Why Meditation is for Everyone
No meditation, no life.
Know meditation, know life.
Sukhraj S. Dhillon
Meditation. Where to begin?
Few practices for spiritual, emotional, and mental wellbeing are as time-tested and deeply-rooted in human history as this one simple practice. Not only does the practice of meditation pre-date recorded history and every known religion – it is also found in nearly every one. That's right; though the first records of meditation do appear in the Hindu context at around 1500 BCE, they are also found in various forms throughout Buddhism, Judaism, a number of varieties of Islam, and even in Christianity. Furthermore, meditation has experienced a significant renaissance of late, becoming detached from dogma and religious ideology into something that everyone can benefit from. It seems that whatever path to enlightenment and fulfillment you may choose, it will inevitably involve some form of meditation, Do I have your attention yet?
At it's very simplest, meditation is the practice of focusing your attention on one very specific thing, and constantly bringing your mind back into that state of focus. While most people mistake meditation as sitting cross-legged and suppressing any thoughts, it is anything but. In fact, it is less important what you focus on; whether it's the physical positions or asanas of Yoga, the slow and deliberate movement patterns of Tai Chi, or the natural inhalations and exhalations of Vipassanā. In fact, I have heard it argued that the very reason people enjoy drugs, sex, music, or sports are because those activities are the closest many people get to the fully-focused, meditative state. That state, often called “presence,” has become the center of a rapidly growing mindfulness revolution. But we'll get to that.
So why do billions of people do it? Why have prophetic thinkers from the Buddha to Mohammed advocated daily meditation? And perhaps most importantly to the readers of this blog, why does it seem that most of the world's most successful and fulfilled people, from Oprah Winfrey to Steve Jobs to all of the Beatles, swear by meditation? What is there to be had by practicing this ancient custom?
Improved Clarity & Mental Focus
As we've established, meditation is the practice of constantly bringing your attention back to some specific stimulus – whether that's your breath and body posture (as in many Buddhist and Hindu forms of meditation, including Yoga), the prayers you repeat by heart (as in the Abrahamic religions), or simply staring at a spot on the wall. It turns out, though, that this practice of habitually training your focus, has dramatic effects on your ability to concentrate on anything. In fact, there is some research suggesting that meditation may be an effective cure for attention deficit disorder, by activating the parts of the brain responsible for the condition. Though some of the studies do suffer from small sample sizes, it is extremely promising to see that meditation therapy can sometimes be equally as effective as ADD drugs such as Adderrall or Ritalin. Given the rampant rates of abuse and overprescription of those drugs, this fact alone makes meditation worth a second look.
Increased Immune Function
That's right. Studies have shown promising evidence that even a short program of consistent meditation can improve immune function, making you physically healthier and less susceptible to sickness and disease. This most likely isn't the principle reason you would commit to meditation, but it's certainly a plus.
Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy.
Then a full hour is needed.
Saint Francis de Sales
Significantly Reduced Stress & Anxiety
Perhaps one of the reasons that meditation improves immune function is that it's strikingly effective at reducing stress in a measurable way. Study after study has shown that regular meditation can reduce physiological and emotional signs of stress and anxiety, leading to a healthier, and more productive you. But that's not all…
Improved Emotional State, Sustained Happiness, and Control Over Your Emotions
The stereotype of meditation practitioners is one of zen-like calm and glowing, unaffected joy. We have all seen the image of the robed monk who refuses to become animated or upset by any external stimulus, returning even the most harsh attacks with calm, kindness, and love. While this stereotype is certainly entertaining to pick fun at, it actually makes a whole lot of sense. This study by the National Academy of Sciences found that meditation makes lasting and observable changes in the behavior of the brain, decreasing activity in the network of the brain called the Default Mode Network. Higher levels of DMN activity have been linked with Alzheimer's, ADD, and – you guessed it, unhappiness. If you've heard of the Default Mode Network and are unconvinced, how about a study that observed the differences in the types of brainwaves emitted by meditators and non-meditators, and used high-resolution Electroencephalography (EEG) to discover the uplifting power of meditation?
Beyond just an improved base state of happiness, meditation also teaches us to observe our thoughts as a passive onlooker; to separate our true selves from both our thoughts and our emotions, enabling us to “intercept” negative emotions like anger, jealousy, or sadness before they penetrate our consciousness. Effectively, meditation can help us gain control over our emotions in a deep and profound way, helping us accept our surroundings with joy and peacefulness. A lot of evidence (and very real personal experience) has convinced me that this acceptance, or “presence,” is the one secret to deep and lasting joy in life. That's a big statement, and so if you wish to dig into it some more, I'll refer you to Eckhart Tolle's life-changing “A New Earth,” which I strongly recommend checking out.
A Measurably Fitter, Better Brain
Underlying the fact that meditation causes both better behavior and increased performance from your brain is perhaps the most amazing (and scary) fact of all; meditation physically changes the structure of your brain.
You heard me correctly. A study at the University of Oregon successfully identified actual physical changes in white matter composition when exposed to sustained meditative practice. Unsurprisingly, these changes were found in areas of the brain crucial to self-regulation, happiness, and disorders such as ADD. So, while millions run to fish oil and gingko biloba to improve the performance of their brains, it turns out that you can actually give it an overhaul with as little as 11 hours of meditation.
And of Course – Freakin' Superpowers!
If you've ever read Autobiography of a Yogi, you're probably expecting me to share stories of gurus who have used meditation to levitate, teleport, and move things with their minds. Unfortunately, none of that can be scientifically proven. What can, though, is meditation's ability to improve psychomotor performance and reduce the need for sleep. Have you ever wondered how Batman maintains cat-like reflexes despite pulling all-nighters fighting crime? I suspect the answer is a daily meditation practice. Oh, and how about Herbert Benson's eerie research with Buddhist monks, who were able to emit strange, unexplainable heat from their bodies – or slow their metabolism down by 64%! To put this into perspective, even when a body is asleep, it rarely ever decreases it's metabolic rate by more than 15%. Bizarre.
Great! So, Now What?
We've discussed the various benefits of meditation – from stress release and improved mental performance to an improved emotional state and even heightened physical fitness and immunity. Where does one begin?
Unfortunately, all of these benefits do not come easily. For the untrained, meditation can be extremely difficult and frustrating – at least in the beginning. I recommend taking some time to familiarize yourself and read up a bit about meditation. I also suggest choosing which type best suits you. Personally, I'm very partial to Vipassanā, because it can be done anywhere, any time, and is dead-simple to learn and practice. I've also heard some great things about Nadi Shodhan Pranamaya (alternate nostril breathing), though I've yet to try it out personally.
Here are some hands-on articles and tools that I've used or recommend for getting started with meditation:
- Sam Harriss – How to Meditate (he has also added his own mindfulness meditations)
- Zen Habits – 20 Practical Tips for Meditating
- Headspace for the iPhone or Android (how I started)
- Calm for the iPhone or Android
But of course, don't leave it to just those. There are thousands of articles, books, and guided meditations available online. The most important thing isn't to find the perfect method or meditation for you right away – it's just to start and make it a daily habit. Though I became aware of meditation and it's benefits nearly four years ago, it wasn't until the middle of last year that I actually broke through the resistance and began sitting habitually. The benefits became clear to me immediately, and I only wish I had taken up this amazing practice sooner.
What about you? Have you experimented with meditation? Seen the benefits? What types? Do share in the comments below!