Are you sometimes stressed and overwhelmed by the numerous demands of life? If you are, you are not alone. Almost 70% of us experience moderate to severe symptoms of stress regularly.
However, I am happy to report that there is a very tangible, free, simple solution to this problem that has no side effects—it’s called meditation!
Most of us have heard about meditation, but we seem to be resistant to this practice, although it has been scientifically proven to have tremendous benefits in reversing the negative impact of stress in our life.
The reasons we resist meditation seem to revolve around us not knowing how to do it or feeling we cannot do it because we don’t have time, because it seems like a foreign concept and, most of all, because we are not aware of its’ myriad benefits.
Eight years ago, at the lowest point of the most devastating loss of my life, I was fortunate enough to experience the power of meditation during a weekend retreat. I would love to share with you my inside view of why meditation has single-handedly changed my life for the better over the last eight years and, I am sure, for the rest of my life.
The problem that meditation solves.
Stress is the epidemic of the century and it is now linked to more than 90% of today’s disease.
But what is stress?
What we experience as stress is nothing other than the way our body responds to demands from the environment in order to maintain our internal balance and sense of safety.
A critical part of our stress response that we often overlook is that what causes the symptoms of stress we experience actually comes from the way we interpret life situations and not the situations themselves.
For example, if our boss gives us a large task to complete in a short amount of time, it is the thoughts we have about our ability to complete the task and the consequences of not succeeding (our mental activity) that overwhelm us and trigger the mind-blowing cascade of events that elicits our stress response.
Chronic stress has been proven to cause significant damage to organs and functions of our body, as well as structural changes in our brain regions that are associated with resilience, motivation, executive functioning, and mediation of conflicting information.
We have so much power in how our psychological states are expressed in physical states in our body; we just don’t know it yet.
What is meditation?
“Meditation is the experience of the limitless nature of the mind when it ceases to be dominated by its usual mental chatter.” —David Fontana
It is estimated that we have over 60,000 thoughts per day and that 95% of these are worries. Yet only five percent of what we worry about actually happens!
This means that we invest a tremendous amount of energy in engaging our body systems to address imaginary threats or demands from the environment that are not actually happening now!
As foreign a concept as it may seem, meditation is nothing other than the practice of becoming an active participant in shaping our mental activity by being mindful of what we allow our attention to rest upon.
Meditation involves our ability to adjust the volume of thoughts that do not serve us by simply observing them as thoughts and redirecting our attention to something neutral. This process intercepts our body’s tremendous power and effort to adapt to situations that are not happening and thus reinstates the internal balance of our body systems.
Meditation is often misunderstood as the act of organizing or sorting our thoughts. In reality, it’s more about observing our thoughts and redirecting our attention to what is actually happening in the present moment.
We may think that by redirecting our attention from the thoughts we have about the challenging aspects of our life that we are not being realistic. Quite the contrary, meditation helps us maintain our nervous system in a calm state, in which we may be able to acknowledge the complications each challenge brings forth in our life and determine the most effective course of action for its’ resolution.
How does meditation work?
I must admit that a decade ago, while on chapter three of the book A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, that when he posed the question, “Have you ever really looked at a flower?” I caught myself rolling my eyes and saying out loud: “Eckhart, have you seen my to-do list? I don’t have time to look at a flower!”
Today, I admit that I was completely missing the point.
The main point I was missing is how much power our mind has over our body—a riddle that we have been trying to solve for millennia and which we are barely scratching the surface in solving.
Science is just catching up with the old truths of ancient philosophers and traditions, substantiating that by keeping our mental activity on neutral, we maintain access to the parts of our brain involved with our ability to overcome problems faster and easier and find more creative solutions to challenges, which leads to a positive outlook. The more positive we feel, the more confident we feel.
Learning how to change what we think so we can change how we feel is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been proven to be very effective in alleviating the impact of many illnesses associated with the mind, like depression and panic disorders.
By adopting a meditation practice, we essentially engage with the mental gymnastics that yield a positive outcome similar to CBT.
The inside view of meditation
A tremendous amount of research, done with the help of imaging techniques, has uncovered that a regular meditation practice is linked to significant, measurable changes in the brain in regions that allow us to manage our body systems more effectively and increase our capacity to deal with stress.
It appears that our mind takes its’ shape by what it repeatedly rests upon. Specifically, at the cellular level, depending on what we focus on, neurons fire and wire together in different parts of our brain. Much like building our biceps by doing bicep curls, redirecting our attention to positive feelings, like empathy for example (even for someone that cuts us off on the freeway), results in neurons firing and wiring together in the parts of our brain associated with those positive traits.
Neuroscience has lent us much knowledge about the relationship between inner strengths or weaknesses and different regions of our brain.
By consistently being mindful about where we place our attention, we actually have the ability to build gray matter and grow regions of our brain that allow us to be more effective in our life endeavors and to experience more joy and well-being overall.
Here are some research findings on how meditation positively impacts our brain structures and functions even with a practice of only ten minutes, three times a week:
- Increased cortical tissue and more blood flow to parts of the brain in the frontal regions that help regulate attention and emotion.
- Increased activity in the left prefrontal regions of our brain, which are involved in our ability to regulate negative emotions. An active left prefrontal lobe means we will be more effective in managing emotions like fear, anger, or shame.
- Increased gray matter in the temporal lobes of the brain, called the insula, that help us tune into ourselves. We are then able to be more self-aware. As an added benefit, growth in the insula region of our brain allows us to experience more pronounced feelings of empathy for self and others.
- Increased tissue in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved with memory, learning, and ability to calm down another brain structure, called our amygdala, which is much like our alarm system and critical in eliciting our stress response. A thicker hippocampus means we will be much better in deciphering true threats as opposed to imaginary ones, so that we do not waste our metabolic energy unnecessarily.
- Improved immune system function. Calming down our stress response means that our body functions are not compromised by the redirection of energy to address non-existent threats.
Research shows that we can use our mind to change the anatomy of our brain and cultivate elements like attention, compassion, motivation, or resilience.
The way meditation works is by allowing us to nurture parts of ourselves that we already have that are good and beautiful and associated with great outcomes.
There are many different ways to start a meditation practice, and there are many free, guided meditations to ease anyone into the regular practice of quieting their mind. In the “Quiet Your Mind” section of this website, I have saved a few of my favorites for you to try out for yourself.
But the most important component to experiencing the incredible impact and benefits of meditation is being open to the magic that happens when we choose, even for a few minutes a day, to leave behind our conditioned way of thinking and open up to the possibility of simply connecting with anything that is here in the present moment, for example, our breath.
Although we often think that a specific life outcome is what will help us reinstate a sense of safety and calm, the truth is, only when we quiet down the limbic mid-brain (the part of our nervous system involved with emotions, instincts, and memories) can we access problem-solving, motivation, compassion, creativity, innovation, joy, and empathy.
Happiness is finding peace in the natural flow of all the natural changes in life and learning how to be calm and relaxed with all the uncertainty that every day brings.
Meditation is the most impactful way to stay centered in the midst of change. But the only way to truly know the incredible benefits of meditation is to incorporate a meditation practice into your own life.
By shifting our attention away from the endless thoughts our mind usually rests upon, to come into our bodies and the true sensations we experience, we actually awaken to seeing things for what they truly are. Connecting with the infinite light within us allows us to change for the better, which in turn gives us the opportunity to bring positive change in the community and the world we live in.
And not many practices have benefits that can top that!