Over the past several years, scientific research has confirmed that meditation improves the brain in several significant ways. One of the most surprising discoveries is that the benefits of meditation are not limited to intangible, subjective ones reported by test participants, but that meditation also produces physical improvements in brain structure that have been confirmed with fMRI and EEG. Over the past several years, scientific research has confirmed that meditation:
- Eases psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain
- Increases the brain’s grey-matter density in regions associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection
- Reduces age-related deterioration of brain volume
- Decreases activity in the brain’s default mode network, which is the brain network responsible for mind-wandering, (and mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future)
- Is as effective as anti-depressants in reducing depression symptoms
- Decreases the volume of the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress
- Improves focus, concentration, and memory, resulting in higher scores on standardized tests like the GRE
- Reduces symptoms of social anxiety disorder
- Helps overcome addiction
In short, it appears the sages of ancient India were definitely onto something. And considering how the the pace of daily life has only accelerated since their times, it seems we’d have to be crazy not to meditate nowadays.
The Human Mind: A Blessing and a Curse
Right now you probably hear a voice in your head reading aloud these words. As you continue to read, another voice will likely join in (if it hasn’t already), overlaying what you’re reading with your own thoughts, analysis, and judgments about it. Other voices may jump in from time to time as well, reminding you about important things you need to do today–things you’ll probably tell yourself you should be doing right now instead of reading this post. And when you finish reading this post, you’ll only remember part of what you’ve read because part of the time spent reading you’ll have been distracted by your mental side-conversations.
For the rest of the day, at least one voice will continue talking in your head, pretty much all day long. We all know that voice very well. It’s the voice of our own thoughts. Sometimes it says negative things about ourselves and others. Sometimes it gives us an endless parade of things to worry and stress out about. Sometimes, even oftentimes, it just won’t shut up no matter how much we try to make it stop. And sometimes it can even drive us crazy.
Think about it: each of us has something in common with that mentally ill person muttering to himself on the city sidewalk: we all have a constant internal dialogue. The difference between us and that “crazy” guy is that he vocalizes his internal dialogue, whereas we (usually) don’t.
The constant chatterbox in our heads is the brain’s default mode network (“DMN”), which is responsible for the mind-wandering that scientific research has linked to being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about past and future (see link above). Buddhists have long referred to it metaphorically as the “monkey mind” because it is unsettled, restless, confused, indecisive, and uncontrollable. For thousands of years, Hindus and Buddhists have used meditation to quiet the monkey mind, and modern scientific research has confirmed that it actually works.
Quieting the Monkey Mind
I started meditating about twelve years ago as an act of desperation when I was feeling overwhelmed by job-related stress as a junior associate at a law firm. I needed help fast, but I didn’t have time to read a book, and I didn’t have a meditation teacher or group to rely on. Thankfully I did have the Internet, where I found some basic instructional information about mindfulness meditation.
Despite having little information about meditation, taking time to meditate for just fifteen or twenty minutes a day quickly brought me noticeable stress-relief. As I continued my meditation practice, I started noticing additional unexpected benefits as I went about my daily tasks. Meditation seemed to open up a “space” between me and my thoughts. Whereas I previously was wrapped-up in my thoughts, reflexively reacting to them, being “identified” with them, I started noticing that when a thought would arise in my mind, I was able to just silently observe it rather than reflexively reacting to it. That new ability alone made meditation worth it for me.
Unfortunately, I didn’t continue my meditation practice when my stressful work situation was resolved. Instead, over the next eleven years I used meditation on an as-needed basis–usually a few weeks or months at a time–to cope with stressful periods. Although I’m grateful for the stress-relief my inconsistent meditation practice gave me over those eleven years, I really wish I’d continued meditating consistently because I’ve now started to experience benefits from meditation that go beyond stress relief.
I’ve now had a consistent meditation practice for the past thirteen months–the longest I can recall ever having. Although it’s difficult to use words to describe and explain the invisible workings of the mind, I’ll do my best to explain what meditation does for me now.
I often think of mental activity as a spinning wheel. Sometimes the wheel is turning slowly, but other times, particularly when stressed or angry, the wheel spins so fast it seems it’s going to melt your brain. Meditation brings that wheel to a near-standstill for me. Another metaphor that often comes to mind is that thoughts are water shooting out of a fire hose. With meditation, I can reduce the volume of my thoughts from full blast to a mere trickle. I can walk into the meditation sanctuary with my mind racing, and walk out an hour later with perfect stillness and clarity of mind.
What happens when you’re able to decrease activity in your brain’s default mode network–to quiet your monkey mind? Bliss is what happens.
Bliss isn’t a word we use often in everyday conversation, and before I experienced bliss with meditation I honestly thought that word was just hyperbole when I read about other meditators experiencing it. But I’ve since learned that bliss actually can come from meditation, and it consists of more than just the absence of stress. Bliss is a sense of deep satisfaction and contentedness–the sense that everything is just as it should be.
And when we have inner peace, everything in life seems to flow more naturally and effortlessly. With inner peace, it’s much easier to naturally be the kind of person we each want to be: loving, warm, kind, gentle, patient, forgiving, grateful, and generous.
Although I consider myself agnostic when it comes to metaphysical mysteries like the existence of God, I feel like I understand what that author of scripture meant when wrote “Be still, and know that I am God”. There is an undeniable connection between inner stillness and the states of mind or states of being that have long been associated with spirituality.
How to Meditate
Over the thousands of years that people have been experimenting with meditation in the East, dozens if not hundreds of different ways of meditating have been developed, with various goals or aims. Of the relatively few techniques that have been exported to the West, it seems the most popular is “mindfulness” meditation–probably because it is simple and provides noticeable benefits relatively quickly.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of “mindfulness”, I highly recommend Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now. (Personally, I prefer the audiobook version because the author reads it.) In that book, Tolle lays out the basics of mindfulness in a way that Western readers find clear and accessible. Although the book doesn’t provide in-depth instruction about mindfulness meditation, it informs readers about several underlying concepts of mindfulness that are very helpful in implementing a mindfulness meditation practice.
Before I go into the “how-to’s” of meditation, I want to share a couple important “how-not-to’s” that I learned the hard way:
- Don’t be a perfectionist. If you’re one of those people inclined toward perfectionism who over-analyzes and obsesses over every last minute detail because you cannot feel at ease unless and until you’re sure you’re getting everything exactly right (guilty!), drop that at the door. You cannot take that approach with mindfulness meditation; in fact, mindfulness meditation is designed to break you of that habit. When you meditate, go easy on yourself; don’t beat yourself up; ignore your compulsive monkey mind when it starts nit-picking and pestering you, telling you that you’re not doing everything exactly right. Go into meditation without the intention of getting it exactly “right”. Just let go and let it happen.
- Don’t fixate on a specific goal or outcome. Don’t approach meditation the way you probably approach almost everything else in life: with a specific goal or outcome in mind. Although I’ve outlined some of the benefits of meditation above, don’t go into meditation intending or expecting to achieve a specific outcome, like stress reduction. Why? Because fixating on a specific outcome during meditation is exactly what will prevent you from achieving that outcome. If you go into meditation expecting a specific outcome, your inner dialogue while meditating will go something like this: “Why am I not feeling anything yet? Why am I not feeling more relaxed? Am I doing something wrong? I must be doing something wrong. What am I doing wrong? Maybe I should shift a little in my seat. There, that feels a little more comfortable. I still don’t feel relaxed though. Where’s the relaxation I was promised?” And on and on. Remember, the purpose of meditation is to shut off the monkey mind; being attached to a specific outcome while meditating is a perfect way to send your monkey mind into a frenzy and sabotage your meditation experience.
Now for the Meditation How-To’s:
- Choose a setting. Find a setting that is quiet, where you’ll be free from interruption, and preferably one that is dimly-lit. Lighting a candle or incense is optional but not necessary; for some people, it helps create a relaxing setting. (And sometimes it just feels good to act like a hippie.)
- Sit comfortably with an upright posture, but not in a forced or strained way. Sitting is for comfort; sitting up straight is to keep you alert so you don’t doze off. Don’t worry, you don’t have to learn how to sit in the lotus position or twist yourself into a pretzel. The “right” way to sit is whatever way allows you to be both comfortable and alert. Some people sit in a chair, others sit cross-legged. When I started meditating, I sat cross-legged on a cushion. But a couple aspects of that posture were distracting for me: (1) I experienced lower back discomfort after about 15 minutes; and (2) one or both of my feet would fall asleep. I eventually found a better sitting posture for me: stacking two meditation cushions on top of each other and sitting on them with my knees in front of me on the ground. That way I can now sit comfortably for an hour without lower back discomfort and without my feet falling asleep.
- Close your eyes and start by taking deep slow breaths. The pace of our mind is linked to the pace and depth of our breathing, so breathing deeply and slowly is a good way to slow and relax the mind.
- Concentrate your attention on a focal point of your choosing, and keep your attention on that focal point as consistently as you can for the remainder of your meditation. (Easier said than done; more on that below.) For mindfulness meditation, the most common focal point is either (1) the sensation of your breathing; or (2) a mantra.
Using the Breath as a Mental Focal Point
There are many reasons why the sensation of one’s own breathing is an effective focal point in meditation. There is something naturally relaxing about slow, deep breathing. And because the breath is non-verbal, focusing your attention on your breathing is an effective way to train yourself to focus your attention on something other than the chatterbox that constantly spews word-thoughts into your head. Also, because your breathing is constantly changing from moment to moment–going in and out like waves on a beach–focusing on your breathing keeps your attention fixed on the present moment, rather than letting your mind wander into the past or future. If you choose your breathing as your mental focal point, try to keep your attention on the physical sensation that accompanies each inhale and exhale of your breathing. If you notice your mind beginning to wander, or if an intrusive thoughts pops into your mind, simply return your focus to the sensation of your breathing and continue.
Using a Mantra as a Mental Focal Point
Especially in the Hindu tradition, a mantra is often used as the focal point in meditation. In Sanskrit, man means “to think” and tra means “tool”, so mantra is often translated as “mind-tool”. A mantra usually consists of one, two, or three words. Some people like to follow Indian tradition by using ancient Sanskrit mantras, hundreds of which can be found online with a Google search. A common and simple Sanskrit mantra is “Om”–the sound that the ancient Indian sages regarded as a representation of the “hum” of the energy of the Universe. Although it would make traditionalists gasp, I’ve used English mantras as well, and to me they’ve seemed as effective as any Sanskrit mantra. For example, for a few months I used the words “love, joy, peace” as my mantra. The way to use a mantra is to silently repeat it in your head, keeping your attention fixed on your repetition of it while you meditate.
When I first started meditating, and for the next eleven years as I meditated off-and-on, I used the sensation of my breathing as my focal point during meditation. But a little over a year ago, I switched to mantra meditation. Personally, I’ve found mantra meditation to be a more effective technique for me, but everyone is different, so it may not be the most effective for you.
When I first learned about mantra meditation, honestly the concept struck me as absurd. It seemed counter-intuitive that focusing my attention on a few words could help me quiet the monkey mind and shut off the chatterbox of word-thoughts in my head. But as I’ve practiced mantra meditation for the past thirteen months, I’ve discovered that mantra meditation is a very effective technique for me. It seems the repetition of the same few words in my head neutralizes the monkey mind, like disabling a radar by jamming it. Every time my monkey mind spurts a word-thought into my head during meditation, I just turn my attention back to my mantra. As my meditation continues, intrusive thoughts become less and less frequent; it seems like the monkey mind slowly gives up, realizing the futility of trying to distract me.
A Few Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Meditating
- Don’t worry about “failure”, because recognizing “failure” is actually a success. When you resolve to keep your attention focused on something like your breathing or a mantra for even just one minute, you’ll quickly notice how difficult that is to do. But don’t be discouraged by that. Remember, our brain’s default mode is a wandering mind. Our minds aren’t accustomed to being focused on just one thing; they’re geared to jump around like a band of monkeys. So when you meditate, you should fully expect to catch your mind wandering, or to catch yourself focusing on an intrusive thought. If at the end of a meditation session you think your mind was perfectly free of all thoughts, then either (1) you should expect a knock on the door soon from some Buddhist monks who’ve identified you as the next Avatar; or (2) you were so lost in your wandering mind that you didn’t even realize it. So, recognizing “failure”–catching your mind wandering away from your chosen focal point–is actually a success in meditation because it demonstrates that you’re paying attention to what you’re paying attention to during meditation, rather than being lost in your wandering mind.
- Don’t beat yourself up; be gentle with yourself. When you catch your mind wandering away from your chosen focal point, don’t beat yourself up about it. If anything, give yourself a mental pat on the back for recognizing it, and then simply redirect your attention to your chosen focal point. Even advanced meditators with decades of practice still catch their minds wandering from time to time during meditation. But over time, with practice, you’ll notice that distracting thoughts gradually become less and less frequent.
- Don’t give up on meditation because it seems “boring”. Our brains are constantly over-stimulated by a constant stream of words and images pouring in from television, radio, books, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. So it shouldn’t surprise you if one of your first reactions to trying meditation is that it seems “boring”. I can assure you that if you stick with it, meditation won’t be just a bore and a chore. What at first seems boring becomes relaxing, and what is relaxing eventually becomes blissful. To combat boredom, approach meditation with a sense of curiosity and adventure: you’re about to explore one of the last uncharted frontiers–your own consciousness. You may think you already know your own consciousness after spending decades wandering around in your own mind, but that’s where you’re mistaken: your consciousness and your mind are not the same thing. Your consciousness is your pure awareness, pure perception unclouded by thoughts. Your mind consists of the layers and layers of thought that cover your consciousness like a cocoon. Go into meditation with an adventurous spirit, curious to discover what it’s like to experience pure consciousness–pure awareness without thoughts. It won’t disappoint you, and it definitely won’t bore you.
- Try different techniques, and discover the most effective one for you though trial and error. Although it can be helpful to read about others’ experience with meditation, there’s no substitute for personal experience. Everyone is different, so what works best for one author may not work best for you. The only way to discover the most effective technique for you is to pick one and start with it. Of course, trying a technique means doing it more than just once. You have to get over the “hump” of unfamiliarity with it. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with a technique, if it seems promising, keep at it. Otherwise, try a different technique. Eventually you will find one that works for you. If you don’t ever seem to find one that works for you, chances are you’re giving up on techniques too quickly. By experimenting with adjustments, over time you’ll find the best sitting posture for you, the best setting for you, the best time(s) of day for you to meditate, and the best technique for you.
- Frequency and length of meditation. How often should you meditate? It seems almost everyone will tell you “every day”. Personally, I’ve rarely been able to be a consistent, daily meditator. But the conventional wisdom is that the more often, the better. As for how long to meditate, you’ll probably become overwhelmed if you start by trying to go a full hour. Try starting with an achievable goal like ten minutes. Then gradually increase the length of your meditation sessions as you feel your stamina increasing. As you get the hang of meditation, you’ll naturally get curious about what you can experience if you sit longer.
For the first several years when I meditated off-and-on, I’d meditate for about fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. Eventually I joined a meditation group where we did seated meditation for 20 minutes, walking meditation for 10 minutes, seated meditation for another 20 minutes, and then walking meditation for another 10 minutes. The idea seemed to be to break up the sitting periods to avoid discomfort, and it worked well. Nowadays, I sit in meditation for a full hour, but I wouldn’t recommend trying that if you’re just starting.
One thing I’ve learned is that for me, the blissful “magic” of meditation doesn’t set in until around the 40-minute mark. It seems to take around 40 minutes for my mind to become still enough to create a space where bliss can come inside. So although I recommend starting with achievable goals like 10 or 15 minutes, I recommend gradually lengthening your meditation sessions to eventually hit that 40-minute mark and beyond, where the magic happens.