May reduce stress and help you live

Most of us know the stock market hates uncertainty. Humans don’t deal with it particularly well either—it can affect both our physical and mental well being. Right now, no question, we are living in uncertain times. Stress, anxiety, and depression are escalating as economic instability and social isolation rises with companies struggling and job losses mounting and no end in sight. In a study recently conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, “one third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression” (30% nationally and 34% in California). So, how do we find shelter from this current storm? It might just be the perfect time to explore the daily practices of gratitude, mindfulness, and meditation to help get you through.What began decades ago as a predominantly Eastern alternative philosophy and practice has today become so Western mainstream, you will find meditation and mindfulness in the classrooms of prestigious higher learning institutions, places of worship, and a myriad of centers and studios online and off. Respected medical institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford, and research scientists worldwide study and tout its benefits.

Benefits backed by science

Dedicated meditators have long espoused the benefits of meditation, expressing subjective feelings of reduced stress and increased calm, more alertness and focus, and more emotional resilience. Long viewed as anecdotal, scientists, armed with MRI scans and randomized control studies, now confirm these feelings as not just subjective. Real physical changes happen as well.

Notable physical effects of meditation have been linked to reducing inflammation, thereby strengthening immunity and improving heart health, lowering blood pressure by helping to dilate blood vessels, and improving our physiological response to and perception of pain. Meditation can alleviate stress because it turns down the “flight or fight” sympathetic response which pumps out too much cortisol and adrenaline and accelerates aging if stress becomes prolonged. Instead, meditation turns up the parasympathetic pathway, producing the “happy” hormones of dopamine and serotonin which promote relaxation, rest, and improved sleep.

There’s more especially in the brain. Meditation actually reverses the thinning of the prefrontal cortex that happens with age and contributes to cognitive decline. Meditation reduces the density of the amygdala region (which can increase from stress) and helps maintain its healthy structure and promotes emotional regulation. Additionally, stress hormones can shrink the hippocampus over time, interfering with our memory and navigation: meditation can help maintain its size. Too, meditation can positively impact our capacity for creativity and self-reflection, due to its effects on the density and size of the posterior cingulate cortex.

What’s more, one form of meditation might just make us more compassionate, which our world could really use right now. Cognitively based compassion meditation training has been shown to impact the brain’s temporoparietal junction governing perspective and empathy.

There are many studies and more benefits suggested than there is room to mention here, such as effects on gene expression and telomeres. For example, in 2019, genetics researchers at Harvard published a study in Nature concluding, “a calm mind could lead to a longer life. Our study raises the possibility that modulating excitation state (in the brain) can affect lifespan.”

What’s the difference between meditation, mindful meditation, mindfulness, and a gratitude practice?

Meditation and mindfulness meditation are limitless areas to explore. There is a meditation style to suit every individual.

Mindfulness can be done throughout your day. It’s about being in, and focusing your attention fully in, the present moment. One can be fully present doing any task, however mundane. But the mind frequently wanders off, and herein lies the challenge and the work. A study conducted by two Harvard psychologists found that most people spend about “47% of their day thinking about something other than what they’re doing.”

Mindfulness meditation is about bringing awareness of and attention in the present moment to one’s breath, thoughts, sensations, and/or emotions.

Gratitude practice consists of taking a few moments each day to acknowledge either in your mind, aloud, or in writing the things you are most grateful for. Those may include the big things as well as the small things. A product of positive psychology, many studies have found people who take the time to do a gratitude practice are happier, have a greater sense of well-being, and have more empathy toward others.

Meditation also comes in many varieties. Some you might consider are:

  • sound meditation,
  • breathing meditation,
  • guided imagery,
  • visualization,
  • mantras,
  • loving kindness/compassion, or
  • movement meditations, like walking meditation, tai chi, and qigong.

 

Establishing a practice

So, why aren’t you meditating? Nike’s brilliant ad slogan, “Just Do It,” comes to mind. Getting started is likely the hardest part. Some of the same obstacles to exercise apply to a meditation practice. Let’s break it down into three simple steps: 1) get started, 2) be consistent, and 3) stay with it. Easier said than done, right?

1. Get started: Explore, make a commitment, take time
“Just do it,” i.e., begin, start small, and build up. Don’t rush to climb the mountain before you learn to walk. For the type A overachievers out there, don’t, for example, let the first thing you do be to commit to a 7-day silent meditation. That’s like going on a crash diet: you’re setting yourself up to fail. The internet and app store are full of resources; some are listed here.

Daily practice is key: even five-to-ten minutes a day can make a difference. Twice a day is better than once. One of my meditation teachers once told me, if you don’t think you have the time, that means you need to meditate even more.

Meditation has a wonderful way of slowing time down. Ironically, you may feel as if you have more time. Research by Harvard Medical School and Boston University shows the benefits of meditation are residual and continue outside the meditative state.

Meditation is personal. Explore, find a method that resonates—one you can stay with at least for a while. This might take some searching, but make the commitment to experiment. Then sit and practice. Guided, timed meditations can be an easy way to start. See the apps listed in the sidebar for great resources. Don’t fall into the perpetual seeker trap, such that you get so lost in exploring or reading books on meditation, you forget to practice.

Dedicate a place in your home or office to practice each day. It need not be a dedicated, all decked out meditation room or corner; it can be a simple meditation pillow on the floor or even a chair or seat on the sofa—just one not so comfortable you fall asleep every time (although don’t feel like a failure if that happens occasionally—it’s okay).

2. Be consistent: Establish a routine. No judgment
Once you select a way to practice, stick with setting a consistent time each day to do it. Like exercise, it’s best to establish a routine. I love meditating first thing in the morning, as I find my mind is not so busy yet and it gets the day off to a great start. Other good times are afternoon when our minds are busy and need a reset or early evening as we begin to wind down. The main thing in a meditation practice is to give your mind something repeatable to focus on—such as the breath, an image, a mantra, or movement (if doing moving meditation).

Our minds are like toddlers: they need to be occupied. A wandering or monkey mind is the human condition: we all have it. A meditation teacher once told me it’s as if you’re puppy training your mind. The mind will wander off. Do not judge, just gently and lovingly bring your mind back to your focal point as you would bring the puppy back to the paper. As you begin to notice your thoughts, emotions, or sensations, you will be amazed at the endless stream of useless thoughts racing through your mind, many we’re not even aware of because they’re subconscious.

3. Stay with it: It’s a journey, not a destination
As you progress, you may add new methods or advance in your practice techniques. This is where exercise and meditation diverge. In a meditation practice, there is no goal to achieve and no place to go. You are simply practicing being present, which is more difficult than you might think. Some days you will have a quiet mind or ability to focus; some days, you won’t. That’s okay. Each meditation experience is unique. Most of all, you will be giving yourself the gift of presence and all the physical and mental benefits that come with that.

Conclusion

The value of spending time “just being” may be a hard concept to embrace, especially in a world that holds “doing” in higher esteem. But with a consistent meditation practice, you may be surprised that your capacity to “do” and focus on what you do will be greatly enhanced by the time you spent simply “being.”

Note: if you suffer from clinical anxiety or depression, consult with your medical professional when starting a meditation program.

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