(Note: Yes, I previously blogged on meditation, but it deserves more attention!)
I need good evidence to believe something. I find meta-analyses appealing, and I carefully evaluate the credibility of internet sources. I am increasingly irritated by celebrity-endorsed medical claims, and I take personal testimonials with a grain of salt. Don’t even get me started on Dr. Oz and Jenny McCarthy.
So, last year, when I started looking for evidence-based approaches for dealing with anxiety, I was rather skeptical when I found Mindfulness Meditation as a popular recommendation. But, my mind can be changed. That’s how science works. It changes in the face of evidence.
Things that I have learned about meditation from my research:
In the past ten years, evidence for the benefits of Mindfulness Meditation has blossomed. Neurologists have even demonstrated measurable, observable changes, using tools such as EEG and fMRI. They can identify regions of the brain which are influenced by meditation by looking for changes in activity. (An example of one such study can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24179799)
Meditation can be (and has been) used to treat or deal with a number of psychological and physical issues. The evidence for the benefits of meditation for dealing with anxiety and depression is strongest, (See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24395196 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15256293) but new evidence is emerging about its effects on physical healing.
Meditation can be done by anyone with little training or preparation (with varying degrees of success). You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to see benefits. It can be completely secular. (But it doesn’t have to be. Many people incorporate spirituality into their meditation practices.) Meditation also doesn’t mean walking around with your head in the clouds. It actually can ultimately make you more grounded, present and connected with the world around you.
There are many ways to meditate. You don’t have to sit uncomfortably in a bare, silent room, with a candle burning (unless you want to. It might help a person achieve the right frame of mind.). There are guided meditations to help you stay focused. There is walking meditation. Some people lie down (which is fine unless you keep falling asleep) and many use a chair.
Things that I have learned about meditation from meditating:
As much as I don’t believe in testimonials as conclusive evidence, I’m going to share some of my personal experiences here. Take from them what you will! Some things you can only learn by doing.
Meditation and mindfulness practice has carried over into my everyday life. I am able to be present in the moment. I am better able to cope with difficult situations and my anxiety has improved tremendously (though mediation has been only one component of this path). I have more control over what I spend time thinking about.
I have been able to turn meditation into a habit. I meditate every day, and notice the effects when I don’t. When I started meditating, twenty minutes felt like a lifetime. After a year, it started to go by quickly. Now, I actually look forward to the quiet time.
Mindfulness Meditation often involves focusing attention on your breath. Then, whenever the mind wanders, you train yourself to bring the attention back, over and over. After doing this for a year, I have started to notice an almost physical sensation when I bring my attention back. Imagine watching and listening to a fly buzzing frantically around the room. Then, it finally settles somewhere silently. I find this sudden silence to be a similar sensation. You just know that darn fly is going to pick up and start buzzing again, but you enjoy the momentary peace.
Although meditation has become mainstream, there is still resistance to it. I have heard from a number of people who strongly recommend it to their students, patients or clients and who believe in the benefits, but have never tried it themselves. Many people are skeptical, as I was. It took time and persistence to see the benefits, but now I am personally convinced.
Just as you can practice soccer skills to improve your control over your body (or so I hear), meditation is a brain-training exercise that can help you gain control over your mind.
But, please don’t take my word for it! 😉