that of your family. Think of it as a gift – to you all!