Mental Health

Meditation is the Best Medicine

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As much as I love my yoga – and I really love my yoga – nothing centers, soothes, and balances me better than sitting silently in meditation. If I am frustrated, anxious, fatigued, sad, or experiencing any other number of annoying or overwhelming emotions, meditation brings me out of my funk and helps me look at my life through a clearer lens. It clears my brain, lightens my mood, and prepares me to be an active participant in my life again.

So you think I may be exaggerating just a little?

You have tried meditation and it is just not for you. You can’t quiet your mind long enough to feel any of the benefits I am talking about. I have heard many reasons for not meditating, and I understand if my personal experience is not quite enough to sway you to try meditation. Hopefully this recent study on mindfulness meditation will help you to see the value in starting your own regular meditation practice.

(PhysOrg.com) — Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

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“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany.

The uplifted feeling I get after sitting in meditation is not just because I took a few moments to sit quietly and relax, it is because my brain is being reconstructed. The participants in this 8 week study reported meditating for an average of 27 minutes a day. Analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

Meditation actually changes our brain structure.

I have tried several different styles of meditation, and the type of meditation I chose on any given day really depends on how active my mind is. There are some schools that believe there is only one way to meditate properly. I am not enrolled in any of those schools.

If you read Eat, Pray, Love and are unexperienced in meditation, you may think the meditation described in the book is the only way to practice – sitting for hours in pain, judging yourself harshly until your mind cooperates and quiets down, taking four months in an ashram to finally achieve a good meditation practice. It does not have to be that difficult.

Many of us have participated in the Chopra Center 21 Day Meditation Challenge.

It is a great and gentle introduction into different types of meditation, and in fact the Winter 21 Day Challenge began today. It is not too late to sign up if you are interested. The meditations last an average of 15 minutes each. They are guided by The Chopra Center’s lead educator Davidji. His voice is soothing and seductive as he guides participants through a different meditation technique each day. I highly recommend this challenge if you are considering starting your own meditation practice and would like to be eased into it.

For another simple, yet powerful breathing meditation practice, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Conscious Breathing Practice never fails to center me.

From Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh

“There are a number of breathing techniques you can use to make life vivid and more enjoyable. The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, you say to yourself, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” And as you breathe out, say, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Just that. You recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. You don’t even need to recite the whole sentence; you can use just two words: “In” and “Out.” This technique can help you keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle, and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.”

So tonight, after I finish writing and editing this post, I am going to roll out my mat, light some incense, and sit silently in meditation. And in doing so I will let go of the frustrations of my day, and prepare myself to sleep a peaceful, restorative sleep. The ten, twenty, or thirty minutes I dedicate to my meditation practice will continue to serve me for hours after. That’s a pretty good trade off of time don’t you think?