Health

An Introduction to Meditation

An Introduction to Meditation

I wrote this about 6 years ago, but I’ve been noticing that the more time I spend with family and friends, the more I realize that they are severely lacking the ability to “take a moment,” sit with it, and BE HERE NOW. Their minds are racing, their bodies have become numb over years of mindless neglect, their sleep, digestion, and breathing have been hindered, and their future health is being compromised. And with a constant alert to and from our smartphones and the endless emails and texts, our brains are beginning to function like an animal that is always on alert for threats. Our brains may not be associating our reactivity with a threat, but our bodies do not know the difference.

Meditation is not an easy short-term commitment, but a long-term program can fix more issues than stress relief. It only takes 10-15 minutes a day and it will change your mind, your health, and your life for the better. You may even develop a stronger connection to others’ emotions and a deeper connection with your own personal purpose and pursuit of happiness.

I. Introduction
Meditation is a very personal journey. All that anyone can give, as far as instruction, is some exercises that can act as training wheels for slowing down the processes and rhythms of your thoughts and visualization of ideas.  The end goal of all meditation (which is synonymous with “prayer”) is to have intense concentration on ONE SINGLE point (that point can be a thing, feeling, idea, symbol, vision, etc.) with NO tension (physical tension, mental tension, inner conflict… etc.).  I’ll write that sentence one more time without any parentheses:  The end goal of all meditation is to have intense concentration and awareness on ONE SINGLE point with NO tension.  As simple of a sentence as that seems, it’s not easy… and there are obviously hundreds of ways to get to that final point.

Depending on how far you want to take this pursuit, you’ll most likely confront a few assumptions involved with the practice of meditation and I’ll try and list a few that I can think of off the top of my head.  Some of these might sound weird or like stupid “New Age” philosophy, but they are important concepts that will probably accompany some of the biggest “breakthroughs” that can happen during meditation:

  1. The answer to every question in the universe is inside you.
  2. The Universe is the result of Consciousness.
  3. Every human being has the potential to heal themselves.
  4. Love is the most powerful healing force in the universe.
  5. The intentions behind your actions usually play the most major role in the final results.
  6. There is no such thing as death, it is only physical.
  7. When acting with true “unconditional love”, those actions exist beyond the laws of Karma.
  8. When you change your mind, you change the universe.

II.  Popular Methods.
The two major things that meditation will immediately improve (and aims to improve) are concentration and awareness.  Don’t be too stringent with your definitions of these two things… especially awareness as it comes in many, many forms.  In order to meditate and improve these two attributes, it is important to limit distractions and work with techniques that slow down the body’s physical processes and the mental “noise.”  All of these exercises will lead you to a place where you feel more balanced and “centered.” I’ll give a few different methods that target these specific results.

The following methods are basic and if you feel like you’re having quick success with one of them or if you particularly enjoy doing one, I can start giving you some more intermediate methods that stick to the same “genre”. With each of these methods, the initial goal (over the first year) is to extend them gradually, meditating for longer periods of time (from a few minutes up to a half hour, with occasions of feeling comfortable meditating for a full hour). Eventually, the time commitment will become unimportant because you’ll be able to balance, or center, yourself with a small bit of concentration and a few deep breaths. At that point you won’t have to worry about how long you spend doing some of these exercises… and you might just end up wanting to do them for several hours if you come to resonate with a particular method.

And so here are some methods:

A.  Going Inside the Body (Steps)

  1. Sit comfortably with body straight enough that you know you’re maintaining good posture. (a string should be lifting the top of your head straight to heaven and your perineum should be directly in line with that string)
  2. Close your eyes and take about 10 deep ABDOMINAL breaths while feeling as if the breath enters through your eyes and finishes all the way down at the bottom of your pelvis and exhale imagining the opposite.  Abdominal breathing means that with each breath you use your diaphragm and you fill your belly as if you’re blowing up a beach ball that pushes on all four sides of your belly.
  3. Now just breath normally visualizing the breath as being alive. It enters you and gives you life and when you exhale, it takes your stresses and toxins away.  After you feel like you are doing this comfortably, start scanning your body and feeling for tension or squeezed muscles… or maybe there’s a thought that you can’t stop thinking.
  4. You can make this whole exercise much more powerful and couple the breathing to a visualization. Imagine a ball of peaceful light in a spot 4 centimeters behind and below your navel right around where your center of gravity is.  Imagine that your skin is inhaling and exhaling along with your actual breathing and that all of that energy from this full-body breath is going into and coming out of that ball of light.  This is like your entire being is one huge cell that is pulling energy from the air all around you and breathing into and out of that ball of light in your stomach.  Try and make sure you don’t forget any patch of skin like the bottom of your feet or your entire back or even your whole head… your entire skin surface is breathing.

Notes:
i) If you’re really serious about starting meditation and putting a lot of effort towards it, you should keep a journal and record what feelings or thoughts or effects come up from things that you try.
ii) When scanning your body, you can try and feel certain organs, or feel your heartbeat, or swallow some saliva and feel it move through your digestive system as if it was a healing, light-filled liquid that clears out your system.
iii) If you decide to try and concentrate on specific organs or points, there is a major center in a spot about 4 centimeters behind and below your navel.  It is a stable place of peace and energy. Notice that the best martial artists are very very conscious of this “center” (especially since it is the location of our center of gravity) and even some of the best drummers actually keep their rhythm within this “center”.  [If you EVER feel light-headed or dizzy or even if you’re stuck in a bad dream or nightmare, put all of your concentration and feeling into this spot in your belly and imagine roots growing down through your legs and deep into the ground.  This is a very very good thing to practice when beginning meditation. It has saved me from some strange experiences that I still can’t explain.]
iv) A very nice quote that goes with the body meditation: “Of course you have a big brain in your head.  What you don’t realize is that you have a bigger brain in your chest, and an even bigger brain in your Abdomen.”

B.  Eliminate Mental Noise and Improve Concentration (Listed here are several methods, you can choose how you want to go about this)

  1. Take a small simple picture or drawing (most people use a Tarot Card because the imagery is very symbolic of the subconscious). Scan the picture in a systematic way (from left to right, top to bottom) and memorize it and keep the image in your mind.  Now, with your eyes closed, systematically erase the picture in the opposite way you memorized it (right to left, bottom to top).  When you’ve completely erased the picture, your mind will be surprised into being completely empty.  As you practice this, your mind will stay blank longer and longer (this is one way to start “listening” to your subconscious).
  2. In a dark room, light yourself a candle.  When you light this candle, imagine that you are also lighting a flame in your heart that will burn brightly inside you while you keep your attention on the candle flame.  Feel that this light is love.  Concentrate on the flame and see your own consciousness and love in the light.  Witness all the beautiful characteristics of the flame and feel those same bright qualities within the light in your heart that burns along with this flame.  Stay at this for 5 minutes and slowly increase the time as you feel more comfortable and more “connected” with the light.  When you blow out the candle, maintain a sense of gratitude and graciousness for the external and the internal light that is shining.  Remember, that light is love, it should be honored the way we honor those we love.  This is a great concentration exercise and will leave you feeling pretty positive.
  3. Get comfortable… lay down or relax in a comfortable chair and close your eyes.  Do some quiet abdominal breathing like the beginning of the “Going Inside Your Body” meditation.  Once you feel like your breathing is calm and quiet, just let your mind go.  If you’re thinking about something, just try and watch as if you’re watching TV or reading a book or listening to a concert.  Don’t fight it and try and stop it, just allow your mind to drift.  Try not to fall asleep (remember, you’re developing yourself and your mental awareness… falling asleep is nice and comfortable, but if you keep yourself aware, one day you might be able to step into your dreams without losing consciousness).  As you do this more and more, your mind will slowly become less and less noisy.  When you’ve gotten to the point that you can let it go and it remains quiet, you can start feeding it thoughts and questions and actually hear answers from your subconscious.  This is like throwing a pebble into a lake and learning about yourself from the ripples in the water.  When your mind is calm and relaxed, thoughts and actions will arise effortlessly just like when a master musician is playing music on stage and they don’t even have to think about the instrument or the music.
  4. This is a great brain power exercise…  soooo challenging but you’ll see drastic improvements in concentration, memory, and awareness within days.  When daydreaming or experiencing a string of thoughts, constantly trace yourself back to a previous thought.  This can be difficult at first.  Basically, if you’re walking down the street and you see an attractive person and you think about somebody that looks like that person that is from your old college and was friends with that guy who was from Amsterdam where people like to go vacation so they can smoke pot and take mushrooms and have weird experiences like John used to have when I lived at that house in New Brunswick, maybe I’ll call John cause I haven’t heard from him in a long time… Holy crap, how the hell did I start thinking: “I should call John?”  Now trace yourself all the way back to noticing the attractive person that started that whole thought sequence.  This is an AWESOME exercise for increasing self awareness and overall brain power.  It will also make it easier to remember your dreams and keep an eye on the instinctual reactions that hold us back.

Notes:
i) The head (mind) is a dangerous place to keep your energy.  If a person meditates and constantly imagines moving energy up their body and into their head, after years they can become schizophrenic or develop abnormal nervous conditions.  If you feel heavy energy or pulsing in the head or occasional dizzyness, etc… do that “rooting/grounding” exercise in the brackets [] from the previous section’s Notes.
ii) Depending on how often you practice one or more of these, results will come pretty fast.  The results might not be obvious when practicing, but you’ll start remembering small details better, you might feel calmer, more in control, less likely to react based on emotion, more clear in your explanations, and you might remember your dreams more often.
iii) When practicing these things for a decent amount of time, it will become obvious when certain thoughts come into your brain from nowhere.  This is your subconscious throwing thoughts at you or messages of intuition about things outside of you.  I’m starting to get more of those strange thoughts that I didn’t think of and I need to start writing them down so that I can figure out what they mean and where they’re coming from.  A journal is a very good thing when practicing meditation.  We’re all different and by doing meditation, we’re figuring out the map to our own Self.  It’s good to keep updating the map and returning to places that we weren’t sure about.

C.  Visualization
The end result of knowing how to visualize is to create a scene or situation or to give your mind a thought (like in #3 of B.) and to allow it to live and breath as if you were witnessing a dream.  I haven’t been able to do this yet and I can’t wait until I can… cause this is how to CREATE out of body experiences or to walk right into a dream without losing consciousness.  I’ve had one accidental out of body experience and at least 20 dreams where I was fully conscious of the fact that I was dreaming, but I can’t make these happen…  yet. So basically, this is another meditation genre.  There are many, many visualization exercises and you can make your own reality or create your own visualizations if you want.

  1. Relaxation visualization.  Lay down.  Imagine a large ball of golden light that starts below your feet and slowly moves up your body from your feet, to your knees, to your pelvis, to your chest, and up to the top of your head and back down through your body to your feet. When the golden ball of light is moving across your body, it is relaxing every muscle it touches.  When it has gone up and back down your body, you should be completely relaxed.  This is a good way to completely relax yourself before bed, before sleep, or even if you’re sitting down and feeling tense.
  2. Basic Chakra Visualization.  Sit comfortably or lay down. Imagine a huge bright golden disc of light way above your head. Imagine that this enormous disk sends down a bright beam of light to a 3-inch ball that is just above the top of your skull.  Let this ball glow.  Imagine that the same beam of light descends down into the center of your brow and there’s another small ball of light there. Let this ball glow.  Light then moves from that ball of light into a ball of light in the center of your throat. Glow. Then down to a ball in the heart area of your chest, glow, down to your solar plexus, glow, down to a spot right in the center of your pelvis, glow, down to another ball of light at the center of the spot where your legs meet your body and then down into a ball of light between your feet. Remember to let each ball of light glow for a few seconds or even a few minutes if you feel like it.  When you’ve reached the final one in between your feet, imagine that the light circles around as if a fountain is flowing down and outward and then out and up and around your body and back up into the ball of light on top of your skull.  Now just feel that light continue to circulate down and thru you and then circling back up to the top.
  3. Straight visualization practice.  Look around your room or the room that you’re in.  Take mental notes of tiny details and try to memorize the whole scene.  Close your eyes and rebuild the whole room with the tiny details that you remember.  If you miss details or you don’t remember, try and imagine it or think harder about what you saw.  If you can’t remember, open your eyes and look, then close them and go back to imagining and seeing the details of everything again.  If you’re done and you feel confident with the mental picture, ask yourself how you feel about the room or the things in it or the state that it’s in.  If anything feels negative, open your eyes and change it… this is the first step in “magickal” action.  When meditation and visualization are mastered, you can start to imagine future situations and create the potential realities that will result from these future situations and eventually CREATE the future.
  4. More Visualization.  I just started doing this and I’ve noticed that it will be extremely powerful once I can finally keep it going.  Imagine 3-dimensional reality.  When we close our eyes and see things, and even when we feel things on our skin, we are imagining 2D reality.  3D reality is a major jump in visualization because it involves being aware of a complete environment and not just viewing something from the outside.  When I focus on a part of my body, I usually get this picture like I’m standing next to myself and looking at myself from the right.  This is a major limitation to my concentration because I’m putting too much energy into creating a visual image of the FEELING that I’m trying to concentrate on.  A feeling is NOT an image.  A decent visualization that can help this 3D idea is to find a spot of tension in the body and to imagine that you are inside that tension and that you are a cube of ice.  Now let yourself melt.  If that is successful and you can melt all the tension, then try and make the water evaporate until all that tensed up energy is completely gone and will not return.

Notes:
i) Visualization, like all of these exercises, will only get better with practice… and trust me… it can be REALLY tough at first.
ii) Even though I separated these exercises into 3 groups, A, B, and C, it’s obvious that each exercise does a little of all 3 things. Some are just better for different modes of concentration…
iii) Visualization is very very powerful for working with potential realities, Kind of like when someone tells a performer to see themselves performing well, or when a basketball player visualizes a shot going in.  The stronger the mind and the stronger the visualization ability, the more success.

Good luck and feel free to ask questions.  I know I put a lot down here but I didn’t want to leave too much out and I wanted to give you the chance to see a bunch of different things that way you can choose one that feels best.

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BPA and hormones in our fruits and vegetables!

BPA and hormones in our fruits and vegetables!

A group of biology peeps in Florida took a stroll to the nearby supermarket to grab some samples for chemical testing. Unlike most of us, they are well-aware of the fact that industrial farms have been regularly irrigating our food with wastewater (2). Though there may be some advantages to this irrigation method within developing countries, in our own heavily medicated and polluted country the consequences to using water laced with plastic byproducts, prescription medicine and contraceptives create potential biohazards for our children and us.

Some of the chemicals these scientists found have been making recent headlines. Bisphenol A, which you may know as “BPA” from the slew of “BPA-Free” baby products hitting the market, is being found in produce like tomatoes and potatoes in quantities that have been linked to deleterious effects in the reproductive system as well as increased cancer rates. BPA is a very controversial chemical; expert panels argue that it “is associated with organizational changes in the prostate, breast, testis, mammary glands, body size, brain structure and chemistry, and behavior of laboratory animals” (3). Despite BPA’s extensively documented effects on the reproductive system of lab animals, its effects on humans are highly controversial; for a large number of studies, the scientists have not been able to clearly separate its effects from the effects of female hormones that are also being found in your grocery bag. To boot, the Center for Disease Control has found that 90% of us have high levels of BPA in our bodies.

Estradiol is another chemical these Floridian scientists have discovered in our lettuce and citrus. Every human being, whether male or female, has a chemical receptivity to the hormone estrogen; estradiol binds with our body’s estrogen receptors and BPA has also been shown to mimic estradiol. For males, high levels of estradiol may result in feminine traits or cause sterility (4). Since BPA has been found to change the expression of key developmental genes that affect the female reproductive system (5), this chemical cocktail of BPA+Estradiol can be perceived as the equivalent of a hormone treatment for the reproductive system. How this combination of chemicals may be affecting our children, few are hypothesizing due to the complex range of chemical reactions that may take place in the human body. Nevertheless, the estimated amount of this compound that you and I may be ingesting is considered “beyond the recommended intake” according to the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

Another chemical disruptor of our natural hormones, nonylphenol, was also detected in our food. Nonylphenol is a compound that also weakly mimics estrogen. It comes from detergents or pesticides and like estradiol and BPA, is not easily removed during wastewater treatment. Since Nonylphenol and Bisphenol A mimic the activity of natural hormones like estrogen and estradiol, this class of chemicals are called endocrine disruptors. As a whole, endocrine disruptors are known to cause birth defects, learning disabilities, deformations of the body, sexual developmental issues, and cancerous tumors.

For decades, the onset of puberty in our children has been happening earlier, especially for girls. Testosterone levels and sperm count have also been steadily decreasing in males for at least fifty years. The fact that these hormones and hormone disruptors have been in our meat and animal products is not news, though little has ever been done to regulate the industry. This most recent study now warns us of further exposure from our fruits and vegetables and will undoubtedly solicit more studies of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in our food.

 

Editor’s Note: This is my application essay for an internship. Reproduced because I think it’s a big deal, too.

(1) Jian Lu, Jun Wu, Peter J Stoffella, Patrick Wilson. Analysis of Bisphenol A, Nonylphenol and Natural Estrogens in Vegetables and Fruits Using Gas Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry. J Agric Food Chem. 2012 Dec 6. Epub 2012 Dec 6. PMID: 23215552

(2) Bartram, J., Carr, R. “Guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta, and grey water, Volume 2: Wastewater use in Agriculture”. World Health Organization, 2006.

(3) Vogel, S. (2009). “The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A ‘Safety'”. American Journal of Public Health 99 (S3): 559–566.

(4) Sharpe, RM; Skakkebaek, NE (1993). “Are oestrogens involved in falling sperm counts and disorders of the male reproductive tract?”. Lancet 341 (8857): 1392–5. doi:10.1016/0140-6736(93)90953-E. PMID 8098802.

(5) Smith CC, Taylor HS (January 2007). “Xenoestrogen exposure imprints expression of genes (Hoxa10) required for normal uterine development”. FASEB J. 21 (1): 239–46. doi:10.1096/fj.06-6635com. PMID 17093138.

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