My friend and I were catching up at this cool coffee shop – hipster vibe, lots of green plants – when she told me something surprising. On a recent flight of hers, the plane offered an entertainment option of guided meditations for flight anxiety and general wellness. As the conversation unfolded, I was amazed to realize how reluctant we both were to really try out meditation – let alone commit to the practice.
You might have noticed there is a zen trend going on right now, with whispers of vague but important health benefits. So, I sought to find out why people choose to sit awkwardly on the floor for long periods of time.
Meditation is defined as a mental workout, a method to self-regulate the body and mind, akin to push-ups and jumping jacks for your brain. The purpose is to strengthen your ability to focus, and to disengage from distractions, like your troublesome thoughts and emotional upsets (Charoensukmongkol, 2014).
You’re probably distracted right now, checking your e-mails, your Instagram, and thinking about your next meal while you read this blog (I forgive you). That mental multitasking you’re doing majorly slows down the speed and accuracy of your current task – drinking up my glorious wisdom of the Gods…but mostly science!
The fix is simple. Focused-attention meditation begins with you sitting on the floor straight-backed, hands in your lap, and with your eyes closed. The common elements of the practice include six steps (Bond, 2011; Schwartz and Goldstein, 2017):
- Focus on a single point (breathe, a word or mantra, an object)
- Stay there
- Watch out for distractions - your mind will naturally wander to the important things like, how your leg is itchy, that e-mail you forgot to respond to, how ridiculous you feel…
- Let go of said distractions
- Re-engage in your single point of focus
With practice and repetition, you can hone this skill like it’s nobody’s business. You will be more able to engage and direct the focus of your attention.
Spoiler alert: nothing happens during the actual meditation. Well, nothing earth-shattering. The benefits are usually most obvious (after building up some meditation credits) during the challenging moments of our lives - the ones requiring speedy and complex thinking and decision-making (Burns, 2016).
What happens to your brain when you meditate? The practice changes the fifty shades of gray matter it has.
Gray matter is made up of your information processing brain cells, or neurons. Areas of your brain that have more gray matter have greater processing power, letting that region of the brain work more powerfully and efficiently (McGreevey, 2011).
An eight-week study showed how meditation increases these neurons in areas of your brain responsible for learning, memory, empathy, perspective and compassion. The study also showed that meditation decreases these gray neurons in the amygdala, the emotional epicenter of your brain (think: stress, anxiety) (McGreevey, 2011; Schwartz and Goldstein, 2017).
What does this mean? Meditating can give you the ability overcome automatic and emotional distractions that can be stressful and overwhelming, so that you can re-direct your focus back to whatever task you need to finish. Like, being able to complete an overly complicated Starbucks order when you spot your ex-boyfriend and realize your shirt is on backwards (Teper & Inzlicht, 2013).
It also means that you’ll probably be nicer to and more patient with people who get on your nerves (insert name of needy family member here).
That’s all well and good, but who has the time to go away on a 3-week meditation retreat, or Om for hours every day?! I hear you, me neither.
The good news is that you don’t need a huge time commitment to gain the health rewards.
Recent research studies show meditative benefits for people practicing an average of 27 minutes a day. That’s pretty much the time it takes to watch an episode of your favorite show on Netflix (Teper and Inzlicht, 2013; McGreevey, 2011).
You might still feel silly and uncomfortable meditating by yourself on your floor. I’m the same way. However, both physical and mental health hugely impact our daily lives.
Since I feel inclined to hit the gym regularly for the physical health benefits, I can see how adding meditation into my routine for the brain benefits is at least equally as important. I’m ready to commit, how about you?
Blog by Kayla Noodelman: mantra maven, Zen buff, full-time therapist
Bond, M. (2011). Everybody say om. New Scientist, 209(2794), 32-35.
Burns, J. C. (2016). Getting to Another Level: Why Basketball Players Use Mindfulness Meditation. International Journal Of Health Wellness & Society, 6(4), 81-95.
Bushak, L. (2016). What’s The Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation? Retried April 18th, 2017, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/mindfulness-meditation-differences-377346
Charoensukmongkol, P. (2014). Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation on Emotional Intelligence, General Self-Efficacy, and Perceived Stress: Evidence from Thailand. Journal Of Spirituality In Mental Health, 16(3), 171-192.
Crowley, C., & Munk, D. (2017). An Examination of the Impact of a College Level Meditation Course on College Student Well Being. College Student Journal, 51)1), 91-98.
McGreevey, S. (2011). Eight Weeks to a Better Brain. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/
Schwartz, S. Y., & Goldstein, D. (2017). Unplug: a simple guide to meditation for busy skeptics and modern soul seekers. New York: Harmony Books
Teper, R., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 8)1), 85-92.