Meditation: Now it’s for everyone
What do you think of when you hear the word MEDITATION? Monks in a remote mountain village, sworn to silence, sitting for hours trying to free their minds, trying to clear all thoughts and then levitating above the ground? Or do you think of Steve Jobs, one of the most creative and innovative humans ever to start a business?
What was once felt to be only for deeply pious individuals who dedicated their life to mindfulness, has now become mainstream and nearly a requirement for creativity, innovation and productivity. Steve Jobs was a devout practitioner of Zen mindful meditation. He saw the benefits of reduced stress, increased creativity and enhanced clarity in life. In his biography, Mr. Jobs is quoted as saying:
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things- that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There is no question that having time to ourselves, slowing down our pace and our breathing, can work wonders to help us relax after a stressful day. But now there is evidence that meditation, or mindfulness, can do much more.
A recent study out of Harvard analyzed MRI images of participants before and after an 8-week meditation practice. They also analyzed MRIs on control subjects who did not participate in meditation. The treatment group averaged 27minutes each day of mindfulness exercises. Amazingly, the MRIs showed a significant increase in the hippocampus and other areas related to memory, self-awareness and compassion. There was decreased size in the amygdala, which is linked to anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group. This was the first study to show in a prospective, randomized manner that less than 30 minutes of daily mindfulness practice can actually have direct effects on the brain size and composition.
They still didn’t levitate, but they did change their brains. Sounds pretty impressive to me.
In addition to actually changing your brain, mindfulness (defined by some as the “non-judgemental awareness of experiences in the present moment”) has been shown to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, reduce blood pressure, and improve overall well being. It doesn’t eliminate external stressors, of course, but it can dramatically alter how your body and mind react to them. Some would argue, what good is it if it only works when you are doing it or shortly thereafter? It is important to point out that meditation is like exercise. If you exercise one week, and then not again for 3 months, you will no longer have the beneficial effects of that one-week of exercising. But if you maintain your workouts 4 days per week, week in and week out, you will see dramatic short and long-term benefits. The same applies for mindful practice.
Plus, it isn’t very hard to do. Like anything it takes practice, and you actually do get “better” at it with time. Here is how to start:
- Sit in a quiet place with few distractions. Just be comfortable. You don’t need to sit cross-legged and hold your fingers in funny positions. You just need to be comfortable.
- Close your eyes and notice your thoughts. Don’t try to stop or control the thoughts, just observe them like a third party observer looking in from the outside.
- Yes, this may sound cliché, but a big part of mindfulness is focusing on your breath. Feel the breath as it comes in and out through your nose. As you focus on your breath, thoughts will come in to interrupt you, and that’s okay. Don’t judge your thoughts, don’t try to control them. Simply observe and acknowledge them, and then move your focus back to your breath.
- Become aware of how your body feels. The heaviness of your head, the feeling of your hands resting on your legs, your feet touching the ground, the air moving in and out of your nose as you focus on your breath.
And that’s it, the basics of being mindful. Be in the present, focus on your breathing, and allow the world to continue without reacting to it. Allow your thoughts to come and go without trying to control them or react to them. You can start with as little as 5 minutes, then progress to 10, 15 even 20 minutes.
I can’t promise that a regular mindfulness practice will make you as brilliant and creative as Steve Jobs. But I can promise you that it will help you think more clearly, feel more balanced, and help you unleash the true potential within yourself.
At Boundless Health, we are committed to helping you achieve your health and performance goals. We believe in evaluating every aspect of your life to help find the right approach for you, as an individual, to help you reach your goals. Does mindfulness or meditation fit into this approach for you? We would love to help you find out. Please contact us today to learn more.
Bret Scher MD FACC
President, Boundless Health