Using an Ancient Practice to Fight Modern Problems

For decades, it was taboo in the world of health. In fact, lots of folks referred to the idea as hogwash.

But today, it's finally getting the attention it deserves...

According to a recent survey from Parade Media and Cleveland Clinic, 82% of Americans say mental health is just as important as physical health. That's a huge increase from 2018, when only 68% of Americans thought this to be true.

It's a long overdue change. Since we've started publishing six years ago, we've said over and over again that you need to work on your mental health just as much as your physical health. This month, we're covering some of the best ways to get your mental health in check.

On Tuesday, I explained how practicing mindfulness every day fights depression, improves your memory, and helps you manage stress. (If you missed it, catch up here.)

Today, we're taking a deep dive into one of the best ways to practice mindfulness – meditation.

Meditation has history dating back thousands of years throughout the world...

In the Hindu tradition of Vendatism, meditation was called Dhyāna or Jhāna and was referred to as a training of the mind. Records of this practice reach as far back as 1500 BCE.

In ancient China, around the 3rd and 4th century BCE, a Daoist philosopher by the name of Laozi described four distinct meditation techniques in his writings:

  • Shou Zhong – guarding the middle
  • Bao Yi – embracing the one
  • Shou Jing – guarding tranquility
  • Bao Pu – embracing simplicity

 Meditation practice is also present in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

The esoteric Jewish tradition of Kabbalah uses meditation and prayer to access deep channels of philosophical contemplation. Jewish meditation involves shifting the mind away from the concept of "I" and toward an awareness of the divine presence in all things.

Sufism, which is an ancient Islamic tradition, uses meditation, breath-work, and mantra (repeated positive phrases) to self-reflect and connect with Allah.

Christians meditate to scripture, with the goal to become closer with God. Some biblical verses commonly used include Genesis 24:63, Joshua 1:8, and Psalm 19:14.

The types of meditation most of us think of today originate from Buddhism. According to Buddhists, there are four main types of meditation...

  • Concentrative – Focusing your attention on an object creates a calm mind with amplified concentration. The breath is the most common focal point used in meditation to calm the mind. This is the category under which mindfulness meditation falls.
  • Generative – This form is generally intended to help you develop loving kindness (metta bhvana) through memory, imagination, and a sensate awareness of the body. Another form – called tonglen – is a Tibetan practice that involves breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out white healing light.
  • Receptive – Developing an open and receptive attention is the emphasis of this form of meditation. The Zen Buddhist practice of just sitting – called zazen – and the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen involves sitting with your eyes open and being rooted in the present moment.
  • Reflective – This form involves repeatedly turning your attention to a specific theme, while being open to whatever your consciousness pulls from the experience. Meditations on impermanence and interconnectedness fall under this category.

 When you think of meditation, you probably think of the concentrative and reflective forms. Focusing on your breath or on a specific mantra is commonplace for meditation.

A Brief History of Meditation

The Buddha – Probably the most familiar name in mediation, the Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama around 563 BCE in what's now known as Nepal.

After spending much of his life isolated in a palace, the prince ventured out one day and witnessed suffering for the first time. He promptly decided to give up his royal life and found his way to a learning center. There, he mastered the art of meditation and mystical realization. Several years later, it's said that he reached supreme enlightenment at just 35 years of age, becoming the Gautama Buddha. He subsequently traveled to a park near Benares, India and gave sermons on the doctrines of Buddhism.

As such, meditation is a huge component of Buddhist spiritual practice. In Buddhist tradition, the aim of meditation is to still and clear the mind.

Lao-Tzu – An ancient Chinese philosopher, who lived around the 6th century BCE, Lao-Tzu's name means "Old Teacher." There's some debate on whether Lao-Tzu was just one person or a small group of like-minded sages. As a Taoist, Lao-Tzu meditated by focusing on mindfulness, contemplation, and used imagery to get closer with nature.

Lao-Tzu authored a book called the Tao Te Ching, which references meditative practices. The text serves as a foundation of Taoist philosophy.

Confucius – Another familiar name, Confucius, was a 6th century Chinese teacher, philosopher, and politician. His teachings on personal growth, morality, and social justice are still prominent ideologies in China today. Meditation in Confucianism is known as Jing Zuo and focuses on self-improvement and contemplation.

Dōshō – Dōshō, a 7th century Japanese monk, traveled to China to study Buddhism under the great master Hsuan Tsang. During this journey, Dōshō learned all about the process of Zen – which is a spiritual tradition of awakening to our true nature. It awakens our aspirations to serve others and to care for all that is alive.

When he returned to Japan, Dōshō created a community of monks and opened a meditation hall dedicated to the teaching and practice of a sitting meditation called Zazen.

Over the years, studies have shown lots of evidence regarding the health benefits of practicing daily meditation:

  • Stress reduction
  • Anxiety control
  • Improving emotional health
  • Developing self-awareness
  • Increasing attention span
  • Reducing memory loss
  • Generating kindness
  • Controlling addiction
  • Improving sleep
  • Controlling pain
  • Reducing blood pressure

 Practicing meditation might sound difficult, but it's simple. If you're new to meditation, try starting with an app. My team and colleagues have tried several meditation apps to help them find peace. They recommend Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, and Stop, Breathe & Think. These days, you can even meditate with Netflix. Headspace has a "Guide to Meditation" series. Each episode is around 20 minutes. One of my researchers has used it to clear her mind at the end of a busy day.

Next Tuesday, I'll share the incredible benefits when we put mindfulness and meditation together. In the meantime, send us an e-mail and let us know what your favorite kind of meditation is... [email protected].

What We're Interneting...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 14, 2021