When we think about taking care of our health, we always think about our bodies. We try to eat healthily, exercise correctly, and get enough rest. These are all essential steps for better health, but we will not see complete results if we don't give our minds a rest as well. Mental health is one of the most influential aspects of our emotional state, and therefore of our wellness and happiness. Mundane, daily responsibilities like our jobs or the maintenance of our house cause a lot of worries which, depending on our personalities, will provoke anxiety and anguish. Every year we look forward to our vacation time, which we plan with much anticipation. The process includes getting the funds needed and reaching a consensus about the destination. These activities cause more anxiety. The best possible vacations we can enjoy are free, and we can enjoy them every day. These are vacations for the mind.
Our brain almost never takes a "coffee break" except when it is so fatigued that we faint. Our minds are working overtime even while we dream, subconsciously controlling our automatic bodily functions. Some symptoms of mental exhaustion are tiredness, lack of motivation, irritability, insomnia, depression, lack of concentration, lack of sexual desire, fluctuations in appetite, and loss of memory. How can we put our minds to rest?
Meditation is the mind's vacation. Experiments done in academic environments around the world show that the process of meditation as described by Oriental philosophies harmonize brain waves, regulate the autonomous nervous system, and relax the muscles of the whole body. Studies in humans suggest stress diminishes the body's immunological responses, and meditation can counteract the effects of stress. But what is meditation? How is it done?
Meditation is not defined but practiced. Each experience is different. My definition of meditation is that it is the process of open communication with what is transcendental or sacred for each of us. To practice meditation, there are some pre-requisites: appropriate place, attitude, position, and technique. The area should be a tranquil environment which allows some privacy, free of interruptions, with an agreeable temperature. The attitude should be receptive, without fears or expectations. The position should be the most comfortable one your physical condition allows, such as in the cross-legged yoga position, but with a pillow under your hips. You can also sit in a cushioned chair where your feet can touch the floor, with your back entirely straight but without tension. Your hands can be resting on your thighs, palms up. You should look straight ahead maintaining a straight line between your head and your spinal cord. Eyes can be closed without tension or semi-open, whichever way makes you feel more relaxed. Lights should be on, to avoid the natural tendency to go to sleep. You could add a lightly fragrant incense.
There are two meditation techniques that can be used alone or together. When we first try to meditate the mind is too active and does not want to take its "coffee break," so we have to suggest it delicately. The first technique soothes the mind focusing on one object or action for short periods of time. You can achieve this state by contemplating sacred objects, candles, or the most effective: concentrating on your breathing. Breathing is one of the most efficient ways to control our anxiety levels. If you observe your breathing patterns when you are under stress, you will notice your breaths will become quicker and shallower. The first thing to do once you are in position for meditation is to concentrate on your breathing cycles. Then you will breathe from your abdomen, allowing it to relax and expand with each intake, making them deeper but not forced. Your first attempts at meditation should be kept under 10-15 minutes until your mind gets used to it. When you feel more comfortable with the process, you can meditate for more extended periods, between half an hour to an hour.
The second meditation technique can happen after you feel accomplished with the concentration and relaxation technique discussed above. Now you will relinquish control and intention of the mind to be in a simple observation state, without analyzing what the mind is doing. In the beginning, when you stop concentrating on your breathing, the mind reacts like a caged animal and goes into a lot of uncontrolled activity. When you observe that reaction, your goal is to do nothing except watch. Do not try to analyze or judge what is happening. Do not engage your mind in conversations or arguments, and you'll see how it calms down like a little child. Traditional Tibetan Buddhism says we should observe these thoughts as passing clouds in the sky, and that we should see the true nature of our minds like the blue color of the sky when it is free of those clouds. With time, you will start to notice small breaks between thoughts which are peaceful and joyous, and the end goal of true meditation without intention.
Gradually, as you advance in your meditation practice, you will notice small changes in your vision of the universe. Your loving and beautiful true qualities will surface. Also, it will be easier to recognize these qualities in others. Finally, you may not have to go so far away to enjoy a great vacation. Have a good trip, my friends!