Now, mainstream medicine is beginning to take notice of meditation’s effects. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which is about 80 percent meditation, has been approved in Britain for use with people who have experienced three or more episodes of depression.
MRI scans of long-term meditators have shown greater activity in brain circuits involved in paying attention. Long-term meditation can also cause changes in the actual structure of your cortex, the outer layer of your brain. Brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing have been shown to be thicker in meditators.
Studies suggest that meditation can help you to train your attention and focus, even in the midst of distractions. For instance, when disturbing noises were played to a group of experienced meditators undergoing an MRI, they had little effect on the brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making.
About 10 million people meditate every day in the West, and many more in other parts of the world. Before you brush off meditation as something only for Buddhist monks or hippies, it would serve you well to find out what you may be missing.
Meditation is the equivalent of giving your mind an escape valve to blow off steam.
This is such a necessary tool in today’s 24/7 society that many people naturally engage in some form of meditation whenever they feel stressed -- listening to music, journaling, prayer, soaking in a bath, all of these work similarly to meditation in that they focus your mind and help promote a state of calm.
In so doing, your pulse, breathing and heart rate are likely to slow down, and your muscles will begin to relax. Your mind, too, will begin to unwind and forget about its racing thoughts.
At its most basic level, meditation helps you take a deliberate break from the stream of thoughts that are constantly flowing in and out of your mind. Some people use it to promote spiritual growth or find inner peace, while others use it as a relaxation and stress-reduction tool.
And while it’s not unusual for the most experienced meditators to have spent decades, even a lifetime, perfecting this art, you can gain benefits just from meditating in your home for 20 minutes a day.
What Can 20 Minutes a Day do for You?
Meditation has been shown to alter the workings of your brain not only in the short-term, but quite possibly permanently. Meditating thickens the areas of your brain where memory and attention reside, according to a Harvard study, and although the aging process lightens the brain in certain sectors, 20 minutes of meditation a day slows that down a bit.
Meditation can also improve your attention span, even while you’re performing mundane tasks in the mid-afternoon, a time when people typically have problems concentrating. Interestingly enough, according to one study the benefits of meditation remained strong even after patients lost a night's sleep in follow-up research.
Meanwhile, because meditation works so well to relieve stress, it can benefit all types of stress-related illness … and as you regular newsletter readers know, just about every illness is stress-related. This may explain why meditation can help to relieve:
- High blood pressure
- Chronic pain, including headaches
- Respiratory problems such as emphysema and asthma
- Sleep disturbances and fatigue
- Gastrointestinal distress and irritable bowel syndrome
- Skin disorders
- Mild depression and premenstrual syndrome
Simple Guidelines to Start Meditating
If you’d like to give meditation a try, sit quietly, perhaps with some soothing music, breathe rhythmically and focus on something such as your breathing, a flower, an image, a candle, a mantra or even just being in the moment. Some people prefer to close their eyes to block out visual stimulation. If you find that your mind starts to wander, direct it back to your focus point and continue from there.
Ideally, set aside 15-20 minutes a day to practice meditation. You can also try it in shorter segments, but ultimately try to work your way up to 20 minutes.
I’m also a major fan of brainwave entrainment technology, which is usually available in CD form. When you listen, you’re exposed to a combination of frequencies that induce powerful states of focused concentration or deep relaxing meditation while stimulating various parts of your brain to work together.
The benefit is that you can begin experiencing the deep frequencies right away, as opposed to having to work up to that level with traditional meditation.
However you choose to do it, just make sure you are giving your mind some down time to relax, regroup and recharge on a regular basis.