It seems like everywhere you turn these days someone is singing the praises of meditation, including me. Science has only fairly recently been able to validate the amazing benefits of this ancient practice with technology.
The positive neurological and psychological effects of meditation are numerous.
- Meditation Helps Preserve An Aging Brain – One study found that long-term meditators had younger looking and functioning brains than non-meditators as they aged.
- Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center” – Research determined that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN is responsible for the “monkey mind” chatter, mind-wandering, and self-referential thoughts.
- The Effects of Meditation Rival Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety – A meta-analysis found that meditation reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety equivalent to antidepressants.
- Meditation Causes Volume Changes in Key Brain Areas – A Harvard study found that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain parts of the brain dealing with emotion regulation and self-referential processing. The study also confirmed decreases in amygdala size, which is the brain’s fear and anxiety control center.
- Meditation Improves Concentration and Attention – One study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GREs.
What Is Meditation?
A lot of people have this idea that meditation means doing nothing mentally and emptying the mind of all thought. That’s not true. It’s not about suppressing thought. Meditation isn’t about what you think or don’t think. It’s about learning to observe and settle your mind.
Meditation is allowing thoughts to arise as they will, becoming aware of the thinking, observing it without attaching to or following it, letting it go, and returning to a state of mental calmness. Over time, your mind will become more settled and thought will slow down during a session. Because of a process known as familiarization, the more the mind is in contact with a mental quality, the quicker it can return to it. With repetition and consistency, your brain makes neuroplastic changes that strengthen the calm neuronal pathways so that they become the “go to” norm.
Meditation isn’t necessarily a religious or spiritual practice, although it can be for some people. It’s a mental health tool. It’s learning to relax your mind, but at the same time increasing awareness.
In his book, Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within, Chade-Meng Tan describes it like this:
Pretend you have a snow globe that you are constantly shaking. If I ask you to settle the snow globe, what do you do? You put it on the table , or the floor, or any other stationary surface. Once the snow globe is settled, then over time the water becomes still, the snowflakes fall to the bottom, and the snow globe becomes calm and clear at the same time. Settling the mind is similar. To settle the mind simply means resting it so that it approaches some degree of stillness.
Three Ways To Calm Your Mind
Calming the mind has two basic elements: mental stillness and attention to the present moment. A settled mind is relaxed but simultaneously alert. As long as you’re consciously bringing your awareness repeatedly back into the current moment, you’re getting brain benefits.
Tan suggests that none of us can ultimately settle our minds. All we can do is create the conditions conducive to a calm mental state and allow the mind to calm itself. He offers three basic methods for seasoned meditators and newbies alike:
Anchoring is the practice of bringing your attention back to a chosen object. If your attention wanders away (and it will), gently bring it back to your anchor time and time again. Like a ship anchored in a body of water stays close to the site of the anchor, your mind stays close to your chosen object despite any other mental activity going on. The most obvious and common anchor is the breath. However, you can choose to focus on anything, like your body, a sensory experience such as a sight, sound, physical touch, or internal body sensation.
Resting the mind is exactly what you think it is. Resting means to cease all mental work or activity in order to relax. It’s actually a skill and not that easy to do – at first. To rest your mind all you do is sit down, relax, and do nothing. Tan suggests that you “imagine your mind resting on your breath the same way a butterfly rests gently on a flower” and using the mantra, “There is nowhere to go and nothing to do for this one moment, except to rest.” He conveys that resting is an instinct you already know how to do. The idea here is to make it a conscious skill.
A third method for settling your mind is being. In this practice, you shift from doing to just being. It means not doing anything in particular and fully allowing yourself to experience the present moment. Tan says, “You can think of it as non-doing, or sitting without agenda or just simply sitting.” A key ingredient of being is knowing. As long as your attention is in the present moment and you know you’re sitting, you’re doing it right. It’s about intention.
Daily Basic Training
Tan recommends the following five-minute daily practice to explore the above methods to see which is your favorite. There is no right or wrong here. What’s right is whatever is right for you that day.
- Setup – Sit in any posture in which you are comfortable, relaxed, and alert. You can keep your eyes open or closed.
- Anchoring (1 minute) – Bring your attention to your breath or some other anchor of your choosing. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back.
- Resting (1 minute) – Rest your mind. Have a relaxed but alert mind.
- Being (1 minute) – Shift from doing to being. Sitting without any agenda fully experiencing the present moment.
- Freestyle (2 minutes) – Practice any of the three methods or switch between them.