The word meditation can immediately conjure images of Buddhist monks in saffron robes or new-age beatniks in clouds of incense — which isn’t necessarily untrue. But meditation isn’t about religion per se, or even spirituality, really.
Meditation is about training your brain to bring your thoughts and feelings into awareness; it’s about examining who you are and your place in the world; it teaches you to appreciate every moment for what it is. Similar to how we do bicep curls to develop our arms, meditation tones and strengthens the mind.
Buddhists have long known the benefits meditation has on the body, mind and soul, which may be even more relevant today in our constantly connected, busy world. Only recently have scientific studies been able to delineate the effects it has on the brain, including stress reduction, improved attention and productivity, better memory and even increased creativity and feelings of compassion.
Your Brain on Meditation
Meditation has been shown to increase gray matter in the brain — particularly in areas associated with muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions and speech. A study conducted by the Laboratory for the Neuroscientific Investigation of Meditation and Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital found that people who meditated at least 30 minutes a day for eight weeks increased gray matter density in their hippocampus — the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.
MRI brain scans on the participants (10 female and six male with a mean age of 38) also showed reduced gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. “We have shown that the amygdala gets less dense following meditation, and there is data showing that it is less reactive to emotional pictures with negative images in them,” says Sara Lazar, the laboratory’s director.
Regular mindfulness may even slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex, which means less forgetfulness over the years. It’s also been shown to help reduce distress from chronic pain and depression. The benefits of mindfulness training go beyond the brain, too. A 2012 study suggests that meditation may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Happiness Factor
There are also many ways meditation improves quality of life that can’t be as objectively tested. Though there is yet to be a happiness barometer, anecdotal evidence suggests meditation can impact how you approach life, how you react to things, and how you interact with others. In some cases, it can allow you to see things more clearly (including yourself), fill you with a sense of calm, and help you to better deal with the variegated demands of the modern world. “In the Buddhist tradition, this is referred to as equanimity,” says Lazar. “It is about not expecting anything to be a certain way and not trying to hold on to ‘happy’ moments. It is about acceptance of life as it is.”
Mindful meditation, also called vipassana, is the heart of Buddhist meditation and the most widely practiced form in Southeast Asia. It emphasizes mindfulness and develops an awareness that is carried into every aspect of your daily experience. Some refer to it as “the art of living” — awakening from autopilot, discovering the true self, being present, and finding the capacity to live more wisely, more lovingly and more fully.
To begin the practice of mindful meditation, find a quiet room with few sensory distractions. Set a timer for five minutes (or 10, or 15 — it doesn’t matter) and sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair. Buddhist monk and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says to “sit with the quiet dignity of a king or queen.” Just remember, keep the body upright, but not uptight. Rest your hands on your knees, relax the shoulders, open the chest and soften the belly.
Then close your eyes and connect with your breath by focusing on your breathing without trying to direct it; just pay attention to its natural movement. Your breath is your anchor to the present moment and will guide you back when your mind wanders off in thought.
To help, the Zen Mountain Monastery suggests that beginners count their breaths. Count one breath in, one breath out, and continue through 10 breaths, then return to one again. This process helps connect your mind to your breath, especially when thoughts can sometimes break your concentration. Every time your thoughts wander, start back at one. Eventually, you’ll be able to just follow your breath without counting.
Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, says you could actually choose any object of awareness (a sound, an image, a mantra) to rest your attention on, and gently return to it whenever your mind wanders. “The breath is often used because it is completely nonsectarian,” she says. “It also gives us a tool we can use wherever we are.”
There are many different ways to practice meditation. You could sit, lie down, or even walk. You could watch the flicker of a candle flame, or chant the popular mantra, “om.” Experiment until you find what suits you. In the beginning, it could be useful to follow a guided audio meditation or read a book. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life is considered a must-read for beginners.
What to Expect
During your meditation, you may experience feelings of frustration, boredom, fear, anxiety, pain or anger — this is all normal. Acknowledge them, and then let them go. You may get caught up in expectations of what your experience should be, or doubt that you’re “doing it right.” Todd Goldfarb, blogger and social entrepreneur at Worldwide Tipping Point and We the Change, says to throw those ideas out and simply practice observing what arises in each moment. “Your job is to not react,” he says. “Your job is to witness the process … and be OK with it.”
The key is not to bring “the burden of intense self-judgment into the practice with you,” says Salzberg. “It might arise of course, but don’t buy into it.”
Simple right? But anyone who’s tried it can say it’s not as easy as it sounds. The mind will wander almost instantly, and it will wander often. The point is not to prevent your mind from straying, but rather, bring it back to the present when it does. These moments are when the magic happens.
When your timer goes off, you can slowly open your eyes and resume your day. Like a fish returned to water, you may notice that things flow more easily.
As you continue your practice and develop an ability to settle more with the breath, Salzberg says you should apply the same calm, interested attention to a range of things you experience. You’ll begin to become hyperaware of the state of your body — the tensions it carries, its energy, its pain — and sensations that your busy life may have kept you from noticing previously. In the same way you’ve focused attention on your breath, you’ll be able to gently move that focus to this tension and release it. Eventually, you’ll be able to do the same with recurring feelings and emotions — a level of mindfulness the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein calls “weeding the mind.”
“Once you put time and patience into meditation, you begin to see its benefits,” says Salzberg. “And the place you see the benefit likely won’t be in the formal session, but in your life — how you speak to yourself, how you meet a stranger, how you can begin again after making a mistake — the things that matter to our happiness.”
You may want to try lovingkindness meditation as a compliment to your practice. This form uses phrases of friendliness to evoke genuine feelings of love and compassion toward yourself, your loved ones, strangers and even your enemies.
The Daily Mind
Whatever level you’re at, but especially when you’re just beginning, it’s important to practice every day. Zen Habits blogger, Leo Babauta, stresses the importance of forming the habit by beginning with just two minutes a day. “You’ll find it much easier to start this way, and forming a habit with a small start like this is a method much more likely to succeed,” he writes. It’s a great, no-excuse way to fit meditation into a hectic schedule.
Although it might sound easy, meditation is in fact hard work and it takes a lot of practice to get better. But just like training for a marathon or playing an instrument, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. And just think, in as little as two minutes, a happier outlook can be yours for the taking.