Are you prone to stress and anxiety? Do you suffer from one or several addictions (coffee, wine, chocolate, sex, legal or illegal drugs, or even your iPod, a football team, a famous star, etc – you pick!). Does your mind wander constantly and jumps seemingly without control from one thought to another? Do you tend to judge yourself and the world negatively rather than positively? Do you have trouble focusing your attention on a given task or feel agitated? Do you sometimes feel like you have a ‘fog in your brain’ whereby you lack clarity about what you want/should do? Do you suffer from conditions such as psoriasis, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome or generally have a weak immune system? Do you feel like you kinda know that you aren’t ‘on track’, but are afraid or lazy or unsure about what you have to do?
Well, the good news is that you can overcome or lessen the negative effects of any of these through the regular practice of meditation.
I can hear some saying “yeah right, as if there was one remedy for it all” and understand your doubts. There however has been a heap of research on the topic which provides increasing amounts of scientific evidence that allows me to claim so. But before going into the science behind the myth, let’s first define what meditation is.
What is meditation?
Meditation is the practice of focusing one’s attention to a given element that can be internal (your breathing, bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, pain, etc) and/or external (the light of a candle, the surrounding sound, an object, etc). This focus is non-judgmental, driven by a gentle curiosity and has no other aim than to observe. Through practice one develops a heightened state of awareness of oneself and of the world and experiences cognitive, physical and psychological improvements.
There are many sorts of meditation practices and while some may require the body being absolutely still or to be moved with controlled deliberation, other types allow for free movement of the body. While the methods are different, the end goal of all types of meditation leads to a mind that is quietened. By engaging with a particular meditation practice you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to naturally cultivate new, more positive ways of being. With regular work and patience these nourishing, focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energised states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life.
That being said, it’s also worth mentioning what meditation is not.
Meditation is not a religion and does not require you to believe anything or to embrace any dogma. Although it is traditionally linked to Buddhism, meditation does not equal Buddhism and you don’t have to be even interested in Buddhism to practice meditation. It also implies that whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh or else, you don’t have to alter your beliefs to practice meditation. Equally, spirituals, agnostics and atheists can also practice meditation without compromising any of their worldviews.
In addition, keep in mind that practising meditation does not require following a ‘guru’, or becoming a disciple of any sort of group. Although it is sometimes easier to practice in a group and get some support or questions answered, you can equally practice at home on your own.
Also, meditation is not complicated and does not require a heap of material or investment – a chair will do just fine. The opposite is also true: if a chair and quiet environment are more conducive to practising meditation, someone sitting in the lotus posture on top of a mountain can be very far from meditation, while another person can be in meditation when doing his day’s labour.
Meditation can be done by anyone and does not require a lot of your time – if practising regularly, you’ll even notice positive effects by meditating only ten minutes a day! In addition, many regular practitioners say that meditation actually helps them saving time as they become more efficient in what they do.
Meditation is not loss of control or an act of taking control – it’s more simply a practice of observing what is without judging it, or giving it a name, a meaning or else. Similarly, meditation is not simply ‘relaxation’ or ‘concentration’ – it certainly encompasses both of them, but goes much further than that. Many sees it as merely a form of relaxation whose benefits are limited to stress relief or lowered blood pressure. It is actually a rigorous system of mind training and observation of mental processes.
Having said that, I can’t insist enough that meditation is an exercise, a practice. Reading, talking or learning about it is important and inspiring, but do not replace the actual and personal experience. I’m sure that some of you have tried and quickly given up considering that it’s not made for you, but rest assured that the more you practice, the easier it gets!
It’s about training the mind like you train muscles at the gym. When exercising at the gym, you gradually feel more comfortable and start noticing that you have bigger muscles and/or lost weight. But in addition to these, a regular gym practise also builds self-confidence, self-esteem and even pleasure! However, you have to practise regularly and make sustained efforts to notice long-lasting effects. Meditation is the same – you’ll get a lot out of it, but need to sustain your effort and practise it regularly.
At this point, I believe it’s fair to explain why I personally appreciate meditation so much. Since I first meditated at 18, it’s the single activity which has brought me most long-lasting inner peace. I’ve tried a number of different practises; I’ve had phases where I was very regular in my practice and other times where I was completely ignoring it; and, when practising, I’ve had moments of bliss as well as moments of struggle. Altogether however, I find that a daily practise brings me invaluable and incomparable insight, clarity of mind, and well-being.
In addition and anecdotally, Carly and I met during a meditation retreat – needless to say that I failed to properly focus on my meditation practice during these two days… :^)
What are the proven benefits of practising meditation?
There have been more than one thousand researches made on meditation. Sadly, not all of them are of equal quality and some have to be discarded for being methodologically flawed or simply weak. A number of researches have however shown the actual positive effects of meditation – but also, in some rare cases – adverse effects. For sake of transparency, I’ll then start with examples of these.
Leon Otis, a psychologist at Stanford Research Institute, found in 1984 that adverse outcomes were related to how long that person had meditated. Another concern, explored by Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan, is that advanced practitioners rank high in suggestibility. In therapy with people treated after meditation programs, problems with thinking and attention have been prevalent. Other impairments included relaxation-induced anxiety, panic disorder, marked dissociative problems, and cognitive inefficiencies.
This is not to say that everyone who meditates has these difficulties – actually, I’ve personally never met or heard of anyone expressing any adverse effect from meditation.
In addition, these negative findings have to be put into context: I suspect that people reporting negative effect from practising meditation were already facing some sorts of issues that meditation cannot resolve. In addition, it seems to me that some people experienced adverse effects because they were influenced by an ill-intentioned ‘guru’ regardless of their own feelings or experiences. As written earlier, meditation does not require following a given leader or group and I would shy away from anyone who would make me feel uncomfortable. We all have limits of some kind so we need to be aware of our own red lines.
Many scholars concur in finding that meditation has several proven positive effects. I’ll summarize them here in four categories: stress and anxiety; addiction; lack of focus and immune system.
Research has repeatedly shown that a regular meditation practise greatly helps in reducing – and keeping low – stress and anxiety. For example a study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School taught meditation to a group of people with clinical levels of anxiety and found that 90% experienced significant reductions in anxiety and depression.
Other researchers did a meta-analysis (a comprehensive study of existing studies) and found that altogether, research shows that “mindfulness-based therapy is a promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems in clinical populations.”
Learning to relax is one way to adapt to difficult situations with less stress and debilitation. People tend to think of leisure activities as relaxation. However, physiological relaxation is a set of specific internal changes that occur when your mind and body are calm. It is not the same as sleep, rest or having fun. Physiological relaxation is the one internal state that can protect your body from the harmful effects of too much stress. Without a doubt it is extremely important to your health. Although it can occur in a wide variety of circumstances (ranging from athletic competitions to meditation), it rarely occurs spontaneously in modern life.
In the late 1960’s a Harvard cardiologist named Herbert Benson, began a series of studies investigating the physiological changes that take place in meditators while they are meditating. From these studies he discovered that no matter how the relaxation response is elicited, the resultant internal changes are quite consistent. The body shifts from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system dominance; breathing, heart rate, and oxygen consumption slow down; muscles relax; the brain predominantly generates the slower alpha waves; and blood pressure may drop. These changes occur within a few minutes of beginning an activity that produces the relaxation response, whereas they happen very gradually over hours while sleeping and often not at all while engaging in a leisure activity.
Meditation helps against addiction:
Although rigorous research on meditation treatment for addictions is still in its infancy, the results show great promise for binge eating disorder, cigarette addiction and alcohol relapse prevention. For instance, researchers recently found that a four-week mindfulness training was more effective for smoking cessation than the American Lung Association’s ‘gold standard’ treatment. Over a period of 4 weeks, on average, people saw a 90% reduction in the number of cigarettes they smoked-from 18/day to 2/day and 35% of smokers quit completely! In a four-month follow-up over 30% maintained their abstinence.
Other researchers found that “mindfulness training appears to target key mechanisms implicated in alcohol dependence, and therefore may hold promise as an alternative treatment for stress-precipitated relapse among vulnerable members of society.”
Although it’s a seemingly simple technique, mindfulness meditation operates on a number of levels,
- it makes us more able to notice cravings before they take a hold of us;
- it strengthens our muscles of attention making it easier for us to let go of naughty thoughts of chocolate cake, cigarettes, or wine if we need to;
- it makes us more able to experience cravings without having to react to them;
- it makes us more able to cope with stress, which makes us less likely to turn to pleasure as a crutch in the first place.
Meditation helps to focus our mind:
Numerous studies (like this one) have shown that meditation can improve our ability to sustain attention. The ability to focus on our breath for long periods of time transfers over to other pursuits. Meditation has also been shown to improve our ability to focus under pressure.
Not only have scientists observed changes in people’s performance after completing attention tasks, but they’ve also found corresponding changes in the structure and function of meditators brains. For instance neuroscientists found that after eleven hours of mediation, meditators had structural changes around the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self control.
As the great website Headspace summarizes: “Being able to focus and resist distraction is also linked with our ability to control our impulses, emotions and achieve long term goals. Studies have found that children who are better able to regulate their attention and impulses are four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs, have more satisfying marriages and have significantly lower body mass index. The ability to control our impulses and focus our attention has even been found to be a better predictor of academic success than IQ.”
Meditation strengthens our immune system:
It has been estimated that up to 90% of doctor visits are stress related and one reason is because chronic stress affects our immune system. During the first few minutes of getting stressed our immune system actually strengthens, as if we’re in physical danger and we’re about to be sliced and diced, then its good to have a few more antibodies in our system to help speed healing later. However if the stress goes on longer, which can often be the case when we worry, the strength of our immune system plummets, leaving us vulnerable to colds, flu and worse.
Researchers who taught an eight-week mindfulness course to stressed-out employees at a silicon valley company gave the flu virus to test immune system responses of these participants and an untrained control group. Follow-up blood tests revealed that the mindfulness group generated a significantly greater number of virus antibodies than those who didn’t have the mindfulness training.
In a remarkable study conducted at UCLA, a similar 8-week course helped slow the progression of HIV. People with the disease were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness-trained group or the control group. By the end of the course the control group’s CD4-T cells, the “brains” of the immune system, dropped by 25%-the usual rate for people with HIV. In those with mindfulness training, however, these cells did not decline but rather increased slightly, with the greatest increases experienced by those who had the greatest ‘dose’ of meditation (they meditated the most). Pretty amazing stuff, eh?
Mindfulness meditation has also been found to help with binge eating disorder, diabetes self-management, fibromyalgia, as well as a number of other physical ailments, such as irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, chronic fatigue, Parkinson’s disease, and psoriasis, a stress-related skin disorder. Research at University of Massachusetts Medical School, found that the psoriasis of mindfulness practitioners cleared at about 4 times the rate of the non-meditators.
To summarize, research regarding the effects of meditation is still young but nevertheless already shows strong promising results. An overall explanation may be provided by a recent research which documents meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter; this research has shown that participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program brings measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. One of the researcher explains: “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practising meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
So, up for a meditation? :^)
This post is far too long so I’ll stop it here, but rest assured that I’ll explain in a following post how to practice meditation easily… Meanwhile, it would be great if those of you who already practice meditation could share your experiences about it!