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What meditation brings: a self-experiment

Breathe in. Exhale. This is what should keep me busy for the next two hours. No Facebook, no Instagram. No inbox and no news. And above all, and that is particularly tough: no mental cinema.

Meditation is the name of the mindfulness practice that I have been practicing for about four months and with which I want to put an end to the constant circle of thoughts. Together with nine others, I take a seat on a monday evening in a room with high walls in the seventh district of Vienna in a kind of cross-legged position on a red seat cushion. Paying attention to your breath, being in the moment, there is not much more guidance for meditation. It's easier than it sounds. But more on that later.

Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice and part of all major world religions. The molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn was largely responsible for the fact that secular circles also began to take an interest in them. He developed an eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s.

Kabat-Zinn wanted to help those who did not respond to traditional therapies. His patients were depressives, cancer patients and the chronically ill.

"New Social Movement"

For a long time meditation was ridiculed and dismissed as esoteric. There are now numerous scientific studies that prove its effectiveness. "We can use meditation to influence our physical and mental health," says neuroscientist Brigitte Hölzel, who conducts research at Harvard, among others.

While traditional approaches are about enlightenment or connection with God, secular approaches aim at one thing above all: to reduce physical and psychological suffering. "The research results available suggest that meditation has a relatively 'broad' effect," says Peter Sedlmeier, professor of psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology.

Numerous centers now offer relevant courses. You can even learn meditation techniques at the adult education center. And supply has demand. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa even describes the trend as a "new social movement".

It has also gained a foothold in the corporate world. Managers - such as Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, or Apple boss Tim Cook - profess to meditate regularly. Google offers its employees the Mindfulness Training Search Inside Yourself. The meeting of the business elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos began every day with a mindfulness meditation.

The challenge of doing nothing

Concentration on the breath plays a central role in meditation. This should make it possible to reduce stress and negative feelings. It is also important to become an observer of your own thoughts and feelings. Neither to judge them immediately nor to become one with them, but to look at them like clouds in the sky.

I try to implement this in my daily practice. The evening shopping: a small cloud. The article for which I'm still looking for a title: a bigger one. Fat clouds that keep popping up are fears and self-doubt.

Meditation techniques aim to see bad thoughts and feelings as a momentary state that also goes away. To insert a moment of control between stimulus and reaction. The American psychiatry professor Arthur Deikman, who meditated himself, calls this de-automation of psychological processes. Ideally, through them it is possible not to immediately get into every fear and doubt, but rather to perceive them and keep them at a distance. This should help with the fear of spiders as well as with the presentation of the project results in front of the boss.

An experiment with students at the University of Arizona shows that it often works: Meditators learned to deal with negative feelings better than members of the control group. Danish researchers have also shown that Kabat-Zinn's MBSR method strengthens mental health. You relax stressed and calm anxiety patients.

Longing for distraction

Shortly after taking a seat on the seat cushion, I start to feel resistance. It almost feels painful. I don't want to sit up straight anymore. I want to get up. Get up and leave the room, get away from this mat, get out of this calm. My thoughts go crazy, randomly revolving around worry after concern.

It is normal that unpleasant feelings can arise when meditating, writes expert Sedlmeier in his book about scientific findings on the subject. "Just sitting there and 'doing nothing' is perceived as uncomfortable," he says.

I long for external stimuli that distract me. After that, scrolling down my Facebook timeline, opening Instagram, checking my emails, calling a friend. I want action. Just get out of here. But I'm staying.

Those who meditate regularly learn not to give in to every impulse. The concentration increases, as scientists have been able to determine using electroencephalography. Apparently, the waves in the beta and gamma range are more closely synchronized during deep meditation than in the normal waking state - a sign of stable attention.

In an age of constant digital distraction, practice hits a nerve. The reward no longer results from the dopamine, as it is released when a new message arrives, for example, but from the attention gained. Multitaskers could learn to focus on just one thing again. Or just on yourself.

Because that is another alleged benefit of meditation: to become more aware of your body again. For this purpose, the developer Kabat-Zinn sent his patients on a journey through the body with the body scan. Attention is consciously drawn to one part of the body after the other.

The absence of all distractions is enough for me to be more aware of how my chest moves up and down as I breathe, how my abdominal wall rises and falls. I feel my lower legs resting on the mat, the insides of my hands touching the thighs. I feel exhausted. Or to put it another way: I notice how exhausted I actually feel. For the first time today. I realize that my neck is tense and my stomach is pinching.

The fact that these simple sensations are often neglected in everyday (work) life is the result of a performance culture that hardly allows itself any breaks. Sociologist Rosa speaks of a "game of improvement": "So that we still have the same place in the world in the next few years, we have to constantly improve," he told the magazine "Spiegel". The economy must perform as well as the individual. The sense of time is: always faster, always higher and ever further, in a double sense. That can make you sick, so counter-strategies are needed.

Tai chi and qigong

Ideally, you should start meditating for ten minutes at home twice a day, experts advise. The duration can be increased slowly. In addition to the classic sitting meditation, in which one concentrates on the breath, there are other techniques. For example, sitting is often combined with conscious walking. Sports such as tai chi and qigong are also forms of meditation in motion.

Another key technique is cultivating positive feelings. So-called mantras, "sacred" words or groups of words are repeated. The best known mantra is probably the syllable Om. The sound stands for the transcendent primordial sound, from whose vibrations, according to Hindu understanding, the entire universe arose.

After thirty minutes of practice, I have to pull myself together not to fall into a twilight state. It's about existence, not about twilighting away, I remember. Indeed, at times a kind of mental vacuum is formed. There are a few seconds in which I have no concrete thought. When thoughts are clouds, it is practically a few seconds of cloudless sky. During one of these pauses in my thoughts, I suddenly think of a title for my article.

Far more creative

Psychologists describe in the journal "Psychiatry Research" what becomes possible when you manage to get out of the loop of thought for a time.. As part of a study, they examined the brains of test subjects after a meditation class. They played certain tones for them and measured the electrical activity of the brain cells. The result: Compared to a control group, the brain reacted much more strongly to the acoustic stimuli after the course. It had learned not to brood over and over again - and brought the freed up resources towards the notes.

Ultimately, meditation should also provide access to what is currently seen as the main source of innovation: creativity and intuition.

As I sit, my gaze wanders out of the window. It occurs to me that I have to buy new contact lens fluid. When do the shops close? I think about the tax equalization, the next day's meeting, how I'll spend my evening after work. Do I want to go for a run? Or would you prefer a beer by the Danube Canal? Really a luxury problem to be able to think about something like that, I think then. Many have much harder decisions to make. I think of the radio report on single mothers. But not only they have little time for themselves. Even with a child in a classic family constellation, I imagine it will be difficult to shovel free evenings for yourself. How will I manage that one day? Then I remind myself: the only thing that should count now is the here, the moment.

What to think next

It is said in books about meditation to constantly lose oneself in thought in the past and in the future. "There are only two days when nothing can be done: yesterday and tomorrow," the Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying. The past and the future - one thing is a thing of the past, the other has not yet occurred - are both just illusions. The question "What will I think next?" should be useful in focusing on the famous moment.

I leave the room, the studio and walk along Mariahilfer Straße towards my apartment. The sky has now darkened. On one corner a street musician sings melancholy "Yesterday". My before and after are actually a little further away. So doing nothing can be so beneficial. (Lisa Breit, October 17, 2017)

Selection of course providers:

1. Shambhala Meditation Center

The meditation center in Vienna is a community of practitioners. A number of courses and workshops are offered. Free meditation sessions take place on Mondays and Wednesdays.

2. Adult Education Centers

Better perceiving your own body and well-being, getting to know different types of meditation: This is also possible at Austrian adult education centers.

3. Sahaja Yoga

The Sahaja Yoga Meditation Center in Vienna's Postgasse offers - sometimes free - courses in Vienna and Austria.

4. Meditation network

The meditation network makes a selection of all course providers and training courses for mediation trainers available online.

More on the subject:

Serenity can be learned

Walking meditation for in between times in the office