Let me just set the record straight – I rarely find meditation enjoyable. Truthfully, sometimes (roughly 48 hours into a 7 day retreat) I find it downright unbearable! I often think that my meditation cushion should be equipped with a seatbelt because of how often my thoughts attempt to propel me from my seat. Having to sit still and concentrate on anything for more than a minute is uncomfortable – restlessness, boredom, self-doubt, and judgment all kick in regularly.
I’m probably not selling meditation practice well, but it’s important to admit that starting and maintaining a regular meditation practice is hard. People often tell me that they tried meditation, and it didn’t really “work” for them. Or worse, people try to claim that meditation is just “not for everybody” as if there are certain types of people that for some reason are unable to breathe and be aware of what they are experiencing (even if that is simply the discomfort or aversion). But what’s behind these claims is the truth that meditation is hard work. It requires us to face the groundlessness and discomfort we experience when we remove our crutches of constant mental stimulation and just sit with what is. In turn, this forces us to confront all kinds of aspects and qualities of ourselves that we usually are not aware of, or perhaps even that we would rather not face.
Another reason meditation practice is difficult for us is that it works against our usual understanding of what we “want” to do. Meditation doesn’t release the addictive hit of dopamine that checking in on facebook, having a drink with a friend, or crashing on the couch for a Netflix binge offers us. In other words, we believe we shouldn’t do it, because it’s not enjoyable to us in the way we usually think about it. What keeps us off the cushion, usually, is the perpetual thought/belief that I could/should be doing something that’s more important, fun, urgent, productive, etc.
But that’s not true of most things that are good for us. I also don’t like brushing my teeth. I would prefer a greasy burger over eating raw vegetables. I have to reach into the darkest depths of my being to muster the motivation it takes to get me to the gym even somewhat regularly. But here’s why I do those things: I know they are good for me. And not only that, but over time, I can see the benefits of doing them regularly.
Meditation works exactly the same way. Like most regular self-care activities, meditating regularly isn’t about enjoying it, but because doing it regularly has long-term health and wellness benefits, and over time, these can be observed. In fact, the research is so conclusive on these benefits for our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual being, that I have become completely convinced that meditation is not just a hobby for those who are interested, or even a trendy new age practice for a select few. I believe meditation is so necessary for our well-being and wholeness that every single person should be practicing it regularly.
I have reached this conclusion after countless hours of personal practice, retreats, teaching and taking classes, working with clients, studying the literature, and believing the scientists who study it. But if you need any convincing to start your own meditation practice, here are just some of the well-documented, long-term benefits of meditation. They are all effects on the brain that happen when we engage it in extended periods of concentration regularly.
1. Decrease in anxiety and stress, (and with that, blood pressure, physical tension, etc)
Sustained concentration deactivates the stem part of the brain called the amygdala, or the “reptilian brain” (because it’s the oldest evolved part of our brain that we have in common with reptiles). This part of the brain deals with survival and instinct. Its main function is to regulate our fight, flight, or freeze mode. And while this instinct was crucial in our ancient ancestors in surviving attacks from, oh say, saber-toothed tigers, in our modern world we (hopefully) aren’t regularly finding ourselves in life-threatening situations. However, if you haven’t noticed, you might not be surprised to hear that your stress response is constantly working on overdrive. Anxiety about an upcoming assignment, report, stressful meeting, or even a first date triggers the exact same physical response that is necessary to flee an attacking saber-tooth tiger. Muscles tense up, adrenaline flows through our muscles, and the heart rate soars. These responses are rarely helpful, and in the case of a first date, are actually UN helpful! If we don’t regularly do the mental self-care associated with meditation, it’s like the amygdala’s red panic button got stuck down. The alarms and sirens are always going off. This has horrible and long-term health consequences.
Over time, meditation practice actually shrinks the brain tissue that comprises the amygdala. The alarms can be shut off. Unfortunately, anxiety isn’t a switch we can simply shut off, but long term practice literally shrinks this part of the brain. And we can take a deep breath of relief.
2. Increased capacity for critical thinking and self-awareness
Whereas sustained concentration associated with meditation deactivates the amagdyla, it in turn activates the prefrontal cortex – the grey matter in the front of your brain that deals with critical thinking, empathy, self-awareness, problem solving, abstract throught, creativity, and being able to see other perspectives and learn new ideas. Over time, this part of the brain becomes stronger and becomes more so our default responsive (which is usually more helpful than that honor going to the amygdala). Meditation literally increases grey matter in the brain!
We often talk about enlightenment as an abstract, spiritual, esoteric concept, but it might just be that meditation masters that we would normally consider enlightened individuals simply exude higher states of empathy, self-awareness, and openness that come with a stronger prefrontal cortex. In fact, this is absolutely the case, as demonstrated by the countless meditation masters that have been hooked up to all kinds of brain sensors and scanners.
3. Increased feelings of compassion and kindness towards ourselves and others
As our stress response shrinks and our critical thinking and self-awareness increase, we naturally begin to soften and become more open. We start to feel more connected to others, to nature, and life in general. Our natural response is compassion. The walls we put up, our shells, our rigid identities begin to break down, because we begin to see that they were only a product of our stress-survival response being in overdrive. Along with that, our criticism and judgment of ourselves and others weaken, because they only ever existed to serve the self the amagdyla was trying to help survive. Life becomes less and less about me, my, mine, what I can get out of it and how to avoid what I don’t like, and more about us and we. Our own happiness and wholeness, it turns out, is not separate from the happiness and wholeness of others because of how connected we are. Although we retain the evolutionary survival mechanisms of our ancestors (that to be clear we still need to surivive), humans have also evolved an incredible capacity to feel empathy and altruism. Compassion is our natural response to suffering in the world, along with a desire to help, when our anxiety based obsession with self softens. And compassion, for ourselves, others, and the world I believe, is worth cultivating.
The good news is, you don’t have to meditate for years to begin to experience the benefits. In fact, research shows that even after one sitting, we experience a bit of freedom and ease that comes with the shift in brain activity.
At peace of mindful, we believe that all people deserve to learn the practice of meditation to experience the benefits of this kind of self-care. We offer free meditation classes and sitting groups every week. If you are interested in starting your own meditation practice, visit us every Tuesday at 6:30pm!