Open any scientific journal and you’ll see studies that report meditation’s benefits on just about everything from anxiety management to kids’ academic scores to ADHD management and reducing physical and emotional pain. It has even been shown to drop crime rates. Yes, meditation seems to be something of a miracle cure.
How these positive effects are happening has remained a mystery, at least until recently. With the help of new brain scanning technology, neuroscientists are for the first time discovering the reasons why. People who practise mindfulness meditation seem to have something very different happening in their brain system.
Researchers point to increased activity in the regions associated with high order thinking, emotion regulation and attention control, along with a tamping down of the activation of the thalamus — the pain gatekeeper. And if that isn’t enough to convince those who doubt its validity, new evidence in neuroplasticity just might convince otherwise.
Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar is one of the first researchers to show that meditation doesn’t only improve mind-body health, it changes your brain. A look at the brain scans of long-term meditators compared to non-meditators revealed something remarkable to Lazar and her team. Meditators showed more grey matter in the areas responsible for sensory awareness, executive decision-making and working memory.
The natural question is, do meditators have bigger brains to begin with? Lazar’s research team showed otherwise. After only eight weeks of meditating, 40 minutes per day, brain volume in participants increased in five different areas of the brain. The point here: you don’t have to be a monk to reap the benefits of meditation.
Now that scientists are extolling the virtues of meditation, we’re left facing two major obstacles: getting started and sticking with it. So, for those wanting to tap into the meditation movement, keep in mind that while there are many meditations in your iPhone APPs, simple is often best.
Try starting with a seated, closed-eye, focused awareness. It involves finding a quiet, comfortable spot and simply bringing your attention to your breath as you notice your thoughts pass through your mind. The key here is to become the quiet observer of your internal world — all from a place of non-judgment.
While the instructions are simple, finding the time and motivation for consistent meditation isn’t always easy. Breaking past all the internal stories about why meditating is too hard, too inconvenient or simply not for you involves tapping into a deeper desire.
So whether you are motivated by a clearer mind, feeling calmer and more patient with your kids, or you want to keep the effects of aging at bay, set a clear intention and come back to it often.
Discovering your authentic reasons for creating the meditation habit will help inspire the consistency you need to ensure your brain doesn’t revert to its old ways. And if you’re driven by the idea of transforming your brain to make it bigger and better, keep in mind that every minute of meditation creates new neural pathways to keep your mind clearer, calmer and more compassionate.
Meditation 101- How to Start
- Set the mood in a quiet, comfortable place
- Place your hands comfortably on your legs
- Lengthen your spine with your chin slightly down
- Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breath; breathe naturally
- Observe your wandering thoughts as they pass through your mind
- If your mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to your out-breath
- If you’re new to meditating, continue for a few minutes and try it for longer periods over time