Sometime in the past few decades, meditation became sexy.
The consciousness-sculpting technique that was once the purview of monks and restricted to practitioners of ancient Eastern religious traditions has today become much less exclusive. Meditation is a sensation that is hard not to be at least peripherally aware of. You can now take formal and informal classes on the practice of meditation. A search for meditation music and guidance videos on YouTube yields millions of hits. An entire lifestyle guru industry has materialized around the practice. It’s clear that there is a worldwide, nondenominational appetite for the stuff.
In our health-obsessed culture, meditation has precipitated into mainstream popularity in the company of such phenomena as Vitamin Water, CrossFit, hot yoga and a great many other marvels that have, from a scientific standpoint, been debunked as not all they are cracked up to be. Not surprisingly, meditation tends to get caught up in the current of too-good-to-be-true health trends and washed swiftly away alongside them. Meditation, however, is unlike some other sensations in that it has been rigorously studied by the medical and scientific community over many years, and it has been concluded—lo and behold—that there is actually something to it.
So in the interest of dispelling myths, assumptions, and hearsay, I present to you a guide on what meditation is, what it isn’t, and how it can relate to your life.
What is meditation?
Meditation can be described as the art and science of gaining control over your mind, not by suppressing your thoughts but by training your brain to be capable of not thinking. The idea is that the psychological skills you build through meditation can be translated into your everyday life, allowing you to be more selective and controlling over the onslaught of thoughts that occur to every human being at all waking moments, as well as the emotions those thoughts are associated with. Thus, if done right, meditation leads to a state of greater tranquility, peace, and well being.
The origins of meditation lie in religious traditions—mainly Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. When people talk about meditation today, its lingering association with these traditions explains our tendency to conjure up that image of a cross-legged monk sitting on a mountaintop and repeatedly murmuring “om” to himself. However, the act of meditation itself is not necessarily religious in nature and has become increasingly popular as a health and lifestyle practice devoid of (or at least only loosely connected to) its religious connotations.
How do I meditate?
There are many different schools of thought on how to meditate. The iconic cross-legged monk represents just one rendition known as mantra meditation, and some the more popular techniques used today include mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, yoga meditation, and Zen meditation. You can follow the hyperlinks to find instructions on how to accomplish each one.
Each strategy varies in its nuances, but almost all meditation techniques adhere to the same basic elements: Find a place with minimal distractions. Sit in a comfortable position (but not so comfortable that you might fall asleep). Focus your attention wholly on one thing—for example, the pattern of your breath, a point in space, the flame of a candle, the sound of soothing music. Finally, clear your mind. Allow the thoughts that occur in your mind to wash over you before setting them aside, and continue until you achieve something close to a thoughtless state of consciousness. Beginners are recommended to start out meditating for 5-10 minutes daily, and regular practices generally dedicate 20-60 minutes each day.
Why should I meditate?
There are literally thousands of scientific studies demonstrating an abundance of benefits associated with regular meditation. These benefits manifest in physical, emotional, and even social ways.
Meditation has been found to significantly reduce anxiety and assist in the management of stress. Not only do practitioners of meditation report that they feel less stress—their biochemical profiles also reveal lower levels of stress-related molecules such as cortisol. Regular meditation also has a positive effect on blood pressure and cholesterol. Individuals who meditate suffer lower incidence of events associated with high blood pressure and cholesterol like heart attacks stroke.
The many studies that have shown that meditation reduces anxiety are also backed up with data showing that meditation actually changes brain activity, increasing the amount of electrical activity in the left-sided anterior region of the brain, an area that is associated with stress reduction.
In cancer patients, meditation has not only been found to reduce the incidence of emotional problems like anxiety, depression, and irritability—it has actually has been found to improve the body’s profile of immune system cells, effectively boosting natural defenses and ability to fight off disease.
Furthermore, the positive immune effects of meditation appear to not only true in the case of cancer, but general immune system health. Another study found that practitioners of mindfulness meditation produced a stronger immune response to the flu vaccine than individuals who did not meditate, giving the meditators improved odds that their vaccine would stave off the flu.
And all this is just a snippet of the benefits that come along with meditation—all supported by real, credible studies. The scientific community has come to a resounding consensus that meditation is the real deal. It has the capacity to literally change how your body and brain function on a biochemical level and confers all sorts of health and lifestyle benefits associated with these changes.
What if I don’t have time to meditate?
This is a common objection to taking up the regular practice of meditation. If you’re like me, the idea of sacrificing 20-60 minutes every day to literally sit and think about nothing seems inconceivable—maybe even impossible—in the midst of a hectic daily schedule that lasts from morning until night.
As it turns out, however, if you think of time as currency, then meditation ends up paying for itself many times over. It has been found that the regular practice of meditation not only slows, but actually reverses biological aging. People who meditate daily have a biological age—that is, the age their brain and body appear to be—that is many years younger than their actual chronological age.
One study found that individuals who practiced daily transcendental meditation for several years had a biological age that was, on average, five years younger than their chronological age. This gap grew to twelve years for individuals who practiced meditation for long-term periods of many years.
Think of it this way: if you meditated for an hour a day for the next five years—a time sink amounting to about 80 days’ worth of your life in total—you could gain twelve additional healthy years. That’s an outrageously spectacular deal.
So if you think you don’t have time for meditation, you might want to reconsider.
What are the downsides to meditation?
If there are any downsides to meditation, they have not made themselves apparent through scientific study. The nearest thing I’ve been able to identify as a downside of meditation is scattered case studies describing individuals who experienced episodes of mental illness after practicing meditation—mostly consisting of people who had previously been diagnosed with and treated for schizophrenia or other major psychoses.
However, it’s important to note that these cases are purely anecdotal. No systematic study has shown mental illness to be caused by meditation. More likely it is the case that meditation may enable existing mental illnesses to surface in certain people. In fact, other studies have shown that meditation actually offers benefits to people suffering from certain types of mental illness. One study found that mindfulness meditation significantly decreased the amount of verbal and physical aggression in mental health patients who had a history of being hospitalized for severe anger management problems. Meditation has also been found to be an effective way to control substance abuse behavior. Depression and anxiety disorders can also be successfully treated with meditation.
In short, for the average person, there really are no downsides.
All in all, meditation is an extremely low-risk, cheap, and simple way to tackle existing physical and emotional problems, as well as prevent future ones. There is an overwhelming amount of very convincing scientific evidence that meditation has the capacity to improve your health, your happiness, and your life.
I plan on starting today.
Christine is a passionate social science scholar who works at a sustainable biotech venture capital fund. She spends most of her spare time tending to her dogs, cats, chickens, and vegetable garden.