Living with Vitality: Rewire your brain with a daily meditation practice | VailDaily.com

Living with Vitality: Rewire your brain with a daily meditation practice

Karen Anderson
Living with Vitality

Karen Anderson leads Community Meditation every Sunday from 5:45 to 6:30 p.m. at the Vail Vitality Center. Meditation and yoga aren’t enough, she said. Unless we let these practices spill over into our daily lives, we won’t experience lasting change.

Two "M" words — mindfulness and meditation — are trending these days, in part thanks to a growing body of scientific evidence regarding the neurological benefits associated with each. It's likely become more mainstream for a few other reasons: With yoga's rise in popularity, meditation seems less obscure; thanks to technology, instruction is widely available; and finally, and likely most important, we've become so addicted to technology that we're craving space and quiet in our minds and lives.

So what is meditation? Meditation actually refers to a broad variety of practices. Generally, these practices are done sitting, walking or lying down and involve applying ones attention in various ways designed either to calm the mind, to generate pro-social emotional states or to see through misconceptions about reality.

How meditation works

Historically, humans were subject to predators. At that time, a human who was relaxed might have gotten eaten, while one who was intently aware of his or her surroundings would have been more likely to survive and procreate. When we feel that we are under threat, our sympathetic nervous system turns on, and we go into "fight-or-flight." We stop digesting and healing, and instead, all of our resources go into surviving.

Meditation and yoga aren’t enough; unless we let these practices spill over into our daily lives, we won’t experience lasting change.

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This was quite useful for our ancestors, but modern humans go into "fight-or-flight" on a regular basis, with no true threat in sight. This is damaging to our health and to our sanity. The practice of meditation — in particular, mindfulness meditation — allows us to live more and more in "rest-and-digest" mode, which helps us to stay calm and clear in the face of adversity, whether it's something life-threatening or just traffic. When we stop feeling like we are under constant threat, we're more creative, loving and happy.

Meditation also makes you less emotionally reactive. We all are going to go through ups and downs in life, as we can't control the external world. Through practice, I have seen many friends find emotional balance in the midst of changing circumstances. This doesn't mean you don't feel emotions; on the contrary, it means you're not afraid to feel your emotions, which allows them to pass and make space for the next experience. The result? You feel at ease and confident.

Where to start

There are many types of meditation, and ultimately the best practice for you is one that you are able to engage in regularly and is one that suits you. In the United States, mindfulness mediation is the most popular type, and I think this is the best place to start.

Mindfulness meditation is the cultivation of non-judgmental, present-time awareness. While focusing on our breath or our body, we train ourselves to stay present and experience our bodily sensations, as well as our mental and emotional states. This training ultimately leads to emotional balance because we aren't suppressing or ignoring our experience.

Heart practices, which cultivate traits such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion, are also life-changing. Most people wait for these emotional states to arise, when in fact we can train to make them habitual. This is particularly helpful in sticky personal situations.

At the Vitality Center, we teach mindfulness and heart practices, as well as the ethical guidelines at the foundation of all wisdom traditions. These ethics aren't prescribed behavior, but instead provide guidance on how to use the clarity derived from meditation to make better decisions. Meditation and yoga aren't enough; unless we let these practices spill over into our daily lives, we won't experience lasting change. I recommend creating a daily practice that is sustainable. This means choosing a length of time that feels reasonable and sticking to it. It's easier if it's at roughly the same time every day and if you have a space that is dedicated to practicing, even if it's just a corner of a room. Neuroplasticity means that if we use our mind in a different way, over time our brain and nervous system will change — just like if you work out regularly, you will see your muscles change.

Radical change takes daily practice. Once you are hooked, it is beneficial to engage in longer practice from time to time, such as workshops or retreats. In the meantime, let's hope this is one trend that's here to stay.

Karen Anderson is the yoga director at the Vail Vitality Center. Visit http://www.vailvitalitycenter.com to learn more about the meditation offerings there. Anderson also offers an online course available by donation at http://www.yogavail.com/meditation, which provides 15 minutes of guided meditation per day for 21 days.

If you go …

What: Community Meditation, led by Karen Anderson.

When: 5:45 to 6:30 p.m. Sundays.

Where: The Vail Vitality Center, 352 E. Meadow Drive, No. 3, Vail.

Cost: Free for members, or $10 per person for nonmembers during meditation time only.

More information: Visit http://www.vailvitalitycenter.com.