We all know that meditation can help maintain a clear mind, but did you know that it has other numerous health benefits as well? This ancient practice is as old as human civilization itself, and it involves being able to train the mind or induce a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself.
There are many different styles of meditation, and many different activities commonly referred to as meditative practices (e.g., yoga, ecstatic dance, painting, playing piano). The different types of meditation acknowledged worldwide include Taoist meditation, Zen meditation, transcendental meditation, prayer, mindfulness meditation, and Buddhist meditation. In some of these types, you remain completely still, while others you can freely move the body. Regardless of the meditation type, the end objective of each is to teach our minds to quiet down, reflect, and release stress of any kind.
Thanks to modern science, fMRI scans have shown that when we meditate, our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. Beta waves decrease, our frontal lobe (the part of the brain associated with reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness) temporarily shuts off, and our thalamus (part of the brain responsible for senses) and parietal lobe (involved in processing sensory information about the surrounding world) firing slows down.
How Meditation Improves Our Health
Here are six ways in which meditation, even just 10 minutes per day, affects our health:
People who meditate regularly can focus better and deal with stress more effectively than individuals who don’t meditate. Being able to assess situations under a new light, and viewing them as non-stressful can help improve the level of happiness in your life. Practicing meditation has been shown to help us get in touch with our feelings and over time it can increase how happy and optimistic we feel as well as our sense of spirituality. It can help us accept who we are and increase our sense of fulfilment. It can also help us build empathy and compassion and so help improve our relationships with other people.
When you meditate, you are literally re-wiring your brain for happiness. You become more compassionate toward others (studies have found that even newly-trained meditators use less harsh language than individuals with no meditation experience). Why not try it out yourself? Try meditating each day for 10 minutes, letting go of all forms of judgement and criticism that may enter your mind, and see whether the relationships in your life (whether that be with family, friends, lovers, or even strangers) improve!
A study at UCLA utilized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to physically look inside the brains of long-term meditators. These individuals brains were much larger than their non-meditating counterparts, which could be explained by the fact that meditation increases grey matter in the brain (this was found and published in the journal “Neuroimage” in 2009 and found that meditators had more grey matter in regions of the brain associated with attention, emotional regulation, and mental flexibility. More grey matter in the brain makes these areas more efficient at processing information).
Meditation is like a training program for the brain. As with any kind of training, whether musical or mathematical, regular practice helps strengthen connections between neurons in the brain and can also make new connections.
Who knew that meditation could help us improve the health of our cardiovascular system?! The type of meditation that works best in this case is called “Transcendental Meditation” and can literally help the body repair and maintain itself.
In this meditation type, a word, sound, or phrase is repeated silently in order to prevent distracting thoughts from entering the mind. This will help achieve a state of relaxed awareness, where the body can focus on repair and healing. Studies have found that Transcendental Meditation help to reduce blood pressure, and improve anger (which is heavily tied to elevated risk of heart attacks).
Suffer from anxiety? Do you tend to worry, panic, stress out easily or have feelings of self-doubt? Why not use meditation to help ease or completely eliminate these feelings?
It has been found that mindfulness meditation, where you physically change the way the brain responds to negative thoughts, is one of the best ways to help eliminate anxiety. This type of practice involves that you become aware of the present moment without judgement and without trying to change what you notice in that moment. This meditation type helps individuals with anxiety how to deal with their distressing thoughts without being overpowered by them.
When we meditate more often, the neural connections between bodily sensation and fear centres in the brain become loosened, so that when we feel sensations of fear, panic, or distress, we don’t react as strongly. As this connection weakens, a different, more beneficial connection between our Assessment Centre and our bodily sensation and fear centres becomes strengthened, so that we can deal with upsetting sensations more rationally.
Meditation is actually a natural sleep aid! When we meditate, the level of activity in the brain reduces and we can focus our attention on the present moment. When we meditate, our blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, stress hormones drop and our brain waves begin to resemble a state of relaxation found in the early stages of sleep.
Using meditation to help clear the mind for a better sleep is a great way to help you relax at night and not stress about the thought of not being able to sleep, or other worrisome thoughts that may enter the mind. I find that even listening and meditating to delta wave binaural beats (found easily on platforms such as youtube) can put me to sleep within minutes!
Mindfulness meditation can also help reduce pain in the body. in a 10-week Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, ninety chronic pain patients were trained in mindfulness meditation.
Statistically significant reductions were found in measures of negative body imagine, present-moment pain, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbance, and psychological symptoms including anxiety and depression. In addition, activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased. A separate group of pain patients (control group) did not show significant improvement on these measures after using traditional treatment protocols.
If you suffer from chronic pain, enrolling in a local meditation group or practicing mindfulness meditation on your own would be a great way to start – you can search Google on how to go about starting, or take out books from the Library.
Watts, Alan. “11 _10-4-1 Meditation.” Eastern Wisdom: Zen in the West & Meditations. The Alan Watts Foundation. 2009. MP3 CD. @4:45
Lutz et. al; Slagter, HA; Dunne, JD; Davidson, RJ (2008). “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation”. Trends in cognitive sciences 12 (4): 163–9.