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7 Benefits of meditation: The science of how it helps you

  • David & Steve Gordon

You may have heard about the many benefits of meditation

Meditating may bring to mind Tibetan monks in a mountainside monastery. But they are not alone.

Millions of people worldwide meditate every day.

Today, meditative practices belong to no single religion or region of the world.

Meditation is part of people’s lives everywhere, across all cultures. Yet, it’s often misunderstood.

This article sheds light on what it is, the known benefits of meditation, and how to Integrate it into your life.

This is what Emma M. Seppalla Ph.D., of Psychology Today, said after she had started meditating soon after 9/11. “When I started meditating, I did not realize it would also make me healthier, happier, and more successful.” (Emma M. Seppalla, Psychology Today, 2013 )

Before we explore these benefits of meditation further, we need to understand the practice.

 benefits of meditation meditating buddha chakra words

The Eye-Opening Influence of Meditation Today

Meditative reflection has been around for thousands of years. Our earliest ancestors felt increased clarity staring into fires.

Meditation’s popularity exploded in the late 1960’s. At the time, everyone from pop star George Harrison to Beat Poet Allen Ginsburg was doing it.

“Ashrams” and “mantras” soon became a part of everyone’s vocabulary. Meditation courses became big business. Indian gurus were as well known as rock stars.

Yet despite all the hype, it remained a simple practice that anyone could enjoy. You don’t have to be religious or spiritual to reap its benefits.

People began to realize that when they meditate, they feel better.  And recently scientists have been finding real health benefits of meditation practice. Today, there’s a growing realization that it is an antidote to the stress of modern life.

Look around and you’ll find meditation rooms everywhere, from airports to Silicon Valley start-ups. Over-wired millennials are even flocking to transformational music festivals to unplug, meditate and celebrate life.

 benefits of meditation bamboo leaves over waterWhat Is Meditation? The Surprising Answer

If you ask 5 people, you’ll likely get 5 different responses to this question. This is part of the practice’s beauty. Everyone can bring a bit of themselves to the practice and its definition.

At its most basic, meditation is a way to lead your mind to peaceful awareness.  Some describe this as “stillness” or “mindfulness”.

While some forms include chanting – most meditation involves sitting in silence or listening to meditation music. Likewise, while some forms are spiritual, others are just mental exercises with positive benefits.

There are also, a variety of visualization techniques you could use to effectively meditate.

Meditation is relaxing & so much more.   The practice works on the surface and on a physiological level too.

Recently, scientists have started to study how the benefits of meditation improves our health & wellness.

There is growing evidence that a regular practice can even “rewire” regions of the brain.

Benefits of meditation balancing river rocks shadow and light

Becoming Attentive  – A Wonderful New Relationship with Your Thoughts

You can think of meditation as sitting by the side of a stream that contains your thoughts. You are watching the stream as the thoughts float by.

You don’t control the stream. You’re aware of the thoughts in the stream. You can see how your thoughts change and progress without any interference from you.

After you master the technique of letting your thoughts flow, you’ll notice changes. It’s at this point that you can answer the question yourself:  You’ll find many reasons.

During the practice, you change your usual relationship with your thoughts. Instead of “thinking,” you feel more like you are a witness to the thoughts that are flowing by.

To help you watch your thoughts in this peaceful way, you can focus your attention on your breath going in & out.

Or you can mentally repeat a word or phrase (a “mantra”) –  or even a positive affirmation. If you are outside, you can just focus on the sounds around you.

Return to your focus if you notice you are thinking again, rather than watching your thoughts flow by. As you meditate, this process gets easier.

The first few times you try it, it may feel far from peaceful. As you train your mind by meditating, you will start feeling more & more relaxed.

You’ll discover that just watching your thoughts, that your mind will begin to clear. Then, you will notice the number of thoughts begin to decrease. This is enjoyable & blissful.

Today, in our over-stimulated world, meditating is a true luxury. It’s a vacation from the mental clutter we experience everyday. With the benefits of meditation starting to take an effect.

benefit of meditation eyes double exposed over ocean sunset third eye

The Spiritual Benefits of Meditation

People who train their mind by meditating may begin to think spiritually. This is especially true when you define spirituality as a recognition that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

Yet, even the most reverential Buddhists refer to meditation as a practice. They are even quick to deny that being of a certain faith allows one to meditate more easily.

It’s for everyone. It’s a method of self-discovery. And whether you’re spiritual or not, it can have a powerful impact and bring a wonderful sense of inner balance.

benefit of meditation women balancing on tree log

The Health Benefits of Meditation

When you start practicing on a regular basis, you’ll begin to notice the physical health benefits of meditation. Research has shown that increased mindfulness has a positive effect on many of the body’s functions.

People who meditate on a daily basis think clearly when making decisions. They’re more rational and able to make better sense of the obstacles they encounter in life.

This is what Harvard researchers found during a recent study done at Massachusetts General Hospital. “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training.

They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder”. (Sue McGreevey, Harvard Gazette,2011)

Medical researchers have also found that the benefits of meditation include:

Let’s explore these important health benefits of meditation one by one. benefits of meditation happy woman laying on a bed of flowers

Increased Sense of Well-being

One of the greatest benefits of meditation is an increased sense of well-being. This may be the “blissed-out” state that some people experience when meditating.

But it’s more than just a feeling, it’s real.  It’s a medically proven way to improve Your day-to-day outlook.

When you achieve this sense of well-being, your work colleagues, friends & family notice. It will identify you as someone who is happy withlife and capable of meeting its challenges.

For someone prone to depression, as mentioned in the studies below, meditation can be invaluable. Depression makes everything more difficult. It can affect people’s productivity, their relationships, work habits and ruin their lives.

Using meditation pro-actively, people prone to struggle with depression, can give themselves an alternative to medication. They can reduce the symptoms before they even start.

benefits of meditation stone bridge over clam water

Decreased Anxiety & Psychological Stress Levels

Along with a sense of well-being, most people report a decrease in levels of anxiety and stress. People who practice meditation are some of the calmest individuals. They seem to go through life letting the stresses of everyday life just roll off their backs.

What’s the upside? For companies, it means less stress means less absenteeism & fewer sick days. It also means healthier & happier workers. In turn, this leads to higher levels of productivity.

In a study published in 2013, scientists at the University of California found 12 minutes of daily yoga meditation improved stress-induced aging. (Makiko Kitamura, Bloomberg, Nov. 22, 2013) “There is a true biological effect,” says psychiatrist John Denninger. Denniger is the director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

“The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body.” “One session of relaxation-response practice was enough,” he said. “There was an effect even among novices who had never practiced before.”

A study in 2014 referred to anxiety and stress collectively as “negative affect.” This negative affect could be eased by the practice of mindful meditation.

Another study reports that “mindfulness and mantra meditation techniques” reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.”

As stated in the study: “Anxiety, depression, and stress/distress are different components of negative affect. When we combined each component of negative affect, we saw a small and consistent signal that any domain of negative affect is improved in mindfulness programs when compared with a nonspecific active control.”

The same study found another key finding:

“Mindfulness meditation programs could help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain in some clinical populations.” Clinicians should be prepared to talk with patients how a meditative program can help. (Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being, March 2014)

There are many studies, proving the benefits of meditation and the effect it has on stress. These studies also point to the benefits to the heart, circulatory and respiratory systems.

The most obvious effect of relieving stress and anxiety is a lowering of blood pressure. Lowering your blood pressure makes you less susceptible to heart attacks, stroke and diabetes. Harvard cardiologist Dr. Deepak Bhatt found a direct link between meditation and cardiovascular health.

“Meditation can be a useful part of cardiovascular risk reduction. I do recommend it, along with diet & exercise. It can also help decrease the sense of stress & anxiety.” “It appears to produce changes in brain activity. It also can lower your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress.” (Harvard Health Letter, Dr. Deepak Bhatt, 8/1/13)

Benefits of Meditation Healthy Young Woman Over Blue Sky

Increased Immunity Levels

Mental health also plays an important role in the body’s ability to function & ward off disease.

Depressed people often fail to take care of themselves. But the problem runs much deeper.

We now know that depression is a treatable condition. A medical condition can have many symptoms. One of the symptoms of depression is depleted immune systems. This means that depression can have domino effects. It can result in a downward spiral.

In short, depression can and often does impact the immune system too. A recent study suggests that meditation can stop this downward spiral.

“These findings demonstrate that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways and underscore the need for additional research.”(Psychosomatic Medicine/Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine July 2003)

Maintaining a positive mental outlook Increases the body’s immune system. Another study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also found this to be true.

“Results showed that this meditation practice produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions. In turn, these increments in personal resources predicted increased life satisfaction.” (Open Hearts Build Lives / Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 95(5))

A 2004 study, “The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Cognitive Processes and Affect in Patients with Past Depression,” reached similar conclusions: “Overall, the results suggest that MM practice primarily leads to decreases in ruminative thinking, even after controlling for reductions in affective symptoms and dysfunctional beliefs.” (Cognitive Therapy and Research, August 2004)

In yet another study, patients who practiced were compared to those who don’t. The results were significant.

“Meditation practices may impact physiological pathways that are modulated by stress and relevant to disease.  Individuals with meditation practice times above the median exhibited lower TSST-induced IL-6 and POMS distress scores compared to individuals below the median, who did not differ from controls. These data suggest that engagement in compassion meditation may reduce stress-induced immune and behavioral responses.” (Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress, January 2009)

 benefits of meditation lotus whiteIncreased Mental Clarity

Meditation research suggests that the effects of the practice on the brain are profound. So far, results point to the practice’s ability to improve dexterity functions. Mental clarity is another benefit of meditation.

A recent report in the Harvard Gazette summarizes a new study by Britta Holzel and colleagues.

“By practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says Britta Holzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. Holzel further observes: “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

Finally, Holzel notes, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced… but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder”. (Sue McGreevey. Harvard Gazette, January 2011)

Among other benefits of meditation, increased brain functions are valuable in the workplace. They increase the perceptual sensitivity, working memory and visual discrimination. These all provide useful additions to the skills used in today’s computer-related careers.

For example, David M. Levy and his colleagues report, “Meditation training may effect positive changes in the multitasking practices of computer-based knowledge workers, and thus offers encouragement to those who would design workplace or technology interventions to take advantage of this possibility.” (The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment 2012)

Another recent study addressed the increased ability to maintain attention in the workplace.

Dr. K.A. MacLean and colleagues found, “Training produced improvements in visual discrimination that were linked to increases in perceptual sensitivity and improved vigilance during sustained visual attention. Consistent with the resource model of vigilance, these results suggest that perceptual improvements can reduce the resource demand imposed by target discrimination and thus make it easier to sustain voluntary attention.” (Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention, June 2010)

In “Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training,” Dr. Fazel Zeidan and colleagues report, “Brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning…benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.” (Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training, December 2009)

One study even mentioned that a sustained meditative practice reduces “neural noise” in the brain.

Why is this important? It means that the practice is also valuable as a diagnostic tool. It helps researchers to see how the brain functions and how to treat certain conditions.

As Dr. Richard J. Davidson concludes: “One of the interesting implications of the research on meditation and brain function is that meditation might help to reduce ‘neural noise’ and so enhance signal-to-noise ratios in certain types of tasks. In contexts where brain-computer interfaces are being developed that are based upon electrical recordings of brain function, training in meditation may facilitate more rapid learning.” (Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, January 2008)

benefits of meditation masseuse doing a hand-massage

Decreased Pain Sensitivity

There are many athletes who have embraced the power of meditation for training. They rely on it to get their “head in the right place” when they are facing a competition.

For athletes, the health benefits of meditation are obvious. It helps manage aches, pains and over-exertion.

You hear athletes talk about the need to regulate their breathing and to listen to their bodies. Indeed, it’s essential to them to know how their body is doing.

Think of the long distance runner, swimmer or cyclist. They exert themselves for hours on end. They never know when they might face a challenge from another competitor. They have to keep something in reserve to face unexpected challenges.

When your body exerts itself at these levels, its natural reaction is to tell you to stop. The only way it has to tell you to stop is through the introduction of pain.

The athlete’s job is to work through that pain and push further. This is what wins races.

One study found that contemplative techniques that focus on breathing help athletes’ control pain.

As Dr. Fazel Zeidan and colleagues report: “We found that the increased capacity to reliably focus on the breath in a non-evaluative manner following brief training can effectively reduce the subjective experience of pain.” He adds, “Meditation likely alters pain by enhancing cognitive control.” (Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation, April, 2011)

What’s the take away? It helps athletes push themselves further by easing pain. It allows them to block the interference that intrudes on their performance. But the benefits meditation are not only for athletes. Everyone has something to gain.

Benefits of meditation Close up side view of young woman in white meditating next to stream in forest.Girl sitting in wooden path next to water side.

Getting Started in Meditation

There are plenty of ways that you can learn more about this topic. From community centers and health spas, you’ll find courses. If you practice yoga, your instructor is likely already incorporating mindfulness techniques. While ashrams still exist, you don’t need to visit one to sustain a meditative practice.

In fact, you don’t even need to leave your house to experience the benefit of meditation. The internet has many sites devoted to the power of meditation. Here, you’ll find many techniques & philosophies.

Choose the one you think will work best for you. After all, it’s your journey of self-discovery.

Online, you’ll also find audio downloads. These downloads are one way to leave your computer screen behind. First, get into a comfortable position. Then, let these audio downloads talk you through the process.

You can also use meditation music found online.  By focusing on music for meditation, it makes the process of watching your thoughts and quieting the mind much easier.

Keep in mind that this is a “practice” and practice makes perfect. You may not feel like you’re “getting it” at first. But be patient.

Over time, the benefits of your newfound practice will become increasingly clear. There is no time like the present to begin on your journey…when will you begin to meditate?

David & Steve Gordon

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