New research proves that a spiritual practice, such as meditation, leads to a kinder world. Hazel Sillver explores a number of different types of meditation. Mindfulness increases creativity and reduces stress, depression and loneliness
It is well established that meditation reduces stress and improves concentration, but now researchers have found it affects the way we vote.Last month February 2013 scientists at the University of Toronto published the results of studies that compared the political views of ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ Americans. Religiousness was defined as ‘devotion to a set of principles or code of conduct’, while the spirituality was termed as ‘a direct experience of self-transcendence and the feeling that we’re all connected.’ First it was found that religious types tend to be conservative and fond of tradition, while spiritual people are more liberal and regard equality and social harmony as important. Then, after inducing a spiritual experience, via guided meditation, the researchers discovered that both groups conservatives and liberals became a lot more liberal in their outlook, expressing inclusive and egalitarian views.
Meditation comes in all shapes and sizes. If you fancy giving it a go, here are four of the most common types practised in the UK:
Metta also known as Metta bhavana and ‘Compassion meditation’ is the practice of cultivating of loving-kindness. It involves sending love from the heart to four people: first to yourself, then someone you love, a neutral person such as a stranger and, finally, somebody you find very difficult. After this, you flood your heart with love and send it out to all beings. A monk practising Metta meditation during neurological research in the US produced the happiest brain waves ever recorded.
Now recommended by the NHS, mindfulness involves observing the inflow and outflow of the breath, in order to still the mind. Thoughts are observed like clouds passing overhead, but not entered into. Over time an ability to exist in the present moment develops, so we are less likely to be swept into thoughts of the past and the future. Research shows that Mindfulness increases creativity and reduces stress, depression and loneliness. The various mindfulness books by Thich Nhat Hanh are highly recommended.
Arguably the easiest form of meditation, the repetition of a sacred word or ‘mantra’ stills the mind by giving it something to focus on. Meditators use a simple word such as ‘peace’ or lengthy mantras, such as the Buddhist ‘Om tare, Tuttare, Ture, Soha’, which is said to bring healing. Many people move their fingers over a bead necklace such as a mala or rosary as they chant, to aid focus. Research shows that mantra meditation can reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes.
Visualisation involves selecting thoughts that are beneficial, in order to reduce negative thinking patterns. This was the practice used by researchers at the University of Toronto who were investigating how spirituality might affect political views. Participants were asked to imagine themselves in a natural setting and then encouraged to cultivate a feeling of being connected to their environment. Another common visualisation practice is imagining yourself fit and well, if you are ill.
All the meditations above are best performed straight backed with a relaxed jaw and neck, to allow free breathing. Sit cross-legged on the floor or upon a cushion, or sit on a firm chair with feet flat on the floor. Either shut the eyes or let the gaze rest downwards to the floor in front of you. Hazel Sillver is a freelance journalist and a contributor to the Ecologist Green Living section; email: firstname.lastname@example.org