We all have times when motivation is lacking. Contemplating the benefits of meditation can often give us the little bit of encouragement we need to get our bum on the cushion.
This article looks at five of the most researched, most important benefits of meditation:
Table of Contents: Improvements in Concentration | An Overall Decrease in Anxiety Levels | Slows the Process of Brain Aging | A Greater Ability to Emotionally Self-regulate | Improvements in the Quality of Your Relationships | The Best Science and Spirituality Books
1. Improvements in Concentration
A great deal of research has been done into the concentration-building power of meditation. One recent study measured the attentional abilities of a group of meditators after a month-long retreat. Measures indicated a marked increase in their ability to steady their attention on a difficult task.
One of the authors of the paper, Anthony Zanesco, said that “This study, published in a special issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, adds to a growing body of evidence — both neural and behavioral — that suggests one’s attention may be improved through mental training….”1
2. Overall Decrease in Anxiety Levels
Anxiety is one of the afflictions for which meditation is most commonly recommended. A 2012 meta-analysis that brought together 163 different studies shows that various techniques (particularly Transcendental Meditation) had a marked positive effect.
The “rest and digest” part of your nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system) is activated during your session, which has both “in-the-moment” and long-term physiological and psychological benefits.
3. Slows the Process of Brain Aging
A recent 2015 study suggests that long-term meditation practice can actually slow the brain’s natural aging process. It’s normal for the human brain to deteriorate somewhat with age but the study, which involved 100 people (half meditators, the other half non-meditators) found, “…that individuals in the meditation group showed significantly lower grey matter loss in numerous brain regions, compared with those in the non-meditation group.”
4. A Greater Ability to Emotionally Self-Regulate
The ability to deal with negative emotions in a healthy way seems to be one of the most common benefits of mediation. A 2013 study that involved 100 participants reported that a 9-week training program, “…resulted in increased mindfulness and happiness, as well as decreased worry and emotional suppression.”
Respected teacher Sharon Salzberg writes that “With practice, we learn to respond more quickly to negative tendencies. Instead of catching ourselves fifteen regrettable actions later, we develop a visceral sensitivity to what’s happening within us and curb our negative cycle right away.”2
5. Improves the Quality of Your Relationships
Whilst certain techniques – particularly mindfulness meditation – have received the lion’s share of attention, interest in others has been steadily growing. Emma Seppala, a research scientist at Stanford University, is one such person who has taken a keen interest in loving-kindness practice.
Her research indicates a link between loving-kindness meditation and a deepening of feelings of social connectedness, empathy and a reduction in negative bias towards others. Improving the quality of your relationships in one of the key benefits of meditation.
The Best Science and Spirituality Books
Over the last three or four decades, there has been a blossoming of discussion about the confluence of science and spirituality. As a society, we believe in the efficacy of a world-view sustained empirical research but are also experiencing a deep spiritual thirst.
It is in this vein that together we’ve sought an integrative approach. An approach which combines scientific understanding with our knowledge of ancient practices and philosophies, one in which each is informed and enriched by the other. And, in many ways, also one that doesn’t depend on accepting any religious framework.
I think this emerging dialogue is an incredibly exciting phenomenon. One with implications for both our own spiritual lives and the spiritual life of humanity itself.
Sam Harris is often affiliated with what has been termed “secular spirituality,” a topic that, amongst others, he explores in this book. It’s made all the more interesting by the inclusion of stories of Harris’ own spiritual journey and his experiences with meditation.
There are practical and theoretical dimensions to Waking Up, both of which combine to make one of the most insightful books on contemplative wisdom recently published.
It’s an engaging read, in part because of the breadth of topics that it covers. He also isn’t afraid to point out where he doesn’t think the two fit.
3. The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson
The Mind & Life Institute has pioneered the conversation between Buddhist thinkers and scientists. Many of the world’s best-known spiritual teachers, including people like The Dalai Lama and Sharon Salzberg, are closely linked to it.
If you want a basic grounding in the interplay of traditional practices and neuroscience, then this is the place to start. One of my all-time favorites.
The author interviewed a lot of interesting people for the book, including Ken Wilber, Terrence McKenna and Alexander Shulgin (author of PIHKAL).
6. Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God
It explores the theme on a general level and, though the author is a rabbi, is inclusive of all faiths and disciplines.
This is somewhat of a classic and has received many accolades and recommendations, including a thumbs-up from Jon Kabat-Zinn.
In this partly autobiographical book, he talks about how Buddhist psychology can aid us in understanding our own mental life and as a tool in navigating life’s everyday complexities.
Paul Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby, has split this book into two parts. The first half explains human emotional and mental life from an evolutionary and physiological perspective whilst the second outlines practical exercises for developing self-compassion.
10. War of the Worldviews: Where Science and Spirituality Meet – and Do Not by Deepak Chopra Leonard Mlodinow
It’s an entertaining and fluid read that brings together two very different thinkers.
Bonus: DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences by Rick Strassman
I tend to veer away from books about psychedelics, but this one about trails involving DMT (a chemical released at birth and death that is said to be responsible for mystical experiences) carried out at the University of New Mexico is well worth a read.
The Benefits of Doing Nothing for Five Minutes A Day
Have you ever heard the old adage, “The power is within you”?
It’s one of those sayings that we tend to skim over. “Great!” the response will usually be, “But the sentiment doesn’t sit with the lived experience of my day-to-day life.” And it’s true. In the pursuit of our goals we have an array of “outside” needs: for information, experience, mentorship, money….
In this article I want to make the argument for meditation. I want to outline what I believe are the benefits of doing nothing for five or ten minutes every day. I’ll also make the point that meditation is one of those rare things that requires little outside “addition.” At its core, it’s a process of re-engaging with the stillness and stability inside us: there’s little to master and little to “get right.”
The Science in a Nutshell
Hundreds of studies into the effects of meditation have been carried out, including several meta-analyses. There are also a handful of organizations, chief amongst them the Mind & Life Institute, that are dedicated entirely to exploring the scientific dimension of contemplative practices.
Whilst it is now generally accepted beyond doubt in the scientific community that meditation is useful, most of the recent meta-analyses call for more research and greater methodological rigour.
One of the most compelling findings is that individuals who have meditated for long periods of time tend to have stronger neural connections between their lateral prefrontal cortex (LPC) and their insular cortex (IC), whilst also exhibiting a weakened connection between their IC and their medial prefrontal cortex (MPC). The IC is responsible for bodily self-awareness, and the MPC and LPC for our responses to those phenomena.
The MPC is the primary instigator of rumination and worry in response to perceived negative bodily stimuli, whereas the LPC is responsible for tempering our emotional responses and our rational interpretation of events. By strengthening our connections between the LPC and the IC, we’re better able to relate to negative feelings and emotions from a balanced, rational perspective.
On a slightly more practical level, test subjects have also shown improved performance in concentration tests across numerous studies. One at the University of North Carolina reported significant increases after only four days of short practice.(1) The evidence for meditation as a method for stress reduction is so strong that it has established itself as a mainstream therapeutic practice, both in the NHS and as part of the well-known programme, Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction, developed by psychotherapist Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is thought that meditation increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for feelings of calm and relaxation.
Finding A Practice
A meditation practice is a personal thing. Our temperaments will dictate which variation is best for us. Some may find the use of a mantra beneficial whereas others may be inclined to using a visualization. If you’re getting started, or if what you’re trying isn’t working, I recommend two simple methods.
The teacher B. Alan Wallace has pointed out that, even with something as simple as sitting and being mindful of bodily sensations, we often adopt a typically “western” attitude. We see whatever we’re engaging in as just another technique to master and tick off the list. In our efforts to keep focused we start to tighten up – the complete antithesis of what we’re meant to be doing!
It’s difficult not to relax whilst focusing on the movements of your belly. You’re grounding yourself in your body whilst at the same time naturally encouraging what’s called “diaphragmatic breathing.” This particular way of breathing into the abdomen as opposed to the upper chest is widely regarded as effective in dealing with negative emotions.(2) Try placing your left hand on your chest and your right on your belly, if you can breathe whilst only letting your left hand move a little you’re doing it.
1. Sit comfortably with your back straight and your hands resting in your lap.
2. Take a few deep, calming breaths. With each exhalation try and feel yourself relaxing into your body, consciously letting go.
3. When appropriate, let your attention rest on the sensation of your belly as you breathe in and out. Notice the rising on the in-breath and the falling on the out-breath. Don’t try to force or lead anything. Be mindful of the pauses between each breath.
4. If you become involved in thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sensations. The fact that you’re noticing your mind’s activity is a good thing. I was once told that catching a thought and returning back to the object of your attention is equivalent to lifting a weight, in this case with the mind as the muscle.
Focusing on the Nostrils
This is a common practice, perhaps the best-known in the west.
It involves resting your attention at your nostrils with each breath. This might be at the tip of your nose, or further up in the sinuses. It provides an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with the “flavours” of the breath: long or short, soft or rough, deep or shallow. In doing this, you’re fostering an intuitive understanding of the inter-relatedness of your in-the-moment breathing pattern and your physical or emotional state.
You can learn to “use” your breath to work with negative emotions whenever they arise. Remember the oft-cited advice, “Take a deep breath”? There is a basis to it. This is one of the reasons why I’m a proponent of using deep breathing exercises at work.
Sometimes we’re too agitated to sit and be still. In these cases a walking meditation can be our ally. Again, we simply focus on the sensations of our feet as we walk, slowly and deliberately.
Beginning with your left foot
Notice it lifting from the ground,
Your leg moving forward,
Your heel and forefoot touching the ground,
The weight shifting from one leg to the other,
Your right foot lifting from the ground…
The Problems of Discipline & Boredom: Start with TWO Minutes
Amazing how hard just sitting and doing nothing for ten minutes can be isn’t it? We seem to be almost scared of boredom. The fact that so many people have taken up meditation only to let it drift out of their lives is testament to this. It’s certainly happened to me a few times.
We often come to our sitting period with the expectation that it’s going to be totally enjoyable and engrossing. Whereas in a way that’s to miss the point. The purpose of what we’re trying to achieve is a deeper involvement with that place that’s non-emotional, that’s fundamentally stable and beyond whatever negative or positive emotion we may be experiencing at any single time.
There’s a wonderful quote by that goes, “You’re the sky – everything else, it’s just the weather.”(3) Seen this way, boredom is an invitation to begin to explore that inner stillness that is not the boredom, to experience the space between yourself and the emotions.
With all that said, simply “going in” to the adverse emotions doesn’t make them any less difficult. We often need to couple this approach with self-discipline. In truth, the “mini-habits” philosophy really stands up here. I’ve found that the trick is starting small and building, incrementally, from there. Start with two minutes and increase every week or two weeks. As time passes and the benefits of regular sitting become apparent, your conviction to continue will grow stronger.
Measuring Your Progress
Michael Gerber (founder of E-Myth) was fond of saying that results, and little else, are the prime motivators of people. I think there’s a lot of truth to this.
We spend a lot of time looking for motivational prompts in books and on the web. But the times we feel most compelled to action are when we’re fuelled by consistent results: a promotion, an increasing bank-balance, positive feedback from our peers….
I think it’s important not to view meditation as just another technique to master. Judge your progress not by how well you’re able to “do the task” but by how it impacts your well-being day-to-day. Do you feel less stressed, less involved in painful emotions, more resilient to negative people and situations?
When you become aware of these benefits (and as time passes you will) they become some of the strongest prompts to keep meditation in your life.
Bringing Meditation to Work
I’m particularly interested in how we can use the skills developed in our practice at work. For many people, myself included, the workplace can be emotionally demanding. Here’s one of my favourite techniques…
In their book, The Healing Power of the Breath, Dr Patricia Gerbarg and Dr. Richard Brown outline a simple technique called “Coherent Breathing”. It involves progressively extending your breath to a count of five. This breathing rate is known as the “resonant rate,” where for most people HRV (heart rate variability)(4) is at an optimal level.
It’s superb for weaving into your working day during those moments when you’re feeling overly-stressed or anxious.
Breathing in, two, three.
Breathing out, two, three.
Breathing in, two, three, four.
Breathing out, two, three, four.
Breathing in, two, three, four, five.
Breathing out, two, three, four, five.
If you find yourself getting breathless at a count of five, which equates to roughly five breaths per minute, simply retreat back to a count of three or four.
Your Lunch Break – Make A Commitment Now
It’s worth finding the time to sit for five minutes during your working day. Even if that’s all you do, you’ll almost immediately see the benefits. Our day-to-day happiness is dependent on our ability to work with negative emotions. Because we’re often faced with problematic situations at work, sometimes several in the course of a single day, we’re given the opportunity to see the practical benefits of meditation.
Even if it’s just sitting on a park bench (or a portable folding meditation bench) to do “coherent breathing” for five minutes or escaping to the toilet to be mindful of your breath, a short segment taken out of your day can ground you in a calm, relaxed attitude.
I hope that you’ve found something useful in the suggestions I’ve outlined. Meditation and mindfulness are becoming much more accepted in today’s world, especially in the workplace (see Google’s mindfulness program). I think this acceptance is based on two things: first, the recognition that traditional mind-body practices don’t need to come wrapped in religious dogma and secondly, a fuller awareness of its concrete benefits
I do hope you’ll give it a go and see for yourself! I’ll be on-hand in the comments section below.
References & Further Reading
So there you have it! Please include your own suggestions in the comments below.
Continue learning about the benefits of meditation with these additional articles.
(3) Pema Chödrön
(4) Heart rate variability is a measure of the difference in time between heartbeats and an indicator of the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.
(5) An insightful article by Robert Schneider about the benefits of meditation.
(6) Real happiness and mindfulness at work.
(7) R Hanson, Buddha’s Brain, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, 2009, p.9.