by Khyati Kapur
What springs to mind when you hear the word meditation? Many of us instinctively imagine a guru sitting on a mountaintop, eyes closed and with a serene smile spread across his glowing face. Sounds great if you want to live your life far removed from reality, but how is mediation relevant to most of us grinding away at our day jobs, trying to pay the bills and find a little leftover time to spend with our loved ones and maybe watch the latest series on Netflix? To many of us living in the developed world, the thought of sitting motionless, eyes closed for hours on end, is nothing more than a senseless waste of time, so why even discuss the topic?
The proliferation of the word “mindfulness” online, in books, classrooms, apps and throughout the media and business worlds, cannot be ignored. As scientists wake up to the fact that meditation can help with anything from depression to hypertension and even certain cancers, now might be a good time to reevaluate our ideas about meditation and learn what happens when science meets mindfulness..
A good place to begin is with the practice itself. Most modern, secular forms of meditation stem from the Buddhist or other traditional forms. Meditation employs practices such as mindfulness, or intense focus on a particular object or thought, to train the attention and achieve an emotionally calm and stable state. The aim of meditation is not to push aside stress or eradicate negative thinking, rather it is to notice those thoughts and feelings, while not feeling compelled to act upon them. A meditation practice can be as simple as closing one's eyes and repeating a single phrase or word, or counting breaths.
Modern life is fraught with stresses, strains and pressures many of which are beyond our control, however proponents of meditation claim that there is one thing we are able to control - our own mental state. Meditation is considered a powerful tool for transforming the mind because it helps develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm life vision. Some even go so far as to say that controlling our inner life is the only real antidote to negative feelings like sorrow, fear, anxiety and confusion.
So what does science have to say about all this? Can we really control our mental state, cure depression and a host of other illnesses just by changing the way we use our minds and if so, how does this seemingly simple practice achieve all that?
You may be surprised to learn that there are actual, scientifically measurable physiological changes in the brain caused by meditation. These changes prove that people are not just feeling better because they are spending more time relaxing but that meditation actually causes tangible changes in the people who practice it. What’s more, according to neuroscientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, the brain benefits of meditation don't just disappear when you stop meditating - they persist for a long time afterwards, meaning that even if you abandon your meditation practice during a particularly busy period, you will likely still enjoy the benefits for many months to come.
Studies showing the benefits of meditation for people suffering from depression are very promising. Scientists have noted that two areas of the brain are particularly hyperactive in people who suffer from anxiety or depression. The first area is medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), sometimes called the "me center" because it is where we process information about ourselves, such as worry about the future and rumination over the past. The other brain region is the amygdala, or "fear center," responsible for the fight-or-flight response which triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol in response to fear or perceived danger. These two regions often work in tandem to create havoc in the brains of depressed people however, researchers have found that meditation has the power to break the connection between these brain regions and temper down the overactivity, resulting in a more stable mood. "When you meditate, you are better able to ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety, which explains, in part, why stress levels fall when you meditate," says Dr. Denninger of Harvard University.
Further good news for depression sufferers is the discovery that people who meditate for thirty minutes a day for eight weeks increased the volume of gray matter in their hippocampus (the part of the brain involved in memory). As depression sufferers tend to have a smaller hippocampus, in practice this means that meditation can help depressed patients preserve their memory function.
Depression isn't the only condition that can be improved by a regular meditation practice. Studies observing the effect of meditation on the outcome of certain diseases have also shown promising results. At Ohio State University, researchers found that regular mindfulness-based muscle relaxation exercises lowered the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Another study at the same University, demonstrated that mindfulness and relaxation exercises practiced over the period of a month, helped boost patients’ lymphocytes (killer cells that improve the immune system) thereby conferring better resistance to viruses and tumors. Symptoms of IBS, a common bowel disorder affecting some 15% of the world’s population, can also be alleviated by daily relaxing meditation according to other studies.
If, like many people living in our hectic twenty-first century, you suffer from stress-related conditions you may want to think about adopting a meditation practice too. Meditation has been shown to reduce the body’s responsiveness to cortisol and other stress hormones (similar to how blood pressure reducing medications work) and can also significantly lower blood pressure in stressed out patients.
Another benefit of meditation is simply that it makes you feel better. Mindfulness meditation helps us learn to live in the present which can make us feel a lot happier than the average stressed out, busy person you meet today. Studies show that people who meditate regularly learn to regulate their thoughts and become aware of those thoughts that are destructive or less likely to cause the flow of good feelings like gratitude, satisfaction and love. Learning to control and sift through our thoughts is a key determinant of happiness.
Meditation also helps the body relax - a benefit that promotes healthy sleep. Focusing on a phrase such as “breathe in calm, breathe out tension” beats counting sheep as a sleep-inducer at bedtime.
It is hard to refute so many studies claiming the benefits of developing a meditation practice. Perhaps the best way to find out for sure is to try it for yourself. For those who have never meditated before or for those who still can't quite shake off the notion that meditation is for yoga-practicing, hippie types, it can be hard to get started. Fortunately, this is not a problem as you don't have to look far to stumble across a book, app or audio download that will walk you through the practice and make it really simple to venture into this uncharted territory.
Below you will find a list of some helpful resources to help you kick off your meditation practice:
Calm - Meditation Techniques for Sleep and Stress Reduction
Meditate Me with Kelly Howell
The headspace App
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself - Joe Dispenza
Wherever You Go There You are - Jon Kabat-Zinn
by Khyati Kapur