The over 2,000 year old practice of mindfulness meditation is experiencing a rebirth in today’s modern world revolving around wellness, matcha lattes, and most importantly, increased mental health awareness. But unlike many of today’s wellness trends (believe me, I’ve tried them all; in fact I’m writing this while sipping on a pineapple coconut water with turmeric and ginger), meditation is scientifically proven to work by rewiring our brains. Furthermore, meditation leads to a variety of benefits, including increased focus, improved quality of sleep, and decreased levels of stress and anxiety.
Oftentimes, stress and anxiety are a result of our thoughts and our thought patterns and our thought patterns actually create neural pathways. These neural pathways become our mind’s default modes, and when we experience similar moments of stress and anxiety, our brain follows the neural pathways we’ve laid out, leading to even more stress and anxiety.
Once the brain kicks into gear where stress and anxiety are involved, the amygdala, or the primal part of our brains responsible for our emotional responses reacts, prompting our bodies to release cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress. By meditating regularly, we are able to better notice these thought patterns and even begin to change the neural pathways we have spent decades building in our brains. MRI scans actually reveal a shrinkage of the amygdala after eight weeks of meditating consistently for 20 minutes a day. This leads to better control of the “fight or flight” response our amygdala is responsible for and as a result, decreased levels of cortisol in the body. Less cortisol=less stress.
Are we there yet? Seeing the benefits of meditation takes time.
Due to the biological shift in our bodies, we are able to become more self-aware through further meditation. We’re also then better able to manage our reactions to stress and anxiety by creating the opportunity and circumstances in our own bodies to shift our thought patterns. It’s not easy, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. For example, have you ever tried remodeling a bathroom? Neither have I, but I’ve heard it takes time.
Warning: friends and family members may say, “I thought you were meditating now, aren’t you supposed to be nice and not angry or grumpy?” Pay no heed to their remarks, and remind yourself doing the work takes time. Maybe ask them if they’ve ever remodeled a bathroom—tell them you’ve heard it takes forever.
How do you meditate?
The practice is easier said than done, but the work pays off. In a 2007 study from the University of Oregon, researchers found that 20 minutes of integrated meditation a day led to “lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol, and an increase in immunoreactivity.”
The most basic meditation practice is known as shamatha or “peaceful abiding.” In modern western practice it is known as “mindfulness practice.” Shamatha is simple in theory, but oftentimes difficult in practice. It involves stabilizing the mind by bringing one’s awareness to an object of meditation. Traditionally, the object of awareness is the sensation of the breath, feeling the breath go in and out of the body.
For first time meditators, “feeling the breath” can sound unspecific and confusing, so the method of labeling the breath by saying “in” when one breathes in, and “out” when one breathes out, is the simplest way to start. Quietly label “in, out” in your mind. No need to control or manipulate your breath, just breathe normally as you label the “in” and “out” breaths.
You can choose to practice with your eyes open or your eyes closed. If you choose to keep your eyes open, find a spot 3-5 feet in front of you to loosely focus your gaze on; keep your gaze hazy, fixating on a spot with laser focus until you’ve given yourself a headache defeats the purpose. If you choose to practice with your eyes closed, try not to doze off.
Continue to label the breath, and whenever you find yourself starting to think about lunch tomorrow, that annoying thing your partner said three years ago, or work, gently say “thinking” in your mind and come back to the breath. Saying “thinking” gently here is key, by removing self-aggression we are able to develop a sense of self-compassion and self-care. “In…Out”
Meditation is like exercise.
Every time you bring awareness back to the mind, imagine it as a mini bicep curl for the mind, slowly strengthening the muscle of concentration and stability.
The thoughts will keep coming, but the breath is always there for you to take a break and recenter when need be.
I just can’t meditate. I keep thinking.
Meditation isn’t meant to be easy. In this world of constant distractions, live feeds, and updates it’s even more challenging. As a friendly reminder, meditation doesn’t mean we stop thinking—the human brain’s purpose is to think and expecting it to shut off is unrealistic. Scientists estimate we think 50,000-70,000 thoughts in a single day. Getting our brains to agree to scheduling in 20 minutes of thoughtless time is difficult, so go with the flow. Let the thoughts come and go, but make an effort not to follow them. Gently acknowledge them and then let those thoughts float away into the endless abyss of your mind. Some days will be harder than others.
Take it easy and be kind with yourself. Start by setting a timer and meditating for two minutes. Work your way up to five minutes the next day, slowly getting up to 20 minutes day.
Start small, take it easy, and be kind to yourself.