When most people I talk to think of meditation, they think of a spiritual thing. They think that you close your eyes and leave your body and float around the astroplanes with your spirit guide. While this is a form of meditation, this is not what I'm referring to. I think this association is what makes non-spiritual people resistant to the idea of taking up meditation as a daily practice. The type of meditation to I'm talking about today is also often referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation benefits both your mind and body in many ways.
It's the practice of quieting your thoughts to be present in the moment. To be aware of your body and your emotions and to be able to focus on the here and now without drifting off to worry about the future or fret about the past. I've heard a lot of extremely successful people in interviews and podcast consistently and they say it's changed their lives. So I decided to give it a try.
What is Mindful Meditation?
Thefirst part of mediation is to focus your attention on just one thing. Usually this is your breath. Whenever you notice your mind wandering off, and it will, you simply realise that it's happened and bring your attention back to your focus point. Normally this is your breath. The point of it is not really to be able to focus on your breath for the the whole time. The point is to make you aware of what's going on in your mind. You notice when your thoughts drift and bring them back to your focus. It means we spend more time being aware of what we are doing rather then drifting through life absentmindedly. This also filters out into everyday life. It helps you to stay focused on the tasks that you're doing as you're now practiced at filtering out distractions.
Mindful Meditation Benefits
The mindful meditation benefits are repeated again and again all over the internet and by those who practice it. However, when I started writing this post for you, I found very little scientific evidence to back up any of the claims. As a scientist, I was able to look at the abstracts of the papers and immediately see that none of what I read had any statistical value. The sample sizes were small; 17 studies here, 57 people there, and many papers didn't even have control groups.
One study took a bunch of people to live in a meditation retreat for 3 months, measuring their cortisol (stress hormone) levels at the start and at the end and concluded that since it was lower at the end, meditation reduced stress. This may well be the case, but if you sent me on a retreat for 3 months, I'm almost certain that my stress levels will be lower at the end of it regardless of whether I meditated or not. What it comes down to really is that, although meditation is a practice dating back thousands of years, we've only just begun to take it seriously as having a measurable, biological effect on our brains and bodies, therefore the available research on it is currently limited.
Having said all this, I do believe that mindful meditation is beneficial to both our physical and mental health, and there is enough scientific evidence out there saying this to make it something worth studying further. Just be aware that these things are not being stated as scientifically proven fact just yet. For anyone interested, I've listed at the bottom of this post some articles that I did find interesting and useful.
As I mentioned earlier, when we practice focusing, we get better at it. However, this is not something that we ever actually practice, it's just something we to do and are either good at it or not. How often at school did you hear the teacher saying to focus more? Or even at work, my boss's solution to an issue was that I focus more, but no-one ever teaches us how to focus. We're just supposed to turn up the volume. Unless you meditate.
If you're anxious, it's generally about something that hasn't happened yet and that you have no control over. Meditation helps you stay in the present moment rather than let your mind jump forward to the future and fret about things that in 90% of cases don't occur. It also helps teach you to view things in a more detached way. You are aware of the thoughts and emotions that you're having, but don't react to them so strongly. This means you don't get into that loop of worrying and stressing and because you're stressed, you worry more, and you more stressed...
Several studies have shown that meditation reduces the stress response and levels of cortisol, especially if done before a stressful event. Meditating before something stressful results in you being less stressed during it.
Enhances Our Memory
People who practice mindful meditation have shown improved working memory. They're able to more quickly recall information and take in new facts, partly because their brain is focused on this and not distracted by other stimuli.
Makes Us More Loving and Compassionate
While meditation calms the amygdala (the part of the brain link to emotional responses) it also activates the temporal parietal junctures, which is that part of the brain responsible for empathy. People who meditated reacted more strongly to images and sounds of others in distress than those who don't. Monks who had meditated for more than 10,000 hours responded most strongly, suggesting the more we meditate, the more compassionate we become.
Due to the biological effects meditation has on the brain, it's been as a treatment for people with depression or bipolar disorder. During brain scans of people who meditated frequently, the brain had an increase in grey matter in the same areas that people with ADHD and bipolar disorder have shown deficiencies. Mediation enhances this tissue in the brain and stabilises the emotional response of those with these disorders.
When we learn to control our thoughts and emotions, they don't run amok in our minds quite so much. A significant number of people report trouble sleeping and this is often due to stress and anxiety. Meditation reduces these influences in our daily life and it also teaches us to quieten our minds so that our thoughts don't overwhelm us when we try to sleep. I've noticed myself that when I meditate before falling asleep I'm almost always asleep in less than 10 minutes. When I check my resting heart rate in the morning from my Up, there's been a consistent correlation between meditating to fall asleep and my resting heart rate being low.So there you go; five reasons to meditate and improve your health and quality of life. There are many many more out there that I haven't gone into here. The best thing to do is just give it a try for yourself and see how it goes. Start small with just 2 minutes a day and build up. Ten-Twenty minutes daily is enough to see the meditation benefits so don't get intimidated by those who meditate for 5 hours at a time. You don't need to do that. To start you off, try guided meditations with an app. Headspace is a very popular one and is where I started, but I now use an app called Calm that I like much better. Meditation is a personal practice though so try them both and shop around to find one that works for you.
If you want a bit more science on how meditation works, I've cited some of the studies I read below. Don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss out on the next awesome post to help you on your journey to becoming the ultimate you!
Chen, K. W., Berger, C. C., Manheimer, E., Forde, D., Magidson, J., Dachman, L. & Lejuez, C. W. (2012). Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. Depression and anxiety, 29(7), 545-562.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R. & Ott, U. (2011).How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective
. Perspective on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559.Mohan, A., Sharma, R. & Bijlani, R. L. (2011).Effect of Meditation on Stress-Induced Changes in Cognitive Functions
. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 17(3): 207-212.