Do you aspire to a zen-like state of calm and equanimity? Join the crowd.
While we’ve yet to find hard evidence about the number of thoughts going through our head on any given day (some say we experience anywhere from twelve to sixty thousand), it’s not the quantity, or even the quality that counts. It’s our habit of processing the perpetual chatter that seems to determine our daily health and happiness.
Researcher Ann Graybiel, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, believes that a core function of the basal ganglia is to help humans develop habits that eventually become automatic, including habits of thought and emotion.1Exploring the Brain’s Relationship to Habits, National Science Foundation, 2013
“Many everyday movements become habitual through repetition, but we also develop habits of thought and emotion,” says Graybiel. “If cognitive and emotional habits are also controlled by the basal ganglia, this may explain why damage to these structures can lead not only to movement disorders, but also to repetitive and intrusive thoughts, emotions, and desires.”
How can we transform these adverse habitual thoughts into healthy ones? Meditation.
Modern Research Catches Up to Tradition
Four thousand years ago, meditation became an essential ritual in religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. When the Buddhist and Hindu religions traveled from India to China, meditation became vital to the Chinese culture, making meditation the first branch of traditional Chinese medicine.
Traditional Chinese medicine, also referred to as TCM, is a method of healing the body and mind, beginning with–you guessed it–meditation. When we can calm our thoughts and emotions, we can also improve our physical health. Dr. Fred Russo, Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctor in Seattle, Washington explains, “Everything is interrelated: The energy of this organ affects your energy level and mood, which affect your dietary and exercise choices, which affect the original organ.” Therefore, when a condition becomes manageable, meditation can help in many circumstances, mentally and physically.
Recent studies have shown that meditation can reduce certain mental afflictions such as anxiety, stress, and depression. According to the EOC Institute, “If you don’t find a way to melt the layers of anxiety, the layers will continue to build, causing a myriad of health problems. Regular meditation…is more effective than the strongest medication you can take.”
Meditation is valuable to our overall health, because it can reduce the risk of future illnesses and improve our brain productivity. That’s some powerful preventative medicine. We can also improve our memory, strengthen our problem-solving skills, and increase our self-confidence and awareness: and these benefits illustrate why meditation has been revered as a longevity practice.
Could the prescription for mental and physical wellness be as simple as sitting quietly a few minutes every day? Both modern research and traditional schools of medicine seem to agree: there’s, quite literally, no time like the present to start a meditation practice.
Styles and Schools of Meditation
There are a great many forms of meditation, including moving meditation styles of t’ai chi, qigong and yoga as well as sitting meditation. Here, we cover three styles of stationary meditation.
Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT). IBMT was adapted from ancient techniques of traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s. In IBMT practice, meditators are coached to achieve a state of restful alertness, carefully controlling the breath in order to increase mind-body awareness. In a study conducted by the Dalian University of Technology and the University of Oregon, researchers found that a total of eleven hours of IBMT training can cause significant improvements in anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and fatigue levels.
Metta or Loving-Kindness Meditation. As the name suggests, there is an intention behind metta practice that includes developing goodwill, kindness, compassion, and empathy for self and others. Researchers at UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan found that people who practiced loving-kindness meditation for seven weeks experienced increased positive emotions and better social relationships with others. More recent studies have found that loving-kindness meditation can also significantly improved symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). “Mindfulness meditation” has become a household name as a result of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program pioneered by Jon Kabat Zinn in the late 1970s. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that participation in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program can decrease gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that plays a crucial role in feelings of anxiety and stress. As you can see, meditation doesn’t just make us feel better, it can actually create structural changes in our brains.
Getting Started with Meditation
Starting (or restarting) a meditation practice is as simple as sitting comfortably in a quiet place for five minutes or more. Developing a routine – same time, same place – is recommended to maximize results.
Although many meditation practitioners espouse the benefits of meditation for twenty to thirty minutes a day, going from “zero to thirty” is a dramatic leap that may prove difficult for most beginners. Instead, five minutes a day is recommended.
Choose a regular time and place, where you will be undisturbed. Any seated, comfortable position that allows you to sit upright (but not rigid) will work.
For the duration of your meditation session, breathe normally and focus lightly on the breath going in and going out. When you notice your mind has wandered, gently refocus your attention back to the breath.
Practice daily for ten days. Keep a journal to jot down any changes in mood, levels of patience, focus and inner calm. Because life is almost completely subjective, it’s easy to miss the subtle yet profound changes that may be happening.
As you continue your meditation practice, you may decide to expand the meditation period to ten minutes or more. Like anything new, getting into the habit of daily meditation can be tricky, but those incremental improvements in your health and happiness are well worth the effort.
Today, meditation apps make it easier than ever to pop in some earbuds and relax with guidance, music, or silence. Here are some of our favorites:
Insight Timer offers the largest free library of meditation content, making it the top meditation app. Forbes Magazine says: “Insight Timer is an alarm that times your mindfulness practice while simultaneously helping you to use your smartphone as a spiritual link to a worldwide community of meditators using ‘insight connect.’”
Cost: Free to $5 per month with premium subscription.
Why we like it: The social aspect of this app demonstrates that meditation needn’t be a solitary activity. With seven million users and nearly 4,000 meditation teachers and musicians to choose from, you are definitely not alone. Includes soothing yoga nidra meditations and a night-time setting for those experiencing sleepless nights.
Headspace vows that you will live a healthier and happier life. The Headspace you see today uses “guided meditations, animations, articles, and videos, all in the distinct Headspace style.”
Cost: $7.99 per month after free trial.
Why we like it: Headspace gets personal as the creators lead meditation sessions with you on your smartphone. Fun characters make it highly accessible and user-friendly.
Waking Up is more than a meditation app; it is a mind enhancer. The app promises to not only reduce your stress and anxiety, but to also help you focus and increase brain activity. Best-selling author Dr. Sam Harris shares his techniques of strengthening the mind and physique.
Cost: $14.99 per month after free trial.
Why we like it:The app was created by Dr. Sam Harris, who has been practicing meditation for over thirty years and has studied with many Eastern and Western meditation teachers.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Clearly, meditation can have a positive, powerful impact on mental health, but one of the crucial caveats for these improvements is that it is practiced consistently, every single day.
As the practitioners at Pulse Holistic Health say,
…meditation is an essential tool for learning about self, creating a peaceful mind, reducing stress, building qi and more. The focus of meditation is not so much to ‘stop the mind’s constant chatter’, but rather to learn how to not be burdened by it. Meditation calms the breath, and allows the qi to flow freely so we can move through our daily activities—no matter how stressful with greater ease.
Thus, a meditation a day truly can keep the doctor away.