IMAGE: EMMA J STEPHENSThe meditating scientist!Scientifically trained, and understanding the proven health benefits of meditation, Judith is also empowered through wearing two hats at the one Judith LissingWhen I was 10 years old my Year 5 teacher told us a story about a scientist who happened to be a microbiologist. I don’t remember who she was or the context of the story but I clearly remember deciding at that very moment that this would be my future profession.

     And it was. Eleven years later I graduated from the University of NSW with a Science degree majoring in Microbiology. I was so clear in my vision that I assumed that everyone had epiphanies like mine and knew what they wanted to do when they finished school. It took me some time to realise that this was a relatively unique experience. Some might say it was a calling, but I prefer to think of it as a passion that I was able to turn into a profession.

Whilst studying at university I found another passion – meditation. For decades I kept these two interests quite separate, as meditation was something that was considered unscientific, with claimed benefits that were anecdotal and could not be proven.

Then, several years ago, I attended a conference in San Diego on mindfulness and found myself in a room full of scientists, doctors and psychologists. I cannot tell you how empowering it was to ‘come out of the closet’ and wear both hats at once: the meditating scientist!
//THERE IS NO LONGER ANY QUESTION ABOUT THE SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN HEALTH BENEFITS OF MEDITATION. MANY STUDIES HAVE SHOWN HOW PRACTISING MINDFULNESS CAN REDUCE BLOOD PRESSURE, ENHANCE THE IMMUNE SYSTEM, INCREASE CLARITY OF MIND AND EVEN SLOW DOWN THE AGEING PROCESS.//     There is no longer any question about the scientifically proven health benefits of meditation. Many studies have shown how practising mindfulness can reduce blood pressure, enhance the immune system, increase clarity of mind and even slow down the ageing process. Some studies have shown that an 8-week meditation course can reduce the symptoms of psoriasis (a skin disorder), whilst others have measured an increase in both grey and white matter in the brain. The latest research shows a correlation between regular meditation and the non-expression of harmful genes. And still other studies show that meditation is as effective as medication in treating mild-moderate depression and has a lower relapse rate than anti-depressants do. All in all, if we listen to the research, we should all be meditating every day.

As simple as meditation is, forming the habit is difficult. Why? Because just like regular physical exercise making meditation a regular practice takes self-discipline. Like all exercise, it can be boring, and it can be frustrating. And in our 21st century western lives most people don’t like to get out of their comfort zone. We don’t like to be bored or frustrated.

     You might think that meditation is getting into your comfort zone but that’s not always true. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you may have noticed that some days the stillness just happens, whilst other days the mind refuses to be quiet. As soon as you try to sit still you start to itch or fidget, or you remember the email you have to send, or you suddenly feel an urgent need to clean out a cupboard you haven’t been near in months. You may be restless, irritated, annoyed. The good news? That’s all normal!

This restlessness is just the mind throwing up distractions. The mind can be like a small child – as soon as it’s time for quiet the child wants to talk, have another glass of water, play. And just like you tell the child that this is quiet time, not playtime, so too you can discipline your mind. As thoughts appear, you can acknowledge them without going away with them. What are thoughts, after all? They’re just neural impulses that may or may not mean something. Awake or asleep, our brain can’t help but generate thoughts all the time and not even meditation will stop that, though it may slow it down.

     When meditation feels calm, that is how it is. When the mind is busy, that is how it is. It is always whatever it is, and each meditation you do is the first meditation you’ve ever done at that time on that day. So it will always be different. No need to judge whether it’s better or worse – it’s different. That’s how it is. That’s mindfulness.

     Mindfulness is the non-judgmental awareness of your present moment experience. If this is the attitude, the mindset you bring to your meditation, you will never be disappointed because you’ve let go of the ‘wanting it to be different’. This is what it is today.

     Some time ago the Heart Foundation ran an ad that said: “Exercise: you don’t have to take it seriously, just regularly”. I would suggest the same applies to meditation. If you can commit to 20-30 mins every day you’ll get great results, and if you can commit to 5 mins some days and 15 mins on other days, you’ll still feel the benefits. It’s easier to commit to the regular practice if you accept that today you might feel bored or restless, or you may feel peace and calm. No expectations, no judgement.

1 Sit upright in a chair in a relaxed but dignified posture, feet on the floor, eyes closed or defocused a few metres ahead of you

2 Notice how your feet feel as they connect with the floor. No need to move them, just sense them

3 See if you can maintain your mental focus on this sensation – after all, you decide where you place your attention

When you notice that your attention has wandered, which it will, gently return it to your feet

5 Be aware of thoughts and judgments as they arise. These thoughts are no problem unless you decide to follow them. So acknowledge them, let them go and return your attention to your feet.

6 If you find yourself becoming too relaxed and nodding off, you can do this same meditation standing, resting one hand on the back of a chair for balance.

     Whether you’re a novice or an experienced meditator, it’s always helpful to connect with a teacher or participate in regular group meditation as it allows you to share your experiences and gain better understanding of how to deal with distractions or strong emotions as they arise.

     The health benefits? Well, you may not notice them straight away, but it’s no different to going to the gym – it takes time for your new muscles to grow, but if you maintain a regular practice, it will happen.
  Judith is a practitioner at the Elevate Sydney Clinic and is the Founder and Principal of Mind Coaching Australia

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