Practice Meditation: More Than Just Stress Relief Researcher Jason Voss aims to show the broad and practical uses for meditation. By Helen Avery Photo by Ali Kaukus Join the 21-Day Meditation Challenge! Did you know that compassion meditations are the most effective form of meditation to reduce stress? Or that if you want to get your creative juices flowing, then visualization meditations will be the most helpful? Jason Voss has spent the last 30 years researching meditation methods and their outcomes. For the past three years he has been working with researchers to develop meditation education and programming for the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute’s 130,000 members. Jason himself is a member. A lifelong meditator, he also pursued a career as a fund manager, becoming so successful that he was able to retire at the age of 35. He attributes all of his success to his spiritual path and meditation practice, and has deeply wanted to give back to his industry and also encourage greater ethics. “People tend to think meditation is a thousand things or just one thing, but what I came to realize is that there are four distinct practices.” – Jason Voss It’s an unusual mix to have such an in-depth study of meditation be sponsored by a financial industry body. It’s a world not known for supporting emotional development, and one that tends to be skeptical toward alternative methods to wellness. Yet some 59 percent of the CFA Institute’s members expressed an interest in the development of a meditation program. Jason says his chief aims have been to use as much scientific data as possible to dispel any doubts about the efficacy of meditation, and also to eliminate the confusion that exists around the practice. This benefits not only the CFA Institute’s members, but also meditation practitioners as a whole, as the findings of Jason’s studies and his work with other researchers has been groundbreaking. “People tend to think meditation is a thousand things or just one thing, but what I came to realize is that there are four distinct practices, and all meditations will drop into one or more of those brackets,” he says. While all four methods provide stress relief, Jason points to scientific research that shows each method to have its own specific outcomes. So, depending on the desire or challenge at hand, you can more easily find the meditation to include within your overall practice—just explore the practices below. Creative Visualization Meditations Whether it’s walking through a forest, visualizing different colored lights emanating from the body, embarking on a shamanic journey, or becoming the embodiment of Buddha, creative visualization meditations not only reduce stress, they also put the brain in a position to tackle creative issues. “What research has shown us is that any visualization can help with creativity—they don’t have to be related,” says Jason. That means whether you are looking to come up with a new product or slogan, or you’re sitting facing an empty canvas waiting for inspiration, any time spent in a visualization meditation will help. And it doesn’t have to be a visualization on the task at hand. “When you engage in meditation picturing yourself in a garden, it has the same impact on your creativity as if you were to imagine yourself coming up with a new idea or project,” says Jason. This type of meditation is particularly good for those who don’t feel they are creative, or who have a hard time switching off. Focused Awareness Meditations Mantras, affirmations, staring at a flame, or gazing upon a yantra: These are all focused awareness meditations. They can also often be the most challenging for those starting out in meditation because we are so used to our minds wandering wherever they choose. As such these practices are perfect for people who find themselves easily distracted, says Jason. “If you have a career or activity which requires great focus, then this type of meditation as part of your regular practice will help.” Compassion Meditations Compassion meditations, or loving kindness meditations generally follow a pattern of offering ourselves love, forgiveness, emotional support, and compassion. After this we extend that energy out to include friends, family, coworkers, the neighborhood, and so on until finally we encompass the entire universe with compassion and love. When Jason came out of his retirement to build the CFA Institute’s meditation program it was partly driven by a desire to address the issues of the financial industry’s seeming lack of ethics that had become evident in the financial crisis of 2008. What he discovered in his research was not entirely surprising: Time spent in a meditation of compassion resulted in more ethical decisions being made. What he did not expect to uncover, however, was that compassion meditations actually reduce stress more effectively than any other type of meditation. “There is just something about being kind to ourselves and others that is deeply relaxing to the mind and body,” he says. Mindfulness Meditations When we think of meditation, this is often the practice that comes to mind. It is also referred to as “open monitoring.” Techniques include watching awareness, observing thoughts as they come and go, observing the breath as it moves through the body, and observing sensations in the body—being an unattached witness. It’s the technique that Jason first came to as a 7-year-old boy, listening to the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter.” “I went into an ecstatic state and from then through my teens, music was the means for me to drop into a deep state of awareness.” Mindfulness meditation is by the far the most well-studied method of meditation, according to Jason. Therefore the benefits of this practice as compared to the other three are more fully mapped. It is also the most well-rounded of the methods, says Jason. “It [mindfulness meditation] relieves stress but it also improves ability to think, and emotional intelligence. It’s the practice of not being attached to what is happening, and so it’s great to include if your work or home environment is stressful, or if you have a role where you have to remain impartial.” “Often people do not realize how meditation can be a very practical tool to help them in their daily lives and challenges.” – Jason Voss While there may be four brackets of meditation, Jason is quick to point out that this isn’t designed to create walls in a practice. There are meditations that may include two or more forms of the practices above. The grouping of meditations into four methods is simply designed to help people navigate the world of meditation more easily, and to find the meditation that suits their needs to work into a regular practice. Above all, says Jason: “A lot of people would benefit from meditation, and it would be wonderful to reach as many of those [people] as possible. Often they are put off because they think meditation is something it isn’t—that you have to light incense, sit down, and start chanting. And often people do not realize how meditation can be a very practical tool to help them in their daily lives and challenges. Hopefully this research will encourage those people to try it out.” — Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, contributing to the Vitality and Wisdom channels of Wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie living in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.