For thousands of years, Vedic Rishis, Buddhist monks, Yogic sages, Tao and Zen masters alike used different meditation techniques on their quest for truth and enlightenment, and for millennia, these sacred, powerful practices, taught in different forms, have been taught and shared mostly behind temple doors, to those walking a spiritual path.
Even though rooted mostly in spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation techniques we know today, are not necessarily practiced only by spiritual seekers on the path higher consciousness and, ultimately, liberation, but by anyone seeking a peace of mind and relief from stress and anxiety of day-to-day life. Today, meditation is a wide spread practice and various meditation techniques are easily accessible to anyone. And one might say it was a never more needed antidote to many burdens of modern living.
In ancient times people learned by experiencing and doing; much of the knowledge came from observing self and nature, allowing to be guided by intuition and faith, and often simply trying things out; embracing what works, discarding what doesn't. If you know the story of Buddha, you'll know what I mean. Today, we have science. We have smart people with PhD's and MRI machines. Nothing wrong with that, it's all a part of our evolution as species, it is just interesting when science proves what those luminaries; rishis, monks, sages, masters knew all along - meditation is a gateway to higher states of consciousness and to our full human potential. On Patanjali's Eight limbed path for example, meditation, or Dhyana is a final step before Samadhi.
Since neuroplasticity was discovered (neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning and practice) a whole new field of brain research opened up in all directions, meditation being one of them. I won't go too scientific on you (there are plenty of scholarly articles online), and will stick to the basic facts. Meditation studies have shown that practicing meditation over a longer period of time can decrease stress, anxiety, neurosis and depression and increase concentration, attention feeling of calm, empathy, compassion, emotional regulation, help bounce back quicker from stressful situations, can boost immune system, improve memory and creativity. The list goes on. For all of this to happen, meditation needs to be practiced regularly and over a longer period of time. Many benefits will start to emerge even after a few days or weeks, but for some deeper 'rewiring' to happen, it might take a while.
Different types of meditation activate different parts and networks in the brain producing a distinct effect. Training your brain/mind is same as training your body. If you do only one form of exercise including only the muscles needed for that particular exercise, those are the muscles which will change their structure (increase in strength), but if you want a full body strength, balance, flexibility and agility, you need to change your routine and challenge your body in more ways than one. If you repeat the same, your body will get used it and you may hit a so-called plateau where nothing much changes. Similarly, if you want to get all the different benefits of meditation and not just increase a certain potential, you need to challenge your mind in different ways.
I have been practicing yoga for two decades now, and every time I step on my mat to do asana practice I include some concentration / meditation practice too, bringing the mind to a one pointed focus, most of the time on the body followed by the breath. I still do this and teach this, but I have picked up some other meditation practices along the way which I love and practice today. My favourite are the five M's: Metta, Mantra, Mindfulness, Movement and Mudra meditation. In this series I will cover each one of them starting with, in my eyes most powerful one, - Metta. Metta simply means loving-kindness and it is simply a meditation in which our main focus is cultivating the capacity for loving-kindness.
This was a meditation practice that changed my life. In my twenties, when I was living in the US during one of my yoga teacher training courses, I stumbled upon a book on Buddhism. This encounter with, what I felt was philosophy of life, resonated so much with me, I kept on acquiring books on Buddhism reading and learning until I felt the need for more and found a Buddhist centre I would go to for talks and meditation sessions. Out of all meditations we did, Metta was the one which resonated most. From today's perspective, I see now how it helped that 20 something year old girl with much internal struggle heal some of her wounds and see the world with different eyes. It helped me realise that the only way to healing oneself as well as the world is through forgiveness, love and compassion. To never forget this Truth, I had Tara, the goddess of compassion tattooed on my back. I still believe that, without love, kindness and compassion there is no healing on any level of our being or on the global level.
How to practice Metta
Use the guided meditation video below first, but once you get the feeling of it, you can find your own way and practice by yourself anytime, anywhere. At the beginning, for a week or two, try to practice daily. It can happen, and very often does, that some uncomfortable feelings like sadness, grief, even anger, come up, but this is normal and a good sign that something within is shifting. If you have a therapist who can help you dig deeper into those feelings and help you integrate them, that is the best way to proceed. There is only so much we can do alone, it's amazing when we can ask for help, meaning we are willing to see, change, receive and finally, heal.
Going back to science, Metta meditation fires up parts of the brain in charge of compassion, empathy and altruistic behaviour. With the increase of emphatic concern, we witness a decrease of personal distress and start seeing a bigger picture, shifting from the ego self to broadening our circle of compassion to all life. And when the change starts to happen from within, the world around us starts to change too because we start seeing the bigger picture, we take charge, we no longer blame but rather find ways to create positive change for the good of all.
I believe our essence is compassionate and kind, but due to traumas, disappointments and stresses of everyday life, we build walls and take on arms slowly forgetting and ultimately detaching from our true nature. This detachment causes unhappiness, depression, anxiety etc. Metta meditation is a daily reminder of our true nature and the more we practice it, the closer we get to living from the heart as free, open, loving, happy beings.
“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Albert Schweitzer
Cover photo: Sanjin Kastelan