Emerging research suggests meditation can provide impressive mind-body benefits: clearer focus, reduced stress and maybe even long-term mental acuity.
As it’s often been said, no matter where you go, there you are. And now more than ever, thanks to your smartphone, so are your boss (via email), your kids (via text), your friends (via Facebook) and the latest breaking news (via Twitter). Even beyond the reach of your phone, your mind still percolates with various preoccupations. (Must remember to request that health-insurance reimbursement! Wait, where is the receipt?)
Small wonder, then, that you might occasionally want an escape from all this. You can turn off your phone with the switch of a button. But your brain? Meditation can do the trick.
“We’re all hyperconnected, functioning 24/7, but we need to schedule in downtime,” says Suze Yalof Schwartz, a meditation teacher and founder of Unplug Meditation Studio in Los Angeles. Sure, exercise can help, but these days that can also mean junking up your brain with more stress, not less, with apps that give second-by-second feedback on speed and exertion, classes that require cutthroat reservations and yoga that calls for specialized gear.
Meditation, on the other hand, doesn’t involve fancy equipment — just a pair of lungs. You can reap the benefits of clearer focus, reduced stress and maybe even long-term mental acuity in spare minutes throughout your day — as you’re waiting for the bus, while you’re walking to the bank, when you’re chopping shallots for dinner.
“There are more ways to meditate than there are to cook an egg,” says Schwartz. “It’s for anyone who wants to be a highly functional person, a calmer parent or a worker who wants to bring her brain back when it takes a hike.”
Indeed, meditation can help with problem-solving: A Dutch study, published in the journal Mindfulness, found that as little as 25 minutes of open-monitoring meditation (when you observe the thoughts that come in and out of your wandering mind) led to creative thinking. What’s more, the spark of creativity was seen in both experienced meditators and beginners.
This isn’t just magical thinking. Meditation seems to work at a physiological level in the brain to alleviate anxiety, a 2013 study at Wake Forest School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found. MRI results suggested that the part of the brain governing thinking was more activated after subjects participated in a mindfulness training session than before it; there were also dips in anxiety of as much as 39 percent. And a study last year at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that people who participated in 25-minute training sessions in mindfulness meditation for just three days felt less stressed during a trying situation than those who didn’t.
“Mindful meditation can decrease reactivity. It helps bring attention to any stressful experiences that may be occurring — racing thoughts, racing heart, angry emotions — and rather than being judged as good or bad, they’re viewed neutrally and with acceptance,” explains Emily Lindsay, a graduate student in psychology at CMU and a co-author of the study. “In that way, negative responses don’t build on themselves and spiral out of control. They’re simply noticed and allowed to pass, and attention moves on to the next event.”
As Schwartz describes it, meditation creates and maintains “the space between your emotions and the logical part of the brain. You’re able to see when you’re bringing your emotions into a situation, and it lets you access your pause button and ask yourself, ‘Do I really care?’” she says. “When you are tapped in to how you feel, it makes everything clearer instead of clouded by emotion.”
Such clarity can be deployed for quotidian annoyances — when you might otherwise snappishly respond to your lollygagging child — as well as bigger challenges. Take, for instance, a stay-at-home mom we’ll call Anne, who started meditating during a painful divorce. “I went to buy a copy of ‘After the Affair’ [a self-help book] and spotted the Dalai Lama smiling benevolently at me from the cover of ‘The Art of Happiness’, so I bought that, too,” she recalls.
And since the Dalai Lama wrote about meditation, she looked into that as well. Over the past two years, “meditation has made me stronger, almost physically stronger. In the same way that going to the gym and lifting weights can make you stronger, I feel as if my mind is better able to withstand the difficulties of life,” she says. “Meditation is always available. When something difficult happens, or even when something is annoying in a rather trivial way, it helps me cope.”
Meditation can also help you manage physical pain as well as psychological pain, new research has found. Patients with chronic neck pain and stress reported a significant reduction in pain after eight weeks of meditation training, compared to those who exercised as pain-relief treatment, the Journal of Pain reported in January. Meditating for the long term could bring on even more gains: In January, a study at the University of California–Los Angeles Mindful Awareness Research Center found that, compared to nonmeditators, people who had meditated regularly for an average of 20 years showed less decline in gray matter in the brain, which is linked to cognition and memory efficiency, says co-author Florian Kurth of UCLA’s department of neurology.
While he says more research is needed to clearly link meditation to improved cognition and increased gray matter, he does point out that “meditation is so incredibly affordable — all you have to do is sit down for five minutes.” So what do you have to lose, besides stress and anxiety?
How to start meditating
If you’re afraid you’ll do it wrong, try guided meditation. This is akin to having a personal trainer at the gym. An instructor talks you through the exercise of clearing and focusing your mind. Find a class at a gym or yoga studio, or listen to sessions — some as brief as five minutes — on apps like Headspace or Insight Timer, which offer guided meditations from luminaries like Eckhart Tolle (both are free from the App Store or Google Play).
If you can’t be still, try moving meditation. If you can knit or chop vegetables, you can meditate. “There’s meditation when you’re focusing on making each stitch as you’re knitting,” Schwartz says. Indeed, a series of books by Thich Nhat Hanh — including “How to Walk” and “How to Eat” from Parallax Press — provides instruction on how to meditate while engaging in everyday activities.
If you don’t have time, try taking a breath. “You can cumulatively meditate — one minute of every hour. That’s all you need,” Schwartz says. “You can do this while in line at Starbucks. Take a breath for two or three seconds, observe the situation, identify how you feel, then exhale and proceed with your life. You’ve just meditated.”