After my husband ended our marriage over the telephone, I signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. I’d been told that practicing this type of meditation, called vipassana, would result in limitless love, compassion, and goodwill. I wanted those things so desperately, I was willing to lie to get in.
Ten days of meditating for nine hours a day without distraction is an objectively grueling journey. But I’d tried therapy, yoga, and sex already, and my heart was still broken. So I didn’t mention my past—and besides, I didn’t think my history applied.
Years before, I had abused alcohol and drugs, but by the time I signed up for the retreat, I hadn’t touched either in a decade. I had tried Paxil and therapy in the years since, but I hadn’t experienced anything like what I went through when I was using. Nonetheless, I vowed to be vigilant: If I stopped sleeping well or experienced racing thoughts, I’d leave. It never occurred to me that the practice itself might cause problems.
We go through our days checking off to-do lists, accomplishing and achieving, but we all know we also need days off and vacations. Meditation is like a daily “day off,” a gift we give ourselves that becomes a gift we give others .
If you put dirt in a jar full of water and cover and shake the jar, the water becomes cloudy. Put the jar on a table and let it rest: the dirt settles to the bottom, and the water becomes clear again. A daily meditation practice gives much the same kind of rest to both our minds and bodies.
Missed our new meditation teacher training the first time around? You’re in luck because this month you have another chance to sign up for our 200-hour course with Charlie Knoles. You’ll learn all about the art of meditation, deepen your practice, and become equipped with the tools you need to become a teacher. To secure your spot, be sure to enroll before Monday, May 15.
The other day, I called a friend from college whom I hadn’t spoken to in a few months. When I asked her how she was, I wasn’t surprised to hear her say, “I’m anxious. The news has me constantly on edge, and I’m having the hardest time sleeping. I’ve been meditating a lot.”
According to early data from the SleepScore campaign, since the U.S. national election in November there have been significant surges in sleeplessness. And it makes sense—every day seems to bring on more unsettling news about the state of our nation and the rest of the world, leading to feelings of unease and instability.
Enter meditation, a tried and true practice for reducing stress and increasing overall happiness. People are suddenly making time to get the hang of a practice they once claimed they didn’t have the patience for. It’s time to invest in a good meditation cushion because meditation isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Meditation has been around for centuries, but in 2017 even the busiest people are finding short windows of time to meditate. According to psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, this has to do with anxiety and stress being at an all-time high. “Instead of short-term stressful events that pass, today’s modern life is characterized by chronic stress,” she explains. “People are looking for ways to reduce their anxiety in helpful ways. While medications are still frequently used, people are looking for effective ways to reduce stress that are not addictive, don’t require prescriptions, and don’t have the negative side effects of many medications.”
Biet Simkin, a meditation expert and mbg class instructor, thinks meditation is a natural progression from yoga. “As a country, doing yoga for 40 years, the whole point of yoga is that it’s supposed to open you up for meditation. The craving has occurred.”
She adds that meditation is a spiritual tool that brings people together, something we need more than ever. “Meditation offers an opportunity to connect to the invisible world within ourselves and around us. It offers us an improvement in our lives and does this all with great inclusivity.”
Dr. Lombardo adds that a growing conversation around meditation is also responsible for its popularity. “The conversation is in the media, and there’s support in the research. Celebrities are talking about the benefits they get from meditation. In a sense, ‘everybody is doing it.'”
Of course, this obsession with meditation didn’t come out of thin air—years of scientific research has shown that meditation reduces stress, improves concentration, and increases happiness.
As Dr. Lombardo explains it, “Several areas of the brain appear to be influenced by meditation. The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive functioning such as planning and problem solving, has increased activity. There is also increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is located between the cognitive and emotional brain centers and plays a role in self-regulation of emotions. At the same time, the fight-or-flight center called the amygdala shrinks, resulting in reduced anxiety and stress.”
In less scientific terms, this means that tons of areas of the brain benefit from the effects of meditation, leaving us calmer, more emotionally stable people.
You’ve also probably heard of dopamine, or the “happy chemical.” When you meditate, your dopamine levels rise quite a bit. One study on yoga nidra (a meditative yoga practice) found that people’s dopamine levels rose 65 percent after class.
Workplaces have certainly noticed that meditation is having a moment. In an attempt to keep employees happy and productive, many of them provide meditation programs. Google has a mindfulness program that includes daily meditations, mindful lunches, meditative walks, and a larger meditation program called “Search Inside Yourself,” or SIY.
Technical clothing company Kit and Ace also puts a huge emphasis on meditation—they even make their clothing with the idea that customers will meditate in them in mind. “At Kit and Ace, we incorporate it into both our in-store programming and corporate culture because we believe meditation is an essential tool for our employees and our customers,” says Shawna Olsten, VP of brand.
Even if they don’t have meditation programs built into their structure, some employers provide rooms for meditation and encourage employees to use them as often as possible—mindbodygreen included!
As popular as meditation is, it’s intimidating to get started—especially at a time when being alone with your thoughts might not be appealing. Dr. Lombardo encourages anyone who is feeling like this to just get started. “A lot of people don’t try meditation or give up on it quickly when they do not think they are doing it ‘right,'” she says. “Any meditation is better than no meditation. Don’t have 30 minutes to sit in quiet? Fifteen minutes is better than nothing (or, as I say, better than perfect). Don’t feel like you are getting the benefits? Everyone’s mind wanders during meditation—that’s normal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just practice and it will get better.”
If the prospect of meditation is intimidating to you, consider getting start with a meditation app like Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer.
“I think the interesting phenomenon of today is that we’re coming up with innovative new entry points,” says Max Vallot, co-founder of District Vision, a company that sells athletic eyewear. “Whether it’s apps, large-scale events, or meditation as movement, it’s something we’re experimenting with intensely.”
What are you waiting for? Get out your cushion, close your eyes, and breathe
As an activist in a Chinese jail, Kiri Westby used meditation to maintain her peace amidst the hardship. Seane Corn used yoga and mindfulness to work with teenage prostitutes in LA. Play therapist Megan Cronin Larson says meditation has deeply influenced her work with children.
I just got back from leading a 9-day meditation retreat in the wild and cactus-filled desert of Arizona. And I feel exuberant, inspired, and powerfully awake to the presence of immanent and seemingly infinite potential–simply because I took a sustained break from our modern world and its unspoken cultural agreements and assumptions about what’s real and important.
“How many of us think it’s important to regularly create the space in our lives to temporarily let go of everything we are usually consumed by? And I do mean everything.”
On the first day, as I gathered with the couple hundred participants for a Q&A session, one man told me that he was overwhelmingly busy at work and that his wife had recently complained that he wasn’t giving enough attention to his family. My response was, “Have you considered that in this day and age there could be something even more important than work and family?”
That’s a question that goes against the grain of our culture. How many of us think it’s important to regularly create the space in our lives to temporarily let go of everything we are usually consumed by? And I do mean everything.
At the beginning of the retreat, I asked everyone to take the risk of dropping their relationship to anything and everything except life’s most profound spiritual truths and biggest philosophical questions—questions like:
“Who am I? . . . Who am I REALLY?”
“Why am I here in this world?”
“Why does the universe exist?”
“Why did something come from nothing?”
“Does the life I live mean anything?”
“Is there an ultimate purpose to existence?”
I also taught them how to meditate.
Together, deep meditation and profound contemplation make up the tried and true path to enlightened awareness. Aspiring for enlightenment requires you to do both these things:
Engage in this same process day after day: spend long periods of time in deep and sustained meditative silence followed by intense sessions of heroic inquiry in which you use your mind to transcend your mind. You’ll know you’re making progress when you experience powerful and liberating breakthroughs.
“Achieving these kinds of breakthroughs on a regular basis—meaning at least twice a year—is, I believe, a prerequisite to living a sane, meaningful, and directed life…”
The first kind of breakthrough occurs in the meditative process. It is the exhilarating experience of freedom from time, history, and personality. This feels like peace—but not an ordinary kind of peace. It is a peace in which you are simultaneously awake to the mysterious presence of a depth without end and mesmerized by an overwhelming sense of awe.
The second kind of breakthrough is the result of focused and intense philosophical inquiry. It is the emergence of a profound and shocking clarity of mind and thought. Suddenly, you are able to see more clearly than ever before, and with more depth and perspective than you have ever known. Your mind becomes vast like the sky and crystal clear like a highly polished diamond.
Achieving these kinds of breakthroughs on a regular basis—meaning at least twice a year—is, I believe, a prerequisite to living a sane, meaningful, and directed life in this often-confusing, increasingly chaotic, and sometimes-frightening world we share.
Once we wake up to this perennial truth, in order to stay awake, we only need to be willing to continue to pay the price to be enlightened beings. And if that only means taking out a weekend or a week (or more) twice a year, it’s a price most of us can surely afford.
The popular buzz is that meditation is good for you. But science tells us that it is great for you and your health. If you’ve contemplated taking up meditation, these research-based reasons might inspire you to take that 20-minute meditation break every day. Some scientists say that 10 to 20 minutes per day is enough. Meditation is like exercise (but much easier): The more regularly you do it, the sooner you’ll experience life-changing results.
Meditation makes you smarter.
That’s right, meditation makes you more intelligent, creative, and mentally sharp. The brain is like a muscle that can be strengthened, trained, and enlarged. Does size really matter? When it comes to your brain, science says yes.
Meditation has been proven to increase cortical thickness. The cerebral cortex is the most developed part of the human brain. It is responsible for many “higher order” functions, such as planning and organization, problem solving, memory, cognition, and comprehension. Neuroimaging researchindicates that general intelligence is positively associated with cortical thickness.
Meditation boosts happiness.
Many contemplative traditions teach that “living in the moment” increases happiness. But is this really true? According to scientists, the mind wanders 47 percent of the time. Buddhists call this default mind-state the “monkey mind.” Research shows that people are less happy when their mind is wandering than when they are present with what they are doing––even if it’s in a traffic jam.
The ability to examine the past and imagine the future is integral to human nature. However, allowing the mind to wander without self-observation or supervision can unleash unpleasant feelings of anxiety, fear, and dread. Allowing the mind to wander on pleasant thoughts is good medicine, but negative mind-wandering releases a cascade of stress-related neurochemicals that diminish health and happiness.
Researchers at Yale University discovered that meditation deactivates this nonpresent mind-state among meditators, across all types of meditation. Furthermore, the study revealed that meditators demonstrate stronger neural connections in brain regions associated with self-monitoring, awareness, and cognitive control––both at baseline and during meditation.
According to happiness researcher, Matt Killingsworth, “We’re often happiest when we’re lost in the moment.” And on the flip side, he says, “The more our mind wanders, the less happy we can be.”
The new fountain of youth?
The greatest contributor to symptoms of aging is not time. It’s stress. Chronic stress causes the body to release chemicals, such as cortisol, that cause inflammation and weight gain, and that compromise the immune system.
A study published in the Biological Psychiatry reveals that subjects who practiced meditation for three consecutive days showed calmer brain activity in the regions responsible for stress-related reactions. Blood samples associated with systemic inflammation showed significant improvement as well.
Meditation reduces stress and creates resilience.
Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar found dramatic structural changes in the brains of subjects who meditated for 27 minutes per day for eight weeks. These visibly significant structural changes correlated to the subjects’ anecdotal reports of experiencing more peaceful states of mind and increased overall well-being.
Before and after the subjects meditated, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, associated with learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation. In addition, the images showed a decrease in gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with emotional responses of stress, anxiety, and fear—also known as the “stress response.”
By Mindful Staff | February 29, 2016
This month we’re celebrating the launch of the first-ever online meditation training by highlighting the experiences of some of our favorite meditation pros with first-person narratives. In Charlie Knoles’ new 200-Hour Meditation Training, you’ll learn all about the art of meditation, deepen your practice, and become equipped with the tools you need to become a teacher. To secure your spot, be sure to enroll before Monday, February 6.
We hear the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” all the time in the health and wellness world. But if you’ve never actually tried it, how do you know if it will really benefit your life? If you’re a frequent meditator, are you aware of all the ways that your practice is improving your daily life? Even if you’re a mindfulness connoisseur, do you know exactly what to say when a beginner asks you why, exactly, they should give it a try?
If the answer if no—don’t worry—we’ve got your back. Here are the cold, hard facts about meditation and how it can benefit your body, sharpen your mind, and improve your life and relationships.
Every Sunday, Mak Sze-chai, a first year anthropology student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), visits the Plum Village in Lantau Island for a whole day of meditation training, or Day of Mindfulness. Plum Village is a monastic community founded by the Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, but the Day of Mindfulness activities are open to people of all backgrounds and religions. Leer Más