The world we know is no longer the same.
It has become insanely crammed, loud, and exhaustive—particularly in the age of COVID-19.
For this reason, many people are striving to turn their minds off. That is when meditation steps in, as it has become an established universal means of attaining inner-peace during times of change and uncertainty.
It is not easy for scholars to define the term “meditation” due to not only the multiple levels of meaning that it has, but also the numerous cultures and religious teachings it involves. In spite of the fact that meditation dates back to ancient times with a few ties to religious beliefs, it is still part and parcel of the world’s various cultures for the serenity, peace, and calmness it invokes.
Meditation has less to do with faith and more to do with mindfulness: it targets alleviating stress, developing awareness, directing attention, clearing the mind, and achieving emotional stability and inner peace.
In the face of the disturbance that coronavirus has caused, practicing meditation is the ultimate solution as it offers peace and serenity. Anxiety has become a fierce enemy while self-quarantining at home. Hence, the majority of yoga trainers, psychiatrists, and psychologists around the globe recommend meditation. Not only is meditation a strategy to cope with hard times, but also a means of ending insomnia, treating depression, and defeating stress.
“Meditation enables exploring oneself; one gets to dig deeper into his/her true self in an attempt to understand better what would make one’s life happy and serene. Practicing meditation clears the head and shifts focus onto the present moment by training oneself to breathe deeply and slowly while being conscious of one’s senses,” says Maisara Salah, an Egyptian meditation instructor, life artist, and writer.
In his meditation sessions, Salah offers a unique mindfulness experience in which art and science are intertwined in pursuit of harmony and balance in one’s everyday life.
“Undoubtedly, meditation does not resolve financial issues caused by the Coronavirus, but it does help relieve stress and relax the mind to give room for personal readjustments and better decision-making in face of the whirlwind pandemic. The point is to empower oneself through thinking positive thoughts and believing in possibility,” adds Salah.
The history of meditation.
Meditation was first practiced in the ancient era. Religious traditions used it as a means of exploring and enlightening oneself. Hinduism, for instance, witnessed the earliest practice of meditation in the Indian subcontinent, a collection of wall arts that are as old as 5,000 BCE indicate a group of people with half-open eyes sitting in meditative positions. In the 19th century, meditation traditions were passed on from Asia to various cultures, which started implementing its techniques in non-spiritual contexts for other purposes such as healthcare, psychotherapy, and business.
Types of meditation.
There is a long array of meditation types that are tailored to appeal to people’s various tastes. Each meditation style necessitates certain skills and mindsets, which makes it difficult to apply a single practice to all people.
There is no right and wrong in the practice of meditation, yet it is essential to identify the style that best suits one’s needs and personal traits:
One of the top famous types of meditation in the West is “mindfulness.” Its techniques, which stem from Buddhist teachings, help administer emotions, relieve stress, enhance one’s resilience, develop creativity, and encourage positivity in all aspects of life.
Mindfulness meditation is about becoming increasingly conscious of not only what is going on in the present, but also the ideas crossing one’s mind without judging them or giving much thought about them. This practice enables one to realize, document, and focus on the patterns that occur with a high-level of awareness. It is also useful to direct attention to an object or to one’s breath while monitoring ideas, emotions, or bodily sensations.
Rania Shoukry, an Egyptian psychotherapist, talks about the benefits of mindfulness in psychotherapy.
“There is a well-known Chinese saying: You cannot stop a bird flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair. This means your thoughts are just thoughts and you don’t have to act upon each and every one of them. Mindfulness meditation helps patients choose what they want to do with their thoughts, without having to identify themselves with them. This could happen by distancing themselves from fearful or unwanted thoughts and emotions in the past or the future, and by consciously choosing to stay in the present moment. This helps many patients alleviate a lot of mental distresses coming from their inner world and also helps them cope with current adversities which distract their focus during meditation.”
She adds, “Mindfulness includes the following: Awareness of the present moment by paying attention to what you do or feel in the here and now; Choice and Intention by shifting your attention to what you want to focus on and avoid distractions; Relaxation which is a very essential part of meditation helping to decrease the level of anxiety; Letting go by letting the thoughts just pass through our minds, we acknowledge them, but we don’t have to indulge in them. Finally, in the Here and Now orientation, patients learn that many negative feelings arise from thoughts coming from past events or future worries. Staying in the here and now helps us refocus on reality.”
A subtype of mindfulness meditation is “creative mindfulness.” Those who have experienced getting caught up in doing art must have been unaware that so much time has passed without realizing. Since creative activities such as painting, drawing, writing, and photography are naturally mindful, they let us stay focused and absorbed in a way that is similar to meditation.
While meditating, one becomes highly conscious of his/her ideas, emotions, breath, and body. Combining such practice with naturally mindful activities is considered as creative mindfulness meditation, which enables indulging in the practice rather than occupying one’s mind with the end results. In addition, this type of meditation trains the brain to develop positive thinking by avoiding the bad habits that block creativity, namely negative self-talk, criticism, self-doubt, and perfectionism.
Hence, whoever fails to calm their own selves down and clear their heads in order to meditate should try doing creative activities, as they will help them find peace, develop a sense of innovation, and accomplish better concentration levels.
For those who aspire to develop more focus to better manage their lives, this type of meditation is their ultimate solution as it involves concentrating with all of one’s senses, whether by focusing on something within one’s body like breathing, or by making use of an external factor such as watching the flame of a candle, listening to the vibrant hollow tone of an Asian gong, or directing attention to nature’s white noise (the sound of sea waves, wind, rain, to name only a few). For this reason, focused meditation is prescribed for people with sleeping difficulties or disorders such as insomnia.
This type of meditation is popular in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Mantra meditation can be practiced on a daily basis while sitting closed-eyed in a comfortable position in an attempt to enable one to experience a deep awareness level and to stay in tune with one’s environment. It involves the repetitive production of a word, a phrase, or a combination of sounds in a voice that can be low or high to clear the head. One of the famous meditation sounds is “Om.”
Even though what first comes to people’s minds when they are asked about movement meditation is yoga, there are other useful forms of this type. In fact, going for a walk and looking after one’s garden are useful practices that fall under the same category. Movement meditation is ideal for those who opt for finding peace in action.
Yoga is a workout that combines the mind and the body. It has ancient Indian origins and philosophical traditions that were disseminated to other cultures and religious practices such as Buddhism and Jainism. In an attempt to clear the mind and encourage flexibility, a large number of yoga styles—which include specific postures and breathing exercises—necessitate establishing balance, avoiding distractions, and focusing on the present.
Amira Shawky, Pranayama Yoga instructor, says, “When we face problems and hardships, a tension is created, and our bodies give signals of danger to all organs to work fully to defend our systems. As no possible action is present to control the outer world, our bodies stay tense for long periods. Since the body organs are not created to function 24/7 in full capacity, they weaken over time and we get ill, mentally, and physically,” she says
“We can live the chaos or we can witness it! That’s the big difference. When we face a problem, mindfulness meditation will help us create a space where we silence the mind, neutralize matters, and allow them to just be,” she added.
In this type of meditation, the trained practitioner or teacher gives detailed instructions that enable the participants to visualize relaxing situations or metal images using their senses to experience calmness and tranquility. The trainer also explains how the mind operates while meditating and how the participants can implement such practice into their everyday lives.
Metta meditation (loving-kindness meditation).
Metta meditation is a Buddhist practice that involves sending amity, warm feelings, benevolence, and best wishes to oneself and others. To do this, one sits comfortably in a relaxed position, breathes deeply, and repeats a few words/phrases at a slow pace such as “May I be safe.” Afterward, one directs those words and feelings to relatives, friends, neighbours, and the rest of humanity worldwide, including the ones whom the participants have difficulty with.
This self-controlled meditation method is quite common in a number of religions, namely Christianity, Islam, Daoism, and Hinduism, as it comprises a spiritual dimension. Meditators consciously approach God to grant them serenity, healing, forgiveness, and peace.
As a case in point, spiritual meditation is widely practiced among the Sufis—it strengthens the sacred bond between a person and God, and gives insight into the heart and soul. Sufi meditation is a spiritual journey of contemplation, perception, affection, and absolution. The meditator’s heart becomes filled with the love of his/her Creator. Moreover, Sufi meditation takes various forms: breathing, gazing, walking, whirling, to name only a few.
Advantages of meditation.
“Meditating on a regular basis boosts one’s physical and psychological health as it relieves the body and soul of pain,” says Maisara. It has a wide range of benefits, some of which are reducing anxiety, releasing negative energy, relieving pain, decreasing depression, developing peace, boosting self-concept, and improving well-being. He also notes that one learns to overcome insomnia, improve personal and professional relationships, and develops patience, tolerance, and acceptance.
According to a study by the University of Harvard, mindfulness is capable of altering depressed individuals’ brains. Another study by Delhi University posits that practicing meditation and mindfulness for eight weeks alleviates stress, enhances the attention span, lowers blood pressure, improves depression symptoms, reduces cortisol levels, retains emotional well-being, and treats inflammation and hypertension. The findings of both studies, along with others, act as concrete proof that meditation is advantageous. Meditation enables enjoying the present, stops overthinking, strengthens immunity, develops energy levels, and stabilizes the blood flow.
One of the misconceptions about meditation is that a person must confine himself/herself to a quiet place where candles are lit and light music is played. Even though such atmospheres could be of use, practicing mindfulness is what matters most. “When you’re eating, socializing, working, driving, or doing any activity, you have to be fully conscious and mindful,” adds Maisara.
During the hard times of the pandemic, millions of people are struggling to quarantine and social distance to stay safe, which exposes them to mood changes and loss of interest in life. Despite the abundance of time that has resulted from the lockdown, relaxation has become a real challenge. Maisara clarifies that it is absolutely normal to feel this way. People’s lives have been disturbed by the chaos the virus has caused, which have led to shifting their routines, losing contact with friends, and facing the extra unoccupied time. The mind becomes, more often than not, trapped in the past or future.
Mindful meditation is a key to placing a person in the present moment to deal with reality instead of falling prey to its depressing atmosphere. “It is difficult to be mindful at such times, but it is not impossible,” Maisara explains. After all, time is a gift. It is important to seize the chance to adjust one’s intentions, organize ideas, and think carefully about his/her life goals. Mindfulness is doable everywhere with or without the help of smart devices. Not only does it mitigate fear and doubt, but it boosts one’s immunity system as well.
To meditate, sit comfortably and quietly, and breathe in deeply. It is okay to start with short intervals of time. They will soon develop into longer ones.
Amira Shawky recommends a few simple and practical exercises we can do at home:
First, sit in a comfortable way, then breathe through the mouth. Take a deep breath in and long, slow breath out, both from the nose. During the inhale, the stomach extends outward, and vice versa, allowing any thought to come by and walk out like a cloud in the sky. Sit in the silence of your mind and body. Be there with zero effort for as long as you can be in it. And every morning, wake up with a smile and reopen a new eye to the outer world, where all colors are accepted and dealt with.
When we take a deep breath, we allow more oxygen to the body cells, which get revived and reenergized. Life energy—known as Prana in Yoga—runs through the body and fixes the damaged parts. When the body is fit, the mind is clear and doesn’t send signals of danger to the organs, so they function effectively with no tension. Then, the mind becomes ready for problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity; and the heart becomes happy, working well physically and emotionally.
It is important to not lose interest or hope when you get distracted by internal or external factors. Whenever this happens, bring yourself back to the present. You’re on the right track. Take it easy and try again. Practice makes perfect. The more you practice, the better your performance will be.
There are millions of meditation practitioners with countless techniques around the globe. A renowned one is Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete who broke a world record for swimming under ice. Hof developed the WHM (Wim Hof Method), a meditation method that combines frequent exposure to the cold with specific breathing techniques.
The three constituents of his method are cold therapy, conscious breathing, and commitment. Exposure to cold water burns fat, enhances sleep, improves the mood, and reduces inflammation. Conscious breathing is a detox practice that ameliorates the energy level, rebalances the nervous system, and strengthens the immune system. As for commitment, determination, perseverance, and strong will are needed to step out of one’s comfort zone and to master meditation.
Nigel Sampson, a talented healer, argues that every person has “to practice a little more kindness, awareness and compassion.”
Sampson proposes a few simple steps:
>> First, one has to breathe deeply and slowly for a sometime every day to relax the nervous system.
>> Second, one should spend time in nature, listen to the singing birds, touch the water, and bond with Earth until it becomes part and parcel of one’s being.
>> Third, one needs to move his/her body by shaking the hands and legs for a few minutes in the morning and before sleeping to unburden oneself and to set the body free from sorrow, anxiety, solitude, and depression.
>> Fourth, one ought to practice visualization to open up sensations, get rid of fear, and imagine a pleasant atmosphere that improves the mood and relaxes the brain.
Likewise, Diana Winston, the Director of UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center’s Mindfulness Education, proposes a number of meditation techniques for individuals’ better health. One significant mindfulness technique is “stop:”
>> Stop your anxiety from growing bigger by pausing to experience a mindful moment.
>> Take a deep breath and focus on the “now” instead of the future.
>> Observe what is going on inside your body in terms of pain, irritability, or discomfort, and proceed with more self-consciousness by doing something that makes you happy, such as contacting a friend or going for a walk.
In a similar vein, the Buddhist teacher and author Ethan Nichtern puts forward a set of creative meditation and mindfulness techniques:
>> The first method is to practice mindful breathing to develop compassion for every person in grief or pain—one gets to process the suffering that is taking place around while breathing deeply and consciously.
>> The second technique is to go on a mindful walk. While a fast walk is good for physical exercising, a slow one calms the mind and allows some fresh air into the lungs.
>> The third method is to practice yoga by regulating one’s breath in a silent atmosphere that is isolated from distractions as much as possible to alleviate stress in a mindful manner.
>> The last technique is to utilize online meditation resources and applications. There is a multitude of free online guides and courses to help with the stress and fear that the pandemic has caused. They offer daily meditation sessions along with breathing exercises presented by experienced meditation teachers worldwide. Some of these applications are Headspace, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and Insight Timer. Finally, there are free guided videos on YouTube to help with one’s anxiety and facilitate the practice of meditation.
Other research papers and books:
A clinical guide to the treatment of human stress response by George S. Everly, Jeffrey M. Lating 2002.
Zen Buddhism: a History: India and China by Heinrich Dumoulin, James W. Heisig, Paul F. Knitter 2005.