If someone asked what image comes to mind when you hear the word “meditation,” do you picture an exotic scene with monks in saffron robes, sitting silently within temple walls, eyes closed, and faces serene? Although meditation remains a vital part of many cultures’ religious and spiritual practices, here in the West meditation has recently become, for the most part, separated from its roots and embraced as a stand-alone “mind technology” used to achieve better health, both physical and emotional.
Although it’s difficult to know exactly how many people practice meditation on a regular basis, according to a 2012 survey done by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Health, some 18 million U.S. adults practiced meditation in some form, including “…Mantra meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Spiritual meditation, and meditation used as a part of other practices (including yoga, tai chi, and qi gong).”1
A major reason for meditation’s wide acceptance here in North America was the Dalai Lama’s longstanding cooperation with Dr. Richie Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who met the Dalai Lama in 1992 and who has conducted scores of scientific studies on Buddhist monks who were experienced meditators. Some of Dr. Davidson’s early research involved flying monks in from Tibet and Nepal to the university, where they underwent various brain scans and other tests while they were meditating.
Dr. Davidson has been interviewed many times about his research, and he never fails to express his amazement at his team’s findings: Experienced meditators could produce long, sustained bursts of gamma wave brain activity, many times at will. These findings had never been seen in an untrained mind and were so unexpected that at first the scientists thought their equipment had malfunctioned!
Once these findings were made public, the doors were wide open for other researchers to look at meditation’s possible benefits on human health. Since then, numerous studies have been done documenting meditation’s beneficial effects on everything from sleep to stress reduction. Many of these studies have used mindfulness, a form of meditation that has become very popular here in the West. The method is deceptively simple:
Step 1: Take a seat
Sit in a chair, on a meditation cushion, or even on a park bench. Just make sure you are comfortable. If you are in a chair or on a bench, keep both feet flat on the floor or ground. If you are sitting on a meditation cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you. Straighten your upper body so you’re not slouching, but don’t become unnaturally stiff. Let your hands rest on top of your thighs. Allow your gaze to drift downward. You don’t have to close your eyes, but if you want to, that’s okay too.
Step 2: Bring your attention to your breathing
Simply observe your breathing, the way the air moves through your nose and down into your lungs and then back out as you exhale, the rhythmic rise and fall of your chest or belly. There is no need to try to stop or control your thoughts. You couldn’t, even if you wanted to!
Step 3: Refocus your mind
When your mind wanders away from your breathing, as it invariably will, gently bring it back and refocus your attention on your breath. No matter how often this happens, just be with it. Don’t fight it or get mad at yourself. It’s all part of the process. You are not doing anything wrong!
Step 4: Pay attention
When you are ready, lift your gaze or open your eyes if you had them closed. Take a moment to notice any sounds, then notice how your body feels and any thoughts or emotions you are experiencing.
That’s all there is to it! The practice itself is very simple. It’s doing it consistently that is the work. And it’s this consistent practice where you will see results. When you are first beginning, it’s probably best to meditate for only a few minutes and then gradually work your way up to 45 minutes to an hour.
So now that you know how to get started with mindfulness meditation practice, let’s look at five of the most powerful, scientifically supported benefits you can get from incorporating this practice into your daily life:
1. Meditation can enhance your immune system.
A short-duration mindfulness practice of only eight weeks done in an office setting can significantly enhance your immune functioning. The subjects in this 2003 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine not only had an increase in immune functioning, but also had changes in their brains associated with positive emotions.2
2. Meditation can help ease physical pain.
The number of people suffering from chronic painful conditions is staggering. More than 100 million Americans are reported to have chronic pain, and the usual methods of treatment have their own set of problems. Research shows that mindfulness meditation helps relieve pain.3 Plus, meditation, while pleasant, is nonaddictive!
3. Meditation can increase the grey matter in your brain.
This is one instance where going grey is a good thing! Research published in 2005 in the journal Neuroreport showed that regular meditation resulted in thickening in areas of the brain associated with sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing.4
4. Meditation can help you age gracefully.
Telomeres are molecular structures located at the end of your chromosomes and are involved in the replication of your DNA as well as insuring the stability of your chromosomes. As you age, your telomeres shorten. This shortening can serve as an early indicator of several age-related diseases.
Stress, poor diet, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and other factors can serve to shorten your telomeres. Conversely, it has been suggested that a healthy diet, not smoking, and physical exercise can maintain or even increase telomere length.
A 2016 study from the journal Mindfulness reviews the evidence that meditation leads to longer telomere length and also serves to strengthen this evidence by comparing the telomere length of experienced meditators to healthy controls who had never meditated. The meditators had significantly longer telomeres than the controls.5
5. Meditation may help ease depression and anxiety and help reduce stress.
A 2014 meta-review article in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that “…evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation programs could help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain in some clinical populations.”6 They recommended that physicians and other clinicians be prepared to speak with their patients about how a meditation program could help to relieve their psychological stress.
There is abundant evidence showing scientific evidence for the health benefits, both physical and emotional, of a regular meditation practice. Almost anyone can do mindfulness meditation, as it requires no special equipment, doesn’t require any particular religious or spiritual orientation, and is simple to do. So take your seat and begin!
- Clarke TC, Black LI, Stussman BJ, Barnes PM, Nahin RL. Most Used Mind & Body Practices. National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2012/mind-body/meditation#pdf (accessed 1/3/2018).Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J., Schumacher J. et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
- Zeidan F, Adler-Neal AL, Wells RE, et al. Mindfulness-meditation-based pain relief is not mediated by endogenous opioids. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016;36(11):3391-3397
- Lazar, SW, Kerr, CE, Wasserman, RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893-1897
- Alda, M., Puebla-Guedea, M., Rodero, B., Demarzo, M., Montero-Marin, J., Roca, M., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2016). Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion. Mindfulness, 7, 651-659.
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga E, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368.