Have you ever wondered how meditation actually works?
In our fast paced world it’s not surprising so many people are now being prescribed meditation. Doctors, therapists, and many other health care professionals understand that the practice of slowing down and going inward has many health related benefits.
But what are these health benefits? And how do our bodies respond to meditation?
To answer these questions, we have to look with a scientific view.
So let’s take a moment to break down the process of meditation in 3 steps.
Step 1- Sitting.
Okay, this might not sound very exciting but the truth is that the simple act of sitting mindfully can be very beneficial to our health. I like to call this the pause effect. Our lives today are all about moving at a fast pace. The jobs we work, our hobbies, even our home lives are filled with moments of movement. When was the last time you stopped without being distracted by a cell phone, computer or TV?
The simple act of sitting without distraction allows us to reconnect and slow down. As we practice sitting we become stronger at pausing. In the beginning you might only feel comfortable being still for a few moments, but soon you will notice sitting for longer periods of time becomes easier. Before long you may find yourself taking longer breaks, going for long walks in nature, having deeper conversation with friends, or even taking moments during work to stop and check in with yourself.
A recent study shows being distracted can have negative effects on the way we learn.
The study, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also provides a clue as to why it happens.
"What's new is that even if you can learn while distracted, it changes how you learn to make it less efficient and useful," said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
So just sitting can benefit the way we learn as we move away from needing to always be distracted. Another benefit of sitting is you allow yourself to have a little space in the day that is just for you. By not needing to constantly process new information, you allow your brain to rest.
Step 2- Closing our eyes.
Doing this is the gateway into our inner world. If you have yet to try meditation, or tried without guidance and felt like you failed, you might not understand this statement. So let me explain. Human beings have an outer identity and an inner identity. Our outer identity is heavily influenced by many factors such as social statuses, like our jobs for example. This is the part of us that we have developed outwardly to fit into society. Our inner world however is much different. This inner world houses the truest version of who you are. When we do the simple act of closing our eyes without trying to fall asleep, we observe. During this observation we tap into a wealth of wisdom, creativity and deeper understanding. Over time, our inner and outer worlds begin to blend, creating a balance and allowing the meditator to become in-tune simultaneously.
How can this benefit us? Imagine you had a business meeting and you were expected to come up with a new and fresh idea. Before the meeting you take a 5 minute break, close your eyes, and just connect. This break allows you to reconnect with who you really are so during the meeting you can share the information that is in-tune with your feelings and ideas. After the meeting you leave feeling refreshed and excited that you were able to share something that really mattered to you.
A group of Harvard neuroscientists ran an experiment where 16 people were submitted to an eight-week mindfulness course, using guided meditations and integration of mindfulness into everyday activities. The results were reported by Sara Lazar, PhD. At the end of the study's duration, MRI scans showed that the grey matter concentration increases in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulating emotions, sense of self, and having perspective.
So lets close our eyes, shall we?
Step 3- Attention Training.
This is the place where people start to become worried and say “I can’t stop thinking so I could never meditate”.
The attention training part of meditation is actually the most beneficial because we have the ability to change our brains, and since the brain is responsible for well, everything, that is a pretty big deal. Until recently, neuroscientists believed our brains were hardwired and that once we were wired there was no going back. But just when we thought we had it all figured out, in steps Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual's life, e.g., brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change, and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time.
Research in the latter half of the 20th century showed that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are "plastic") even through adulthood.
This understanding really was a game changer. We now know that even the most difficult areas of our lives can be improved.
So let’s look at it this way.
Let’s say for 20 years you have lived as a negative thinking person. You see the glass as being half empty. Each negative thought creates a highway in your brain. The more this highway is traveled, the easier it is to access as it becomes your main highway. You and your friend join a meditation class and as you sit and observe your negative thought, you bring your attention back to your breath. Suddenly, another one comes up, and once again you bring your attention back. In that moment you are literally creating a new highway in your brain.
And as if that was not amazing enough, there is more. Lets take a look at stress.
With the ever increased stress factor in our lives, many of us have over stimulation of the adrenaline gland and cortisol levels. In an emergency situation these are very helpful but many people are now having these stress responses to everyday situations, finding they are now stuck in “fight, fright or freeze” response. This leaves us feeling panic, unease, disconnected, anxious, and so much more. With meditation we can switch back over to our rest and digest function.
A 2007 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that going through integrative body-mind training (a type of meditation training) helped to lessen the body’s release of cortisol and lower anxiety and fatigue levels in college students. And a 2008 study in the Journal of American College Health showed that meditation could reduce stress and boost forgiveness.
So how do we train our attention? Simply and lovingly. Each time our mind begins to wander and we notice we have lost our attention, we bring ourselves back. Even if we have to do it many times in the beginning. This simple step is all that is needed to allow your mind to soften naturally.
Want some even better news? All of these changes take place in the body automatically when we are meditating. There is nothing special you need to do except the practice itself. When I first began my practice 13 years ago I had very little knowledge about the health benefits that would come along with my practice. I focused on improvements in self acceptance and being more calm. The truth is these are just a small number of benefits that begin to blossom, but when science begins to discover what wise people understood along time ago, that is cause for celebration.
So how do we practice meditation? How do we train our attention?
Please feel free to visit this youtube link for some meditation essentials from my training at the Maclean Meditation Institute.