After a stressful week, you are determined to try it. You plop down on your favorite chair, close your eyes, take a deep breath...and exhale. After what seems like an eternity (but in reality is all but 12.5 seconds) you begin to wonder, “Is anything supposed to be happening?” Sound familiar? Yeah, me too.
We’ve all heard about meditation and mindfulness from one source or another - either from self-help gurus, business leaders, or your lovable yogi friend who all swear by it. Yet, despite all the wonders we hear attributed to the process, let’s be honest, we still don't fully understand how it works or what the practical benefits are. At a time when we are over-worked, over-committed, and busier than ever, sitting still and observing our thoughts seems rather contradictory. Perhaps that’s why we need it most, now.
We may own large TV’s and sport nifty titles on our business cards, but we are more stressed, sleep deprived, and sicker as a nation than we have ever been. Every day, 1 million people in the US miss work due to stress. Studies show that 33% of us don’t get enough sleep; and we spend the most (by far) in healthcare compared to 12 other high-income nations, yet we are the sickest of them all. The faustian bargain of professional growth at the cost of personal well-being doesn’t seem to pan out as nicely as we would have hoped. Thankfully, there is a way to find greater balance and effectiveness in work and life, and it’s through the practice of meditation and mindfulness.
I first incorporated meditation into my daily routine two years ago. Given my fast-paced life and inability to keep still, I was initially hesitant but kept an open mind. It seemed to work for some of the world’s greatest business, social, spiritual, and political leaders in manifesting their goals, so if they could make time for it, I knew I should be able to as well. Despite my initial challenges, with some simple steps (that I’ll share in this article) I have noticed some very practical benefits that have convinced me of the return on investment that comes from creating space for this practice. In short, the proverbial adage that the more we put into it, the more we will get out it holds true in this instance. I’ll share some of these benefits with you now.
But first, what is meditation and mindfulness?
What if I told you there was a way to live a purpose-driven, creative, and financially rewarding life, and that this was possible while respecting our health and personal sense of balance? Meditation and mindfulness is a simple practice, and a way of living to bring greater peace, presence, and effectiveness into our lives. It’s not a religion, nor is it some esoteric import of exotic worlds. Think of it as a powerful life-hack that can be incorporated into any spiritual or secular worldview to help us access our highest potentials of personal wellbeing and professional growth.
The 5 Practical Benefits
1. We become sharper, more creative, and more productive:
Imagine our mind occupied by a relentless stream of thoughts, distractions, and emotions vs. our mind when it is clear, focused, and calm. In which scenario do you believe we will make better decisions? The resulting clarity that comes from a mindful and meditative mind brings greater focus, creativity, and thoughtfulness to our work and decisionmaking. The reason for this, according to practitioners of meditation and mindfulness, is that we are not in fact our thoughts or emotions. Rather, we are the silence between them. It is in this silence, or depth of stillness, where genius, creativity, and guidance emerges. Additionally, we notice that our mind becomes sharper and more attuned to the finer details we otherwise might have missed. With greater objectivity, we begin to observe the range of possibilities available to us before choosing the most effective course of action. This is how high achievers and creative minds gain leverage and profound results with the same number of hours in the day. What accounts for this?
Recent scientific findings have shed light on the the transformative effect of meditation on our brains. Through a process called cortical thickening, the area of our brain responsible for learning, cognition, and memory (the left hippocampus) grew in just 8 weeks of meditation and mindfulness practice. Another study revealed that when compared to long-term meditators, the frontal cortex (associated with working memory and executive decision making) becomes resistant to the expected cortical shrinkage over time. 50 year-old meditators in this study showed the same amount of gray matter in their brains as the average 25 year-old. Once we begin the regular practice of meditation, the qualitative difference in our brain’s ability to process information, creatively analyze, and remain sharp becomes evident in our experience. And now, thanks to the growing academic interest in meditation and mindfulness, we have the science to back up these claims.
2. We are more in control of our thoughts, emotions, and actions
One of the first things we notice after a few weeks or months of practice is a greater sense of control over our negative thoughts and emotions. If you’re an average Joe or Joanne like me, your mind is probably clouded at times (or perpetually) by both. Rather than have our mental state influenced by these unhelpful states, the practice of meditation and mindfulness allows us to create distance between us and our thoughts and emotions. How? We are able to sit back and watch the thought and emotion-clouds pass by in front of our mind-sky. As a result, we have greater control over which thoughts and emotions to engage and our subsequent actions.
A friend recently asked me, “If we distance ourselves from our emotions, do we just stop feeling? It seems rather unhuman.” It’s a great question. I would say that on the contrary, meditation and mindfulness makes you even more sensitive, and heightens your experiences of emotions, with one key difference: you feel all the helpful emotions such as love, compassion, and joy so much more while exercising greater control over unhelpful emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. In doing so, you rise above unproductive emotions and magnify the productive ones. The outcome is a more positive, healthy, and magnetic version of yourself.
3. We are more confident and courageous
We are most confident when we know who we are, and when we know where we are headed. Life will always throw challenges our way to test what we are made of, and a meditative mind helps to: a) Cultivate a positive relationship with our inner self and b) Offers us purpose and direction. When the chatter of our mind falls away, we are left with a silent connection to what many call our inner voice, our intuition, or our true essence. It is a connection that fosters peace, acceptance, and trust within ourselves. It is from this place that we become aligned with our inner compass.
One of the most influential spiritual masters of the 20th century, Paramahansa Yogananda, who has inspired hundreds of millions around the world (including some the world’s most influential thinkers) described this process with the simplicity and clarity he is known for when he said, “Intuition manifests in the calm consciousness as feeling, perceived mostly through the heart. When such feeling comes, you receive through it a definite sense of right direction and unshakable conviction.” This unshakable conviction that comes from a meditative and mindful state forms the very foundation of confidence. Leveraged correctly, it is a powerful current that inspires the flow and movement of creativity, ideas, and people.
4. We are healthier - mentally and physically
Did you know that up to 90% of doctor’s visits are triggered by stress-related ailments? When meditation and mindfulness becomes a part of our routine, we realize we have more control over our mental and physical health than we might think. Our heightened awareness allows us to feel that our thoughts have corresponding physiological responses. For example: Anxious, fearful, or stressful thoughts or emotions create tension in the body. As a result, oxygen becomes limited in the blood supply, our muscles contract, our heart rates rise, and our digestion and immune system get thrown off balance. The consequence? Our susceptibility to illness and disease increases. On the other hand, calm in the mind produces relaxation and deep breathing that alleviates muscle tension and other stressors in the body, allowing our system to flow with greater ease and regulation. In this way, meditation and mindfulness has a positive effect in preserving our mental health, and as a subsequence, our physical health.
Here again, two fascinating studies shed light on this mind-body health connection: A University of Wisconsin-Madison Study found that those who undertook meditation and mindfulness training showed increased activity in the left frontal region of their brain, which resulted in lower anxiety, more positive emotional states, and increased immune function to safeguard their bodies against sickness. A Harvard Medical School study revealed how this was possible when it discovered that deep relaxation techniques like meditation has the ability to change our bodies on a genetic level. In essence, our efforts to introduce calm and relaxation into the mind activate disease fighting genes that help protect the body from illnesses. If there’s one takeaway from all of this, it is the following: the more we take care of our mind, the healthier our bodies are -- in that sequence.
5. We are more compassionate and happier
When the Dalai Lama challenged the famed neuroscientist, Dr. Richard Davidson to put kindness and compassion to the same scientific rigor and scrutiny as researchers have done done with depression and anxiety, the neuroscientist found some fascinating results. After strapping electrodes onto Buddhist monks, and running a few of them through an MRI under meditative states, he concluded, “this is really a kind of exciting neuroscientific finding...that the best way for us to be happy is to be generous to others. And in fact the scientific evidence is in many ways bearing this out, and showing that there are systematic changes in the brain that are associated with acts of generosity.”
So, what’s the link to meditation? A study conducted by Northeastern University found that meditation can help shape our mind and actions to be more kind and compassionate towards others. The practice grows our awareness beyond ourselves as we become more attuned and observant to the needs and suffering of others around us. Our personal relationships benefit from deepened presence and focus. We become more reliable listeners, we are more willing to be of service to others, and we hold space for their needs. It may be difficult for us to live up to the standard of selflessness and compassion that the Dalai Lama exemplifies, but the selfish little secret is this: It’s not just the right thing to do, it appears that it makes us happier too. And isn’t that what we’re all after at the end of the day, a life of meaning and happiness?
Three ways you can get started, today:
Now that you are aware of some of the benefits associated with meditation and mindfulness, you might be thinking about how to get started. There are many different types of meditation that are all designed to focus our attention -- whether it is through our breathing, a word of powerful affirmation; or an image that holds meaning. There’s even walking meditations, and ways of incorporating meditative moments into our busy lives that can help connect us to a more mindful state. You can find out more about which style suits your needs best by attending free meditation meetups or guided sessions; evening seminars, or weekend workshops around your city. These venues are helpful to to ask questions, meet like-minded people, and get a feel for it all. The following are three steps I found most helpful in my journey:
A. Read The Power of Now: This New York Times Bestseller by Eckhart Tolle cuts through the esoteric, new-agey foreign jargon, and makes the concept of meditation and mindfulness relatable and accessible to a western audience. It’s an easy read, and one that will answer most of your meditation 101 questions, and leave you with practical insights that will help you arrive at your personal “why” for incorporating the practice into your life.
B. Download the Headspace app: It might be difficult to start meditating without some form of guidance; and it just so happens there’s a very effective app for that. Headspace is great because the narrator (and creator), Andy, understands the challenges that every beginner faces and talks you through it in a way that’s encouraging, supportive, and relatable. He even does it with a British accent that’s friendly and charming enough for you to want to be his friend. He starts you off with quick guided 10-minute sessions that progressively advance in time and concepts as your commitment to the practice grows. Try the free intro sessions with an open mind and see how you feel!
C. Stay with it: It’s called a meditation and mindfulness practice for a reason. Like our muscles, our focus needs training to get stronger. Think of the time you spend in meditation as your time in mental training; while the act of mindfulness is carrying a state of presence and focus into the rest of your day, and in your interactions with others. In the beginning, it may be difficult to sit still for even five minutes, let alone focus the mind. Additionally, the stillness may cause stirring emotions within you to rise up; and you may find yourself fidgety and anxious. This is okay! You can rest assured knowing that it’s all a normal part of the process. The more we “show up”, the easier it becomes, and the greater results we will see manifesting in our lives.
When I first incorporated meditation into my life, it was such a personal challenge to sit still and focus that I exclaimed in frustration, “If I can figure out how to do this, anyone can!” Two years in, I still consider myself a beginner with much to learn and grow in the practice; yet I can say with absolute certainty that if you show up with earnest intention, you will reap the benefits. This may not become apparent on day one or two, but it will come.
Now that you have an understanding of what you can expect, the next time you enter that space of silence and the thoughts begin to rush in, sit through it with the knowing that you’re already on your way to a higher you. Trust in the process, and you will feel your newfound growth within yourself, reflected back to you by others, and from the many benefits that life itself will bring into your experience.