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Unleash Your Inner Jedi

Written by: Andrew Cowie, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Meditation saved my life. Of that, I am in entirely no doubt. It helped me recover from anxiety and depression a decade ago and is one of the most powerful tools in the therapeutic arsenal I now deploy with my clients at Phoenix Coaching & Therapy.

One of the most common questions I get asked is: "Yes, but what exactly does meditation do?" Seldom has a term been shrouded in such a fog of confusion, misunderstanding, and downright misinformation. Until recently, it was still widely associated with hippy culture, dismissed by many as New Age mumbo-jumbo, considered a bit woo-woo, and most probably synonymous with recreational drug use also. At the very least, it probably conjured images of bearded yogis sitting atop a Himalayan mountain in the lotus position chanting mantras – not something the average westerner could readily relate to.


Part of the confusion stems from the fact that meditation is, in fact, a rather loose umbrella term covering a vast array of practices, most of which have as their common aim the focusing of a person's concentration to a level of laser-like intensity in which great things become possible, not least the experience of states of deep calm, bliss, and internal wellbeing.


These techniques can include everything from yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong to Buddhist mindfulness-based practices, breathing exercises, and the Zen art of concentration, as well as work involving the use of sound and color. Many of the methods used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – particularly its New Code games pioneered by John Grinder – are also designed to induce this same high-performance state in which the left and right brain hemispheres are operating together in perfect synchronization and harmony.


Hypnosis, in its therapeutic forms, is a type of guided meditation. Even everyday tasks such as washing the dishes can be turned into meditation if you are know-how. Put simply; meditation is a superpower with the capability to transform anybody's life for the better and with an infinite number of performance-enhancing real-world applications.


Is it easy to master? No, but nothing worthwhile ever is. It takes time, patience, dedication, and practice, but the rewards are bountiful for those prepared to put in the work.


The benefits of meditation are increasingly being backed by hard science. An eight-week study led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital a few years ago documented for the first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain.


Participants in the study spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this was all it took to stimulate a major increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped area buried inside the temple on each side of the brain and is part of the limbic system, a set of inner structures associated with emotion and memory. The hippocampus is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and studies have shown that it can be damaged by chronic stress, contributing to a harmful spiral in the body. Indeed, people with stress-related disorders like depression and PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus.


Participants who reported reductions in stress were also shown to have decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety. Crucially, none of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.


The benefits of meditation were further underlined by research conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin a few years ago, which led to 66-year-old Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard being labeled the world’s happiest man. Researchers attached 256 sensors to the monk’s skull. When he meditated on compassion, the researchers were shocked to see that Ricard’s brain produced a level of gamma waves that were “off the charts”. These are the brainwaves linked to consciousness, attention, learning, and memory. He also demonstrated excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, meaning he had an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, according to the researchers.


During the same study, the neuroscientists examined the minds of other monks. They found that long-term practitioners – those who have engaged in more than 50,000 rounds of meditation – showed significant changes in their brain function, although those with only three weeks of 20-minute meditation per day also demonstrated some change.


One of the primary goals of meditation is to quieten or still the mind to alleviate anxiety and negative thinking. Mindfulness achieves this objective by encouraging the practitioner to live in the present moment with an attitude of non-judgemental awareness. The roots of mindfulness are based on Buddhism, but it doesn’t have to be undertaken as a religious practice. It’s a fantastic tool for stress management and for cutting down on stray thoughts and unhelpful rumination.


We're all guilty of spending much of our lives mulling over past mistakes or fretting about an imaginary future that might never happen instead of fully appreciating the Now. The past is done. We can't change it, and we gain nothing by expending vital mental and emotional energy reliving it. Similarly, the future hasn't happened yet, and we don't benefit ourselves one bit by envisaging worst-case doomsday scenarios which might never come to pass. It's true that we can't stop thoughts from popping into our heads, but we can choose whether or not to indulge them. When we indulge thoughts, they frequently snowball into something much larger, which bears very little, if any, relation to reality.


The fast-paced nature of today’s world has fuelled this problem massively and made it increasingly difficult for us to switch off. Smartphones, the internet, and social media have created a culture in which we’re always on the go and where people have multiple ways of getting in contact with us at any time of the day or night. The result is that our brains have become overstimulated, over-anxious, and over-reliant on other people’s feedback and approval.


Mindfulness-based meditation can help us to switch off, slow down and find a state of internal stillness and quiet. It's about taking that extra moment to fully appreciate the scent of a rose, the shape of an ancient tree, a cloud formation, the sound of running water, or the ornate stonework of a building we're passing. At that moment, we cease to be a slave to our own thoughts and the emotions that they generate. We become a Jedi.


Meditation isn't just beneficial for stress relief but also as a means of achieving excellence in every area of our lives. By cutting down on internal chatter and learning to monitor our thoughts more closely, we can make our mind single-pointed and focus it like a laser on achieving specific goals. This is the high-performance state sportsmen refer to when they talk about being "in the zone".


Tennis star Novak Djokovic credited the practice of meditation with contributing towards the near-superhuman levels of intensity he was able to achieve during a phenomenal period of dominance in 2015-16, which saw him become only the third male player in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.


Six-time world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan has dabbled with Zen, while Olympic marathon runner Deena Kastor says mindfulness helped her recover from injury and go on to break four world records.


This same high-performance state can be applied to a myriad of other applications, including business, music, and performing arts, enabling people to reach their full potential by freeing themselves from the restrictive shackles of tension and stress and channeling the full power of their innate mental energies into achieving excellence in whatever their chosen field or goal. This is our mission at Phoenix Coaching & Therapy.


So if it's that crash-hot, why isn't everyone doing it? The trouble with meditation is that too many people give up if they don't get immediate results. They have difficulty silencing their internal chatter and staying in the present. Their mind wanders, intrusive thoughts creep in, so they decide "It's not working," and they abandon it. But the practice of meditation is much like building muscle. It's a gradual process that has to be built upon, one day at a time. You can't expect to gain automatic control over your mind and thoughts and reach supernal heights of bliss at the first attempt any more than you could benchpress 500lbs if you’d never lifted weights before. It takes time and patience to gradually bring the mind under control. But if you stick with it, follow tried and tested techniques, and allow new habit patterns to form around it, you will start to experience the benefits in time.


Will you still suffer setbacks and bad days? Yes, of course, because negative experiences are part and parcel of human life, and there's no escaping them. But meditation will massively increase your ability to cope with such knocks when they arise. It will minimize the impact and make you more robust and resilient, enabling you to maintain a plateau of serenity from which you cease to be buffeted about like a ship in a storm by life's trials and tribulations. Persevere for long enough, and something rather magical will start to happen in your life. Trust me, I'm speaking from personal experience here.


How to meditate: Try concentrating on something, such as your breath and the feel of it going in and out. Alternatively, you could concentrate on your feet, a tree, a stone, a pepper pot, or a candle flame. The breath is handy because we carry it around with us. Whatever it is, though, try to focus all your attention on it. When your attention wavers, and it will do almost immediately, gently bring it back to the object of concentration. Above all, don’t beat yourself up if you struggle initially. Start small and grow.


For more info, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and visit my website!


 

Andrew Cowie, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Andrew Cowie is a transformational life coach, psychotherapist, and author dedicated to helping people overcome adversity and achieve their full potential. He came to the world of therapy after a 20-year career in newspaper journalism was brought to an abrupt end by severe burnout. In the course of his own recovery, he was introduced to meditation, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, martial arts, and NLP. He went on to retrain under some of the world's leading spiritual and personal development teachers to become an expert in these fields. Andrew has since dedicated his life to passing on this knowledge, synthesizing the various disciplines into one overarching system blending ancient spiritual practices with the latest cutting-edge techniques from the field of modern psychology. He is the owner of Phoenix Coaching & Therapy and the founder of its associated 'magical training school' The Ancient and Mystical Hermetic Order of the Phoenix (AMHOP). His debut book Rise Like a Phoenix was published in 2021 and is described as a manual for personal regeneration. Andrew works with clients worldwide and is passionate about mental health and exploring the latent potential of the human mind.

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