June 11, 2021 4 min read
When you think about meditation, you might have a very specific picture in your mind. However, the overall concept can be quite difficult to define. Most people, when asked for a quick definition, will tell you that meditation is about “clearing the mind.” And this is true…sort of.
In its most traditional form, meditation requires you to sit upright with your eyes closed while you focus on the present moment and your breathing. This combination of 1. not thinking about the past or future and 2. focusing on being “present” is meant to help create a “clear mind.”
However, the practice of meditation reaches far beyond achieving that clearer, more focused mind. It is also the pathway to a variety of physical and emotional benefits.
Practicing meditation physically reshapes the brain to allow you to fight feelings of anxiety.
Brain scans have shown us that meditation increases activity in the parts of the brain that lower anxiety and depression, as well as those that increase pain tolerance. Meditation leads to less gray matter in the parts of the brain that trigger feelings of stress and fear, and creates more dense gray matter in the learning, memory, and emotion regulation areas of the brain. Additionally, meditation encourages higher levels of alpha waves in the brain, which fight negative feelings like sadness and anger.
Research has also shown us that meditators develop a very wrinkly cortex (the outer layer of the brain). These extra wrinkles allow for more surface area (and higher brain connectivity) in the place in our brain that is responsible for abstract thought and introspection.
I’ll put the disclaimer here: meditation is not a cure-all for any health problems. However, meditation can assist us in many, many ways!
You’ve already read how meditation can lead to genuine stress relief. In turn, this relieved anxiety can actually lower blood pressure, leading to stronger cardiovascular health. So, for those of you who, like me, sometimes struggle with feeling like meditation is a timewaster because you’re just sitting and doing “nothing” – it could literally add years to your life!
Regular meditation can increase your immune response. When our bodies are under stress, they transition into “survival mode.” This sounds dramatic, but it’s true! While you might not be fighting through a life-and-death situation, a body in “survival mode” is more concerned with making it from one activity to the next than fighting off an illness.
Remember that “rest and digest” phase we heard about in ninth grade anatomy? Most of us don’t spend much time there, and we need to! Meditation moves us toward that restful state.
Science has shown us that the areas of the brain responsible for memory and sustained attention shrink as we age. Meditation counteracts this decay by creating physical changes in the brain. In fact, people who meditate for just 12-20 minutes a day for several weeks can expect to feel more mental sharpness.
Currently, scientists are conducting tests with promising results showing that meditation might help reduce memory loss in adults. They’ve already seen that meditators score higher on tests centered on memory.
Meditation can be tricky. The real struggle comes when we try to use our willpower to meditate. We can almost become angry at ourselves for “letting our minds wander.” In turn, that anger and frustration make it even more difficult to return to a calm, meditative state.
This is where self-love and self-forgiveness comes in. Remember, you’re human. It’s totally normal to think about things. That is literallythe function of your brain – to think and prepare for the future! Trying to bring it to a state of calm and gentle focus can be very counter-intuitive, especially if you tend to be the stressed-out, anxious, or the uber-busy type (like me).
That’s why my #1 tip for new meditators is: Give yourself some grace.
Most meditation gurus will tell you to start with your breath. (We’ve all tried Headspace at some point, right?) Most meditations start like this for a good reason; taking a deep breath signals to your brain that you’re safe. That you can relax. I’m a big fan of the “box breath” (breathe in for four seconds, hold four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold four seconds).
The breathing is all you focus on. Any other thoughts that come up simply drift past you as you focus on the moment you are in and the sensations in your body. I like to do a quick “body scan” from top to bottom and “check-in” with my senses (what do I feel, smell, taste, and hear?).
If you hear noises, you let those pass by you like water moving around a rock in a river. (I’m not great at being a “rock” either, but we can work on it together!)
You can do this for one minute, five minutes, ten, or a full hour. It’s up to you! Though if you’re a true newbie, I’d recommend sticking to fifteen minutes or less at first. Trying to jump in with an hour-long meditation might work for some people, but it will feel incredibly long…and probably make you want to give up after a single session.
It’s sort of like running. You wouldn’t go run a marathon if you couldn’t first run a mile. However, once you build up your endurance, you’re able to do incredible things. Just remember to give yourself some grace. You’ve got this!