We all deal with stress! Live it, breathe it, try to avoid it, but life is unpredictable and sometimes it’s too much to handle without feeling (and acting) like the end is nigh. Luckily, only 15-30 minutes of meditation daily can significantly reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, sharpen attention, and increase focus. It may seem like a bunch of hokey hooplah, but science is proving meditation alters the brain, and provides an escape from the clutches of the omnipresent everything that threatens to drown us in anxieties and the doldrums of being human.
In a recent experiment, scientists at the University of Wisconsin recorded the brain activity of a Buddhist monk while he meditated on compassion–results showed “unheard of” gamma wave (related to consciousness, memory, and learning) activity. His brain activity was also focused on left prefrontal cortex rather than the right counterpart, which means he has increased capacity for happiness and positivity, and less for anxiety and negativity. Studies on other monks and meditation practitioners have found an increase in gyrification, or wrinkling in the cortex of the brain, strengthening it like exercise does the body. Those who meditate may be able to process information more quickly than people who don’t meditate because of their strong cerebral cortexes. This is because of something called “neuroplasticity,” which essentially means the brain is able to change the way it operates through neural communication. Meditation loosens the pathway for some neural connections, which aids in relieving anxiety, and creates a more empathetic brain. Meditation can also help prevent aging through neuroplasticity and it protects the telomeres on your chromosomes, which play a significant part in the aging process.
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar conducted two studies on meditation and utilized an MRI brain scan to see if the brain was affected by practicing meditation. In her first study she compared two groups of people: those who meditated on average for 30-40 minutes daily and people who did not meditate at all. Lazar found that those who practiced meditation had more gray matter in certain areas of the brain, and that 50 year olds who meditate have a brain cortex equal to a 25 year old–which is particularly significant, since as we age, our cortex tends to shrink leading to memory loss.
Lazar’s second study found measurable changes made to the gray matter of the brain in a study of people who learned to meditate and practice stress reduction techniques over the course of 8 weeks. Larger amounts of gray matter were discovered in the left hippocampus (connected to learning, memory, and emotional control) and the temporo-parital junction (connected to empathy and compassion). Intriguingly, the amygdala (controls the flight or fight response) of those who participated in the second study actually shrunk, giving credence to the notion that meditation relieves stress! It should also be noted that people with depression and PTSD have less gray matter in their left hippocampus, so if you are suffering from either of these, practicing meditation could truly work wonders!
Most of the studies on meditation are focused on “mindfulness meditation”, or a non-judgmental acceptance of the present. Mindfulness meditation typically starts with focusing on the breath and sitting with the back straight. During mindfulness meditation it is permissible to let your mind wander, so long as you exercise non-judgment of your thoughts and state of mind. You may also focus on thoughts such as “May I be happy” or “I am at peace”. Here is a guide on mindfulness meditation. This is not the only way to meditate, and results can be achieved through other forms of meditation such as: guided meditations, mantras (such as chanting OM or Sat Nam), and kundalini yoga. My favorite way to meditate is to sit outside (after putting on sunscreen), face the sun in yoga easy pose, hands in the Gyana mudra (tip of thumb and index finger touching to form a circle and remaining fingers extended and touching with my hands on my knees, palms up–calming, knowledge, and spiritual openness) and close my eyes while practicing long deep breathing with attention on my pineal gland (third eye chakra). The warm light of the sun radiates through my body, and feels wonderfully uplifting. I can think of no better way to describe it than a quote from Hellen Keller, “Keep your face to the sun and you will never see the shadows.”
Meditation is free, non-denominational and is available to all, the only cost is your time. It’s possibly the only part of the day where you are completely allowed to focus on true relaxation and inner self. Please give it a try: consistency is key, and over time, quieting the mind to reach a meditative state becomes effortless.
Related: I Tried It – Zen Meditation Sangha
Photo: Moyan Brenn