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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The basics you need to know about meditation: the metacognition magic pill

This week's video is about taking meditation every day like a magic pill. And before you say “I can’t meditate” or "it doesn't work for me" – hear me out! It's a big topic so watch this short video with 5 points about meditation (click below) and skip the reading if you wish.

The practice of meditation is growing in popularity. Meditation has even been described as the next public health revolution! Some people say that meditation saved their life. It helped to take mine to a whole new level of experience and self-knowledge. What is meditation? It's an umbrella term for different practices that strengthen your self-awareness and ability to pause and choose. Science and meditation In neuroscientific terms, meditation is a form of mental exercise that allows us to develop our metacognition ( = our ability to think about our thinking in a detached way). We begin to identify with our awareness of our experience (whatever it may be - thoughts, feelings, sensations) rather than the experience itself.

For a meaty summary of our scientific knowledge on meditation see this article in Scientific American. From an evolutionary perspective this is quite useful. I propose that metacognition/awareness is what gives us our ability to override our instincts (and mental programming/learned behaviour) to create new ways of behaving. In other words, it is what give us freedom of choice! If we don't use it, we become like robots or animals. In summary, as you meditate (= go to the mind gym) regularly, you develop your ability to slow down and switch on your metacognition. Eventually, you are able to create a new way of behaving/responding to something. How does meditation change your brain? Neuroimaging research shows that a number of areas of the brain change as a result of regular meditation. For example, the longer we meditate, the thicker our insula becomes – that’s a part of the brain that integrates basic and more advanced brain functions.

The insula brings together automatic behaviours, emotions and higher cognitive functions like planning, empathy, and compassion. Different types of meditation may have different effects and there is a large body of research on this, but all of them will help to pause and choose rather than react. What are the benefits of meditation? (see here for an infographic of 76 effects!) The rapidly observable effect for most of us who live hectic, rather alienating and secular Western lifestyles is a slowly pervasive feeling of calm and self-control. The things that bother us and make our blood boil start to matter less and we defuse our reactivity. As a result we might experience improved memory, increased focus, better goal-setting, creative problem-solving, more fulfilling relationships, all round richer and deeper experiences and possibly slower cognitive ageing! For example, instead of shouting at your partner, you take a deep breath, switch on your metacognition and focus on a beach you love to visit with them, you relax and tell them that the thing they did reminded you of something painful in your childhood, and that you really need a hug! Alain de Botton is very good at explaining this sort of thing and has just released a new book. If it's your boss who is annoying you, then you just remember that they pay your salary and drop it (just kidding). In summary, meditation has a wide range of effects with the ability to pause and choose at their heart. In my view, the magic of meditation over the long term is that it can help us to reinvent our mental world or at least the parts of it that are out of date. It is a healthy way of breaking out of negative states by strengthening our mastery of the three elements that determine our experience:

Body :: focus :: language

Warning: You may also notice buried emotions and memories come back to the surface asking to be rewired and reintegrated into your mental world. But don't worry, this only happens much further down the line when you're ready, and you certainly won't die or go mad even if it feels like it. More on these advanced aspects and how this is necessary for the heroic journey another time. So how does one meditate? If you have deliberately sat down once and thought about your thinking in a detached manner (without over-rationalizing or suppressing your feelings) then you have meditated! Woohoo! A wealth of advice is available on how to meditate. You can pick something you really like and works for you. I personally liked the Penman and Williams (8 week course) book and basic Zen meditation (Zazen). If you want to try something, here is my simple recipe for a delicious and healthy meditation that will get you in mental shape in no time (if you take it regularly and preferably every day):

*No nonsense meditation recipe for busy heroines and heroes*

Sit still Take a deep breath Notice what’s going on inside you (feelings, sensations and any thoughts linked to them) Take a deep breath in (as if you are breathing into the feeling or sensation) Breathe out (as if breathing out any tension or stress) until relaxed

If needed repeat Notice Breathe Notice Breathe Notice Breathe

If you were feeling wound up before starting the meditation, you’ll know when to stop because the adrenaline that was pumping around your body will have been metabolised and you’ll feel in a friendly, calm state (rather than a fight/flight/freeze/frenzied state). At that point, you can get back to the outside world and be your best human self again! If you’re still hesitating, here’s a video where I guide you through a meditation. It’s one minute! It may feel strange but it may just do the trick. One minute meditation for busy high achievers coming up below:

I hope this helps. Any comments, contact me or comment below.

If you found this interesting, please, share the blog with others it might help. Remember to use your metacognition to pause and choose, and until next week! Amina

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