What Can Meditation Really Do For You?
When I say the word “meditation” what’s the first image that pops into your head?
Be honest. Chances are you’re thinking of either a Ghandi-esque spiritualist or that substitute yoga teacher you had that one time who kept talking about their third eye when you were trying to get your downward dog on. You probably didn’t think of high ranking CEOs - or even me.
Most likely the image was followed by a second thought: I don’t have hours to spend sitting still trying to find inner peace. I’ve got a business to run, a house to clean, meals to cook and a family to wrangle. I’m lucky if I can find the time to go to the bathroom, let alone the time it takes to clear your head out.
You know what? There was a time when I probably would have been right there with you. It’s hard to get past the idea of meditation as a hokey form of spiritualism that you need to devote your whole life to, but taking a vow of silence isn’t the only way to start living a meditative lifestyle (and let’s be honest - you all know there’d be no way in hell I was going to stop talking!).
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
There are lots of different ways to meditate that all require different intentions and time put aside, but two of the most common types you’ll come across are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation. If I’m already starting to lose you, then make the effort to pull yourself back into this article and devote your whole brain power to what’s currently in front of you - without scanning through social media on your phone or drafting a shopping list in your head. Congratulations, you’ve just been introduced to mindfulness.
That’s right, mindfulness meditation is all about being in the moment and concentrating on your breath going into your body without chasing those thoughts that are always racing through your head. You can practice mindfulness in small doses - such as really being present while you eat your dinner and appreciating every mouthful, instead of shovelling it into your mouth over the sink and barely chewing (guilty!).
Transcendental meditation on the other hand is the type of meditation we’re all more familiar with and involves concentrating on a mantra that you repeat in your head. This can be an intention for something you want to concentrate on in your life or, in the case of pretty much all the meditations you’ve seen on TV, a sound such as the traditional “om”.
Whatever type of meditation you choose to practice, the goal is to be present in the moment and experience the sensations in your body as well as your thoughts and emotions without following them. It’s like standing on a busy train platform. You see the trains pull in and can acknowledge where they’re going, but you don’t get on any of them.
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION ON YOUR BODY
The most obvious benefit of meditation that we’re all aware of - and one of the main reasons meditation is so often recommended to people leading a busy life - is related to stress reduction. Studies have shown that meditation can help ease symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, especially when the main source of stress comes from the workplace.
Mindfulness meditation in particular, which encourages you to focus on your breath and body and disregard all unrelated thoughts, can have a significant impact on your stress levels because it helps you to focus on the present and not get carried away worrying about all those emails you’ll have to respond to first thing in the morning or that message you got from an annoyed client that’s eating you up inside.
But that’s not where the benefits stop. Meditation can also help your body in a more physical way by helping to ease blood pressure, which is one of the biggest risk factors of heart attacks. Regular meditation has also been linked to decreased mortality with older patients, as well as a decrease in blood pressure related symptoms in high-risk groups. It can also help with inflammation that can contribute to those feelings of depression.
Importantly - and unsurprisingly for anyone who has tried to meditate and found themselves snoring - meditation can also help with your sleep. Whether you’re a bit of an insomniac or just struggle with sleeping through the night when you’re stressed out, meditation can help you get a good night’s rest and in some cases can be as effective as sleeping medications. If you’re stressed out and unable to sleep it just continues the cycle of stress that makes you feel frazzled and look like you just stuck your finger into an electrical socket.
MEDITATION AND YOUR BRAIN
The most exciting benefit that we’re discovering about meditation is how it can affect your brain. Sure, reducing stress and anxiety is one of the mental benefits that should have you getting excited about embracing a life in the slow lane, but there is growing evidence that meditation can actually help you to re-wire your brain.
On a basic level, even a short course of regular editation can improve cognitive function - that means you’re better at focusing, have better control over your emotions and even improved memory. In a recent Harvard study, researchers used regular MRIs to assess the changes made to the brain through regular meditation and found an increase in grey-matter density in the hippocampus. This part of the brain is associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
So how can this actually help us?
Well improving brain function is always a good thing. Especially if you’re anything like me and occasionally find yourself staring at your computer screen for what feels like hours trying to figure out if “that” is actually a word. These changes to the grey matter can also help you train your brain to become more focused and productive during the day.
This isn’t a change that only occurs immediately following a meditation session either - they’re alterations to the make-up of your brain that you can build upon every day. With each meditation session you’re training your brain to focus on the here and now - whether that’s a physical sensation, an emotion or a memory. This is a skill that your body automatically transfers to your day to day life and helps you to become more productive and generally better.
MEDITATION FOR BEGINNERS
So now I’ve got you all excited about meditation and ready to jump on in but you have no idea where to start? Well, as I mentioned earlier, starting a meditation practice doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking or involve finding a spare couple of hours in your day when the kids aren’t screaming your name (good luck with that!). You can start practicing meditation any time you have a spare second or minute and progress from there.
Mindfulness meditation is a great way to start dipping your toes into the world of meditation because it is all about experiencing the moment that you’re in. You can be mindful while eating dinner, exercising or even while lying in bed before you go to sleep. The key is to focus on your breathing and the effect that it has on your body, acknowledge distracting thoughts and intentionally bring yourself back to your breathing. Set yourself a timer and you’ll be surprised how quickly time can pass while you’re meditating.
Whether you need to download an app to guide you or take a few classes to get a feel for it you’ll find that the benefits will work their way into all aspects of your life. Making you a more efficient worker, a better parent and a happier person all round. And who doesn’t want that?