I’m always fascinated talking with individuals about their thoughts on what meditation is, and is not. Why they feel it is or isn’t all that important. I’ve been flat out told, “I would never just sit there when there is so much to be done.” But, what if I told you that all of that business we seek out to fill our lives was actually, not just distracting us from our life, but also biologically damaging our life? What do you think about meditation? Have you ever tried it? Do you feel drawn to it at all? Has it been explained to you as though you are supposed to stop thinking and just sit still? What if I shared with you that meditation has the potential to cure or mitigate disease? Or promote emotional regulation during times of stress? Would you be interested?
I’ve been reading a wonderful book, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy by Germer, Siegel, and Fulton (2013). This past week I was reading chapter 15, which unveiled the latest research on meditation and how it impacts the brain. I learned that in order for there to be a genuine behavioral change in a person, they must have a change in brain structure, referred to as neuroplasticity (Germer et al., 2013). The more we practice creating a new habit, the more the neurons that recall that pattern are fired and strengthened. What this means is that these patterns then become more innate for us, and thus we are aligning ourselves with what we desire in our life. Now, you can create neuroplasticity in the brain by learning, or engaging in any new activity. You could learn to play an instrument or a second language, but I would like to encourage you to consider meditation as your new learning.
The structure of the brain is measured by the gray matter and white matter contained within it. In the gray matter is where “thinking” actually happens, and neurons are talking to each other, and in the white matter is where information travels from one part of the brain to another. When we meditate or learn a new skill, we actually develop our gray matter (Germer et al., 2013). Along with this, long-term meditators had increased thickness in their anterior insula, which plays a key role in our affective responses to pain and internally generated feelings. Note that those with post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias, and schizophrenia had decreased anterior insulas (Germer et al., 2013). Let’s stay with this for a moment; this is actually saying that when we meditate, our emotional responses to our pain shifts. If you are someone with chronic pain who has experienced depression, or other emotional hardships, this may be a game changer for you. It was also discovered that the frontal cortex of the brain was larger in meditators than non-meditators; this area of the brain is devoted to decision making and cognitive functioning. It’s important to note that this area of the brain is known to decrease as we age (Germer et al., 2013). This is using meditation as a preventative to diminished cognitive functions as we age!
Still not convinced? This research also revealed that meditation offers a host of other incredible benefits, including emotional regulation, a more focused attention span, less reactionary behaviors, sharper decision making, increased empathy and compassion, help in forming better habits, and it also can serve as a possible preventative to future psychological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s Disease (Germer et al., 2013). Learning to play an instrument probably can’t do all of that for you!
Now, I always thought meditation was about sitting and trying to not think. What I’ve now learned is that meditation is about sitting, and allowing your thoughts to come. The key here, though, is to not judge them, try to control them, or get swept away by them so your mind loses focus. Truth is, thoughts are going to happen over and over and over, but the goal is to just let them be. Think of them, as Ram Dass says, as passing clouds. “We don’t know where they came from, and we don’t know where they are going.” It’s easy to get frustrated if you are trying to stop your thoughts. More so, when we simply allow them, we can then begin to notice the patterns of our habitual thoughts. This awareness can help us to recognize which areas of our lives need tending. I meditate often, just five to ten minutes per day, and I’m finding that to be easily integrated into my life. When you consider all of the benefits, perhaps you also have five minutes a day to spare?