Can Meditation Help Seniors?

Meditation predates all of the religious and spiritual disciplines which centre on, contain or teach the practice, and in fact has likely been practiced for over a million years, possibly even before the rise of homo sapiens. Far from being a mystical and convoluted ‘skill’ which must be ‘learned,’ meditation is very simply an approach to thinking which attends first to the state of the mind before turning its attention to the state of the world. Meditation is potentially beneficial to everyone, but can be especially useful to older individuals for a number of reasons, ranging from the tendency toward a decreasing attention span to the superior patience which seniors tend to have.

Typically our minds are very active and intelligence is distributed across multiple tasks at any given moment. We’re so good at thinking about lots of different things at once, in fact, that we struggle to think about any one thing for more than a few moments at a time, especially without the accompaniment of a handful of other conscious and subconscious considerations.

Positioning oneself comfortably is an obvious starting place. There’s no need to adopt positions which feel forced such as the famous cross-legged lotus asana which is so stereotypically associated with meditation and almost universally uncomfortable to new practitioners. From here, there are a number of routes and the path we choose to take doesn’t really matter in any meaningful way.

Breathing is the one technique which almost every practitioner will suggest. Breathing is an activity of the autonomic nervous system, which also controls, among other things, the fight or flight response and by extension much of the body’s use of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Slow, deep breathing which focuses on the diaphragm (i.e. breathing which appears to start and end ‘in the stomach’) is almost universally effective in reducing stress and promoting relaxation. This also provides a steady, rhythmic focus which can help to prevent attention being diverted toward distractions. One can also simply focus on different parts of the body, noting the sensations they experience.

Music, or the recitation of mantras (which can be any helpful combination of syllables) can also be a helpful way of achieving singular focus. There are, in fact, dozens of initial approaches, all of which are more or less functionally identical, and all that one need understand is that every one of these techniques is based around presenting a focal point to reduce distraction. Ultimately, we should look to use whatever focus works best for us, no matter its content.

Distraction will, however, definitely arise. It is absolutely inevitable that a healthy, intelligent individual will, the moment they begin to clear their mind, find it filling up with all sorts of considerations. When this happens, simply return to the original object of focus. It is perhaps this piece of advice which puts people off meditation, as the word ‘simply’ is truly ineliminable and there is no helpful way to expand or clarify this directive. We should move from one thought to another, as we would at any other time. The process of learning meditation is, essentially, working out how to do this for yourself, and no specific technique is even broadly, let alone universally, effective. All that is important is to treat this tendency to distraction dispassionately, without self-judgement or frustration.

But we must remember that while there may be a long road, there are no checkpoints or borders along the way: we are, each and every one of us, capable of establishing the tendencies and habits required to allow thoughts to be acknowledged without prejudice and then gently cast aside. It is typically the first few sessions which are the most challenging, the most likely to dissuade us. It’s possible to feel that we are making no progress, and that every time we achieve a sense of stillness, whether for its own sake or to the ends of mindful contemplation of the present, some unbidden distraction arises, but this is simply a matter of practice and confidence. One of the greatest benefits of meditation is to explain and improve the relationship each of us has without ourself, and this inquiry begins with the earliest challenges and frustrations, and with our responses to them. When an obstacle presents itself, we need simply acknowledge and accept it, and move on; a lesson for life in general, as much as advice in meditation.