How do I practice meditation safely

Meditation: How it provides more serenity

Brain researcher Britta Hölzel says that anyone who has learned to meditate can cope better with stressful thoughts and feelings. This effectively protects against stress - and increases life satisfaction

GEO: Meditation and mindfulness are currently experiencing a boom. Is that an expression of the longing to slow down in a world that is turning faster and faster?

Dr. Britta Hölzel: In times of increased workload, multitasking and information overload, meditation is actually an effective means of keeping a calm mind and a clear head. Those who meditate a lot are generally healthier, less stressed and perceive their life as more meaningful. Of course, this does not happen overnight, because meditation is not a miracle cure, but a way to reflect on yourself through regular practice, to live more consciously and to find inner peace.

Is it true that meditation is about clearing the mind of all thoughts?

There may be moments when the thoughts are blown away. However, those who meditate for the first time often have the opposite experience: The thoughts race wildly through the head, the desired calm does not want to return. Many then give up because they think they were doing something wrong or because the chaos in their minds overwhelms them. This is exactly that part of the exercise: becoming aware of the flow of thoughts in order to come into another relationship with it.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

One of the exercises in mindfulness meditation is to just observe the mind, to become aware of the thoughts and feelings that come to the surface, not to evaluate them, but to approach them with a curious, friendly attitude and with the attention fully in the present moment to be. This inner openness and presence is called "mindful". Meditation is the formal practice with which one exercises this mindfulness.

What is the use of looking into myself mindfully?

It's the first step in finding out how I relate to my thoughts and feelings. Am I at the mercy of them, do I take everything at face value? Or can I watch them come and go? The more we explore ourselves, gain insight into the functioning and patterns of our thinking and acting, the freer we can shape our lives. We stop being driven by our fears and longings.

Does that mean I have to banish everything that is burdensome from my mind?

No, that wouldn't work. When you go into resistance, negative thoughts only become all the more agonizing. Even if you successfully distract yourself for some time, the underlying feelings are still there. Surrendering to them completely is not a solution either. Rather, the art is to allow stressful thoughts and feelings, but not to be absorbed by them.

How can this be done?

An example: I have a five-year-old daughter who usually has her own ideas when it comes to getting dressed or tidying up. We regularly get into arguments about it, she gets tantrums, and I feel violently seething too. If I then try to pull myself together and suppress my anger, at some point there comes a point where I can no longer, I explode and scream - nothing is won.

What's the alternative?

I try to pause, feel inside myself and wonder what's going on inside of me. I consciously perceive how the anger rises in me, my heart begins to race, my breathing becomes shallow. And only when I am aware of my own aggression can I flip the switch and internally support myself with friendly words. That may sound strange, but it actually has the effect of distancing myself from the anger, looking at it from the outside.

And then does it go away?

At least it can move on faster, it no longer determines my actions. Instead, my mind is clear to enter the conflict with a more relaxed attitude. Reminding me that my daughter, who is five years old, is overwhelmed by her own anger right now. That doesn't mean that I accept everything she says and does. But as compassionate and calm as I was with myself, I am now helping her cope with her anger. But I only succeed in this because I am not helplessly caught in an inner struggle with my feelings.

It sounds like it's very easy.

No it is not. However, it takes a lot of practice to make the serenity a habit and to be able to fall back on it at crucial moments. With mindfulness meditation, humans have developed an excellent method to train to pause in quiet moments.

Are your findings based solely on experience, or can effects also be proven scientifically?

We have solid studies that show that meditators tend to relax relatively quickly after a challenging situation. They don't seem to be so attached to negative feelings. In total there are currently almost 7000 publications dealing with the subject of mindfulness, 1400 were added in the last year alone. It has been shown that mindfulness primarily reduces stress and anxiety and is very effective for depression, pain or even for smoking cessation. One overview study even found that the body's immune defenses improve.

It sounds like mindfulness is some kind of panacea.

We should not succumb to a belief in miracles. For example, positive effects on cognitive performance, i.e. on attention and creativity, but also on social behavior, have not yet been solidly proven. Current studies suggest that such effects only become apparent after months of training.

Which positive effects did you find particularly astonishing?

The results of a recently completed study by my colleague Thorsten Barnhofer and myself on the question of what happens in the brain of depressed people who have completed mindfulness training.

What did it show?

While under the MRI scanner, the patients named feelings of people in photos with emotional facial expressions - once before the two weeks of mindfulness training and once after. When naming angry faces, certain frontal areas of the brain were less activated after training. And the clearer this effect was, the more the depressive symptoms had decreased.

What do you conclude from this?

Patients appeared to be able to alleviate their depression by stopping suppressing their negative feelings. Instead, they have learned to be aware of these sensations and to detach themselves from them to a certain extent.

The entire interview with Dr. Britta Hölzel can be found in GEO Knowledge Health "Yoga & Meditation".