You know what’s harder for me than hiking 14ers or snowshoeing through three feet of powder? Sitting in stillness for meditation and just being there. It’s a difficult challenge for a doer and a thinker to switch into being and observing mode, but this time is not wasted in a sea of nothingness. It’s actually changing my life and how I live. Here are five life changing benefits I’ve noticed since starting a regular meditation practice.
Increased Focus. During meditation, the practitioner places the mind on a single object. It could be the breath, a word or mantra, or even sensations that arise in the body. According to a study by Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz, “the meditation condition was associated with activation in multiple brain regions implicated in monitoring, engaging attention, and attentional orienting.” The more I meditate, the more I tend towards calm focus. When I don’t meditate, I start to hop between tasks and lose productivity because my mind does not want to stay still on one thing.
Increased Calm in the mind and body. Because of the increased ability to focus, the mind isn’t bombarded with multiple things or being pulled in all directions. It’s able to settle, rest, and relax. Additionally, most meditation practices also ask us to have relaxed breathing. When the breath is calm, the parasympathetic nervous system of “rest and digest” (which is tied to the breath) is able to activate and calm the rest of the body. The more I meditate, the more I experience that calm and act to bring more calming things into my life. Or rather, the more I actively filter out the things that bring a sensation of uncalm… like turning down the music.
Decreased Stress and anxiety. Meditation asks that we stay completely present. Many times, stress happens because we’re focused on events from the past or something that hasn’t even happened yet. In open monitoring meditation, the practitioner is asked to monitor what each moment to moment experience feels like without becoming attached or reactive to the thought, sensation, etc. Richard Davidson’s study found that this allows people to, “better attend moment-to-moment to the stream of stimuli to which they are exposed and less likely to “get stuck” on any one stimulus.” Similarily, Willoughby B. Britton’s study shows Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which incorporates mindfulness meditation, was “associated with decreased emotional reactivity to social stress.”
Building the ability to bring my thoughts back to the here and now and realize what I have control over in meditation (ie the breath and how I direct my thoughts), has allowed me to use that same skill in the rest of life too. Seeing what’s possible and focusing on the present has brought me less stress.
Increased overall health. This goes hand in hand with decreased stress. According to Ernesto L. Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., “When stress is excessive, it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure to asthma to ulcers to irritable bowel syndrome.” Plus, the way we handle stress might not be healthy: taking too many pills, stress eating, misdirecting anger, etc. Reducing stress, factors in the above, can help mitigate all of that.
Increased Awareness. With the increased focus on the here and now, things that might not have been noticed before come to light. These could be anything from habits, to patterns of thinking, or even unconscious thoughts that come to the surface while in meditation. I’m able to see when I rush out of centeredness and into anger or when I impulsively pick up a snack in the grocery store. It’s in that moment of awareness that we have the choice to either continue acting the same way or make a change. There have been many a time where I’ve caught myself mid rant, took a breath, let myself know that it’s not that serious, and gained precious peace that would’ve been lost had I continued.
It’s hard to believe that something as simple as sitting with intention can have such a big impact on the way we perceive and interact with the rest of the world. In order to experience this, you have to practice. All the studies supporting these benefits were done on people given a regular practice for the duration of at least one month. I didn’t start to really appreciate any of the above until after a couple weeks or so. See what happens after making a healthy habit of it for a good month and go from there. Share any experiences in the comments below.