Life is full of ups and downs. And everybody tends to get overwhelmed at times. But there are many ways of dealing with what happens. Some people go to the gym to workout. Others meet up with friends and enjoy a nice meal with lots of conversation. But sometimes it comes down to what we can do by ourselves, for ourselves. Many things are beyond our control. However, we can take responsibility for the state of our mind and meditation is a wonderful tool that helps us do that.
Meditation has been around for millennia. The earliest written records of meditation come from the Hindu traditions around 1500 BCE. Other forms of meditation developed in Taoist China and Buddhist India around the sixth and fifth centuries. The exact origins are subject to debate. But regardless of the origin, meditation practices have stood the test of time and are used all over the world.
Meditation is a way to transform the mind. Meditation practices can increase concentration, emotional positivity, clarity and a sense of calmness. Meditation can also give us the ability to see the true nature of things around us. There are many different forms of meditation, but they all have the same purpose, to calm the mind and help us find our center. When we engage in a particular form of meditation, we learn the habits and patterns of our minds and then we can actually change old habits.
Scientific research tends to focus on two types of meditation, mindful meditation and focused-attention meditation. Through the use of MRIs, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what actually takes place in our brains when we meditate. The most dramatic effect is that our brains stop processing information like they normally would. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-consciousness, tends to stop functioning during meditation. The parietal lobe, which processes sensory information, slows down. The thalamus, which is the area that focuses our attention by interpreting sensory information, actually shows a slowing of incoming information. So all of these things combined, allows our brains to relax.
Meditation is a practice of focusing our attention and being aware of when it meanders and because of this, meditation can improve our focus when we are not meditating also. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular meditation practices.
Another positive effect of meditation is that it allows us to have less anxiety and stress. The more we meditate, the looser the connections of certain neural pathways become. The area of the brain that triggers strong reactions becomes less “tight” and in contrast, the frontal lobe strengthens, allowing us to more easily look at things rationally. For example, sometimes when we experience pain, our minds go to the worst possible scenario and we become anxious. The more a person meditates, the more rational their thinking becomes and thus the feelings of anxiety decrease.
Probably the most studied benefit of meditation is compassion. People who practice meditation regularly have been shown to have more empathy. The part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli, the amygdala, normally slows down during meditation. But just like the aforementioned lasting effects of meditation, compassion and empathy are also affected long-term. Thus those who practice regular meditation tend to look at others differently and show them more understanding and compassion.
Memory is another area that is helped through the regular practice of meditation. Studies have shown that those who meditate are able to adjust the brain waves that screen our distractions and therefore increase their productivity. Part of this is because meditation actually increases the amount of grey matter in the brain. The greater the amount of grey matter, the more positive the emotions, the less age-related diseases affect us and the less our cognitive functioning decreases.
Over time, meditation can greatly improve the quality of life in numerous ways. Researching the different forms of meditation is the best way to get started. Try as many as possible and go with the one that resonates best with you. Your body will definitely thank you.