Bestowing an apparent wealth of benefits, meditation and mindfulness are growing like wildfire, but why? What are the benefits and why should you meditate?
An ancient Eastern practice, meditation has recently entered mainstream consciousness in the West and, much like yoga in the preceding decades, is being popularised in the West as a secular practice no longer bound to wellness retreats or new age gatherings. Research is showing a myriad of benefits to consistent meditators and studies at Harvard have shown that regular meditators grow grey matter in key areas of the brain associated with self-awareness and compassion, and shrink grey matter in the areas associated with stress. Yes, meditation actually changes the physical structure of our brains. It’s obvious now that meditation isn’t just for buddhists and hippies and is drawing in people from all sorts of high profile arenas, from professional athletes to the workers at google. The truth is that it can, and is, benefitting people from all walks of life.
“Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it?
The pill exists. It’s called meditation.”
Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis
Sounds to good to be true right? Well, here’s the kicker- it requires patience, commitment, time and practice. But so does almost anything that has a considerable payoff. A crucial foundation when embarking on any new journey of learning or discovery is motivation. With progressively more research being done it’s becoming clearer by the study that meditation offers numerous benefits to the consistent practitioner. Here’s a few examples to kickstart that motivation and get you excited to start meditating…
Improve Your Focus and Concentration
Being able to focus your mind is one of the most powerful tools you can have at your disposal. It improves not only performance but efficiency too. And this can be applied to anything, to whatever it is you want to put your energy into. You will be more precise and able to work with less distraction and greater proficiency. You will upgrade in everything that you do. With increased efficiency you will save time. Less time spent in useless and unproductive thoughts, and more time for you to think about what you actually want to think about. Less time spent procrastinating and more time doing what you actually want to do. Less actions through habit, and more through conscious will.
Meditation is a continual practice of retaining your attention and sharpening single pointed concentration. When you meditate you practice being conscious of your thoughts and where your mind is, and when you realise it isn’t where you would like it… you bring it back. A formal practice trains this awareness ‘muscle’ and with it comes a greater capacity for focus and attention.
Less Stress and Fewer Worries
Meditation triggers what psychologists call the ‘relaxation response’ which allays stress and hypertension. This is because it trains us to let go by calmly observing our current reality without reaction or resistance. Rather than getting wound up or agitated and stressed by a particular event or piece of news, meditation helps us to accept the reality of any situation. It teaches us to accept things we cannot change and in turn helps to stop us from worrying unnecessarily.
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is someone whom I suspect has clocked up his fair share of meditation time. Of course we can understand intellectually that worrying is not helpful but we all still have times when we do it. Meditation as a practice helps us to embody this understanding and to accept the unexpected and sometimes undesirable twists and turns as an inevitable part of life rather than to resist them, only creating stress and tension. We observe our thoughts and feelings and learn to let them pass. As we become more conscious of our anxieties and troublesome thoughts we have more ownership of them and are less affected by them. Meditators find it easier to relax, they’re practiced at it!
Gain a Greater Understanding of Yourself
So often we think something and we are that thought. We don’t recognise it as a thought, we just think it before thinking something else and continuing in a series of thoughts. These thoughts grow into opinions and inform our actions. They form the basis of our belief system and define our truths. They shape who we are.
With meditation we learn to observe thoughts and see them from an external vantage point, a greater perspective. This increases awareness and clarity of the mind’s habits and thought patterns; what occupies your mind and how you think. In this way meditation gives you the opportunity to not only know yourself better but also to gain insight into why you are the way you are.
With an improved self-awareness you will have a clearer perception of your strengths and weaknesses, your personality and your emotions. A clearer perception of your strengths allows you to use them more effectively and the ability to be honest with yourself about your shortcomings reveals room for growth. With a clearer understanding of the unique traits of your personality you will become more aware of how other people perceive you, and of how you perceive others. Relationships will improve and social situations will feel more natural, whether it’s meeting new people, making friends or collaborating with others in creative pursuits and business ventures.
Improve Physical Health and Boost Your Immune System
Meditation doesn’t only improve mental health but physical health too. Hate getting sick? Another reason to start meditating. Your body’s response to potential illness improves with meditation: it boosts antibodies, stimulates immune system brain-function regions and with its reduction of stress increases oxygen uptake and blood flow. This is why meditators take less sick days and why meditation is now being prescribed as a preventative medicine and treatment for all kinds of ailments. Research has linked meditation with a long list of health benefits and this should really be unsurprising given the link between physical and mental health and the correlation between stress and sickness.
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Really these are just a few of the benefits meditation can offer; if you’re still hungry for more there’s a heap of literature online about the topic… go dive in. Hopefully by now you’re ready to set up the pillows on the floor, it’s something I think anyone can benefit from. In twenty years I reckon it will become like how eating vegetables, exercising and brushing your teeth are today; a complete no-brainer. So get on your ass and start the habit today.
Have no idea how to meditate or where to start? Head over to my beginner’s guide.
Do you meditate? Has meditation affected you and your life? Please share your experiences in the comments.