Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with meditation. Like eating healthy, working out, getting more sleep, my high aspirations often fall short of my goals. But having just finished Waking Up by neuroscientist Sam Harris, I’m getting back on the meditation bandwagon. And not for the spiritual component (although I value you that too), but for this astonishing fact: meditation actually physically and demonstrably changes our brains and our bodies. (All italics are excerpts from Harris’ book.)
Long-term meditation practice is associated with a variety of structural changes in the brain. Meditators tend to have larger corpora collosa and hippocampi. The practice is also linked to increased gray matter thickness and cortical folding . . . it is not hard to see how they might explain the kinds of experiences and psychological changes that meditators report.
I was shocked by the amount of studies and data that show the positive and permanent effects on our brain matter and physical health that meditators’ experience. I hope you take the time to read Harris’ book, but I’ll give you a few highlights that you can walk away with today that I believe can be life-changing.
- Meditation reduces pain.
Science has proved that meditators feel physical pain less and handle what they do feel better.
Expert meditators respond differently to pain than novices do. They judge the intensity of an unpleasant stimulus the same but find it to be less unpleasant. They also show reduced brain activity in the regions associated with anxiety while anticipating the onset of pain, as well as faster habituation to the stimulus once it arrives. Other research has found that mindfulness reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of noxious stimuli.
- Meditation reduces stress.
This was the least surprising, but I was unaware that a physical change in brain composition was the cause.
An eight-week program of mindfulness meditation reduced the volume of the right basolateral amygdala, and these changes were correlated with a subjective decrease in stress. A full day of mindfulness practice reduced the expression of several genes that produce inflammation through the body and an improved response to social stress.
- Meditation makes us happier.
A mere five minutes of meditation a day for five weeks has been proven to increase left-sided baseline activity in the frontal cortex, which has been associated with positive emotions.
Five minutes. That’s the magic word. I can find five minutes a day.
- Meditation makes us healthier and better people.
Studies have shown that mindfulness improves immune function, blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. It increases subjective well-being and empathy. In the broadest sense, meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering, in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?
I’m going to try harder, and I’m going to start small. Five minutes in the morning every day. And if I miss a day, I won’t judge myself, but will commit to sitting down, being still for five minutes the next day, and the next. I’m committing now and will report back on its effects on me in three months and let you know how it’s going and which techniques worked the best for me . Want to join me? I’d love to hear about your experience and whether it had a positive effect on you.
You can find Waking Up by Sam Harris here: http://www.amazon.com/Waking-Up-Spirituality-Without-Religion/dp/1451636016/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443895414&sr=1-1&keywords=waking+up
My book, The Abundant Bohemian: How To Live an Unconventional Life Without Starving In the Process is out now. You can find it at http://www.amazon.com/Abundant-Bohemian-Joseph-Downing/dp/1633370135/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419609806&sr=1-1&keywords=the+abundant+bohemian
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