Meditation has a reputation of being all about calming the mind and releasing day-to-day stress. And for good reason — millions of people worldwide practice meditation for exactly those reasons. Meditation, however, provides a person with many other benefits in just about every area of life.
The Basics of Meditation
There are several theories of where and when meditation began, including India a couple thousand years BC, but the truth is, no one knows for absolute certain. There are multiple references across different cultures and religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, to meditation-like practices, which all seem to have contributed to and inform the practice known widely today.
The word meditation stems from meditatum, a Latin term that means to ponder. Through the practice of meditation, we can seek to find a better connection with our body in the everyday moments that we often let pass us by, and create stronger awareness for how our emotions influence our behavior.
With so many demands on our time and minds, it takes conscious effort to take a moment and allow ourselves the time we need to explore who we truly are. Even when we do make time, many people are stuck on how to actually do this. The practice of meditation has certainly been recognized as a key method that can help.
Most first-time meditators find it strange to sit in silence, to sit with their innermost thoughts and feelings, to sit and do nothing — the very things that, funnily enough, the mind tends to resist. To a beginner, meditation might initially feel a little alien, perhaps even daunting, but that’s okay.
Our entire existence is experienced through our minds, and our perspective on life can dramatically alter once we begin meditating. Being inspired to start meditating is very different from actually doing it, however, and you’ll only feel the benefits of meditation by beginning and maintaining a regular practice. In order to get meditation, you need to do meditation. In order to calm your mind, you need to begin by sitting with its untamed nature.
Meditation is about connecting with the completeness of the here and now. You sit straight and still, observe, let go, come back, and discover the rich fullness of the present moment. Since you’re not giving in to distractions, you have the space to connect with mind’s creativity and become aware of the stream of thoughts and emotions it produces. And what are you going to do about these thoughts and emotions? You’re going to acknowledge them without giving in to fascination or frustration, and let them simply go back to where they came from.
The Benefits of Meditation
Most people who try meditation for the first time have a very specific goal — to reduce stress. And it’s a terrific tool for that. The bonus is that the calm you experience seeps into other moments of your day. Before you know it, you find yourself with a greater, more natural sense of balance, more compassion for yourself and others, and a more robust sense of humor. The benefits of meditation truly are many.
General stress reduction is probably the most common reason people try meditation. One study including over 3,500 adults showed that it lives up to its reputation for stress reduction. Normally, mental and physical stress cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines. These effects can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.
Be More Content and Happy
Scientific studies show that 90% of happiness does not depend on the external circumstances but on the way our brain processes whatever is going on in our life at any given moment. If that sounds unbelievable, let’s just think of a time we felt tired and as a consequence got irritated or unnerved by situations that were, in hindsight, not so bad at all.
A study on teachers at a school for children with severe behavioral problems who were treated to a transcendental meditation program had less stress, less depression, and overall lower burnout than other teachers.
Sleep isn’t just relaxation for eight hours a day — it’s essential to our cognitive functioning. Meditation gives you all sorts of benefits, like enhanced REM sleep and increased levels of melatonin. It turns out it can even help serious sleep problems. Researchers conducted a study to see if mindfulness meditation would benefit those struggling with chronic insomnia. After eight weeks, those in the meditation training had less total wake time during the night, were more relaxed before going to bed, and reduced the severity of their sleep problems.
Improves Emotional Health
Some forms of meditation can also lead to an improved self-image and more positive outlook on life. One recent study followed 18 volunteers as they practiced meditation over three years. The study found that participants experienced long-term decreases in depression.
Inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which are released in response to stress, can affect mood, leading to depression. A review of several studies suggests meditation may reduce depression by decreasing these inflammatory chemicals.
Enjoy Better Health and Longer Life
People can go into meditation practice either because they just want to live a long and healthy life, or because they are looking for help against a specific disease, ailment, or health issue.
Meditation may be an excellent line of defense against those horrible head-pounding episodes. Recent research finds that the practice leads to major relief of tension headaches (though it’s worth noting that the treatment program in this study involved both meditation and medication, like muscle relaxants).
Less Stress Eating
Researchers at UC San Francisco studied a group of women to test if meditating could prevent overeating. The scientists didn’t prescribe any diet, but instead taught mindful eating, and had participants meditate for thirty minutes a day. What happened? While the control group actually gained weight, the treatment participants maintained their weights, plus lowered their cortisol levels. Higher reductions in cortisol and stress also showed higher reductions in abdominal fat.
If your desktop is wallpapered with sticky note reminders and you often find your mind jumping from thought to thought, you may want to turn to meditation. It’s been shown to not only improve memory but to help cut back on distracting thoughts.