By Molly Rose Teuke
Ever wonder how and why life got so out of control? We live in a barrage of competing demands, electronic distractions and information overload. It can feel impossible to find a quiet moment, a breather when you can just think straight. Calm can be an elusive quality in today’s overwhelming world.
Yet science has an answer to regaining control and carving out a moment of your own: Sit quietly, accepting whatever thoughts come your way. This practice goes by the name of meditation, the ancient Hindu and Buddhist practice of focusing attention on the present moment. In recent decades, the concept of meditation has broadened to embrace everyday mindfulness. It’s taught in schools, universities, corporations, sports and even prisons.
The intention is to minimize distractions and stress. At its most basic, it consciously engages the mind by bringing increased awareness to thought and feeling. It’s a process of active, open and compassionate attention to the present, observing your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.
But before we dig into what meditation is, let’s talk about what it isn’t.
First, meditation is not solely a religious practice. Yes, it’s been practiced for centuries in many traditions and religions, but in recent decades, it’s entered the Western mainstream, and become especially popular in healthcare and wellness settings. One study even suggests that the number of adults practicing regular meditation has tripled from 2012 to 2017.
Second, it’s not about emptying your mind. Your mind is designed to be full and busy. It’s more about monitoring any thoughts that pop into your conscious awareness and letting them go. It can be helpful to imagine them inside a balloon that you can let go of, watching them float away out of sight. It’s a way of conditioning the mind, learning to be aware of the present moment without judgment, more focused on this moment than on the past or future. The point is to accept whatever comes up — observe and allow your thoughts and feelings instead of judging or avoiding them.
Third, it’s not about achieving an ecstatic state, nor is it a fast track to blissful happiness. It’s much more about awareness, compassion and calm, and knowing yourself better.
MEDITATION VS. MINDFULNESS
Meditation generally refers to a formal, seated, intentional practice with the mind turned inward. It can be guided or not, focused on breath, a mantra, a visualization or an object. Since we breathe every minute of every day, breath becomes an easy focal point for meditation.
Mindfulness is one form of meditation. Any activity that you do can benefit from mindfulness: walking, eating, brushing your teeth — anything at all. To walk mindfully, pay attention to the lifting and falling of each foot, as well as to everything you see or smell or hear around you. The same is true of mindful eating: What are you noticing about the food? Its color, texture, size, smell or taste?
When an unrelated thought intrudes, acknowledge it and let it go.
“The real meditation is how you live your life,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION AND MINDFULNESS
A Harvard study has found that most respondents who meditated reported less stress, and feeling more peaceful, better about themselves and less judgmental. Science suggests that, for nearly half your waking hours (46.9%), you’re thinking about something other than what you’re doing.
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” notes researchers in one study. The more mindful you are about the present moment — the less time you spend ruminating about the past or anticipating the future with anxiety — the richer and happier your life experience.
Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure and increase pain tolerance. It’s also strongly correlated with lower stress, which leads to myriad beneficial health outcomes. Research suggests it contributes to more healthful and consistent sleep patterns, no small benefit given that fully half of the population suffers from insomnia at some point. It’s also been shown to help fight addictions by increasing self-control and awareness of triggers.
Meditation and mindfulness have been found to lengthen attention spans as well, increasing your ability to focus and concentrate. They’re also linked to stronger memory and slower cognitive decline in aging brains.
Physical Changes in the Brain
Long term, those who practice meditation and mindfulness can eventually increase volume and neuron density in key areas of the brain. Notable is the increased cortical thickness of the hippocampus — the brain’s librarian, largely responsible for learning and memory. At the same time, meditation can decrease brain cell volume in the amygdala, your brain’s fight-or-flight activator, which responds urgently to anything frightening or unsettling.
However, to reap the benefits of meditation, you need to know how to achieve a meditation or mindfulness practice, and how to fit that practice into your busy life.
DEVELOPING A PRACTICE
You can start by sitting upright in a comfortable position and focusing on your breath. Where and how do you feel it in your body? Since we’re breathing every minute of every day, breath is a common focus for meditators, although you can search for different types of meditation focus.
“A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Madhav Goyal, meditation researcher at Johns Hopkins University, according to an article in Forbes. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath without judging. “Accept that your mind isn’t going to stop whirring just because you want it — and that’s not the point anyway,” says Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, a digital health company. “The point is to develop a new relationship with your thoughts and feelings that allows positive feeling to simply unfold.”
FITTING IT IN
Schedule it. Experts agree that intention and commitment are key, and that a short time each day can be sufficient. It’s fair to try out different techniques and choose a shorter meditation.
Planning ahead can aid the commitment. Where will you meditate? At what time of day? Which days? For how long? Once you have an idea how and when you’ll do it, following through gets easier. Even if you’re not certain of the answers, getting started is better than doing nothing at all.
Finding external support is a good way to ensure your commitment. You can begin with the resources listed below.
WELCOME TO THE PRESENT
“We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life,” explains Puddicombe in a TED Talk, “but we can change the way that we experience it. That’s the potential of meditation, of mindfulness. You don’t have to burn any incense and you definitely don’t have to sit on the floor. All you need to do is take 10 minutes out a day to step back to familiarize yourself with the present moment, so that you get to experience a greater sense of focus, calm and clarity in your life.”
Molly Rose Teuke has an enduring curiosity about what makes our brains tick. Pre-COVID-19, she delivered brain-based leadership training for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global leader in the performance arena. She now teaches a two-part program for Nicolet College called Your Brain: The Owner’s Manual, and also hosts a weekly classical music program on WXPR-FM. You can reach her at [email protected].
Meditation and Mindfulness Apps