Meditation is one of the most transformative lifestyle habits you can implement. When practiced daily, it can vastly improve your mental health and heal physical ailments Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 98..
Meditation is accessible to everyone, can be done anywhere, and is free!
There are many different types of meditation, but all of them are based on ancient practices which calm the mind and relax the body through the dual approach of relaxation and concentration Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 97..
Both scientific and spiritual communities recognize the highly beneficial effects of meditation for mental and physical health.
Benefits of meditation for mental health
The regular practice of meditation (ideally 20 minutes daily) has the following benefits for mental health
- Meditation helps you to stop fighting with yourself, and find a place inside that isn’t war
- It helps you to recognise your thoughts as simply thoughts, and see the self beyond the thoughts
- It helps you to become aware and mindful of your thoughts and feelings
- Four decades of brain research have proven that the brain is transformed by meditation, and now newer evidence suggests that genetic output also improves with meditation Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, p. 72.
Meditation brings about striking physiological changes such as a sharp drop in respiratory, heart and metabolic rate. During meditation, your body and mind benefit from the relaxation response:
- Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard’s Institute for Mind Body Medicine, studied Tibetan monks with decades of meditation experience, and found that their brains were uniquely able to slow down their physiology, breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, and produce calming brain waves Dispenza, J. (2014). You Are the Placebo. London: Hay House, p. 317.
- He called their ability to do this on cue ‘remembered wellness’
- Researchers studying meditating monks noted that during their practice they reduced their metabolic rate by 20%, a reduction which would take the average human being 4-5 hours of sleep to achieve
- These effects have been shown to increase with the increased frequency and duration of meditation practice, these effects increase
Decreased anxiety and perception of stress Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 173.:
- Regular meditation can down-regulate your adrenaline receptors, which means it takes more stress to get the same psychological response Gittleman, L. (2015). The Anxiety Summit – The Parasite/Anxiety Connection. [online] Every Woman Over 29 Blog. Available at: https://www.everywomanover29.com/blog/anxiety-summit-parasite-anxiety/ [accessed 17 Aug. 2017]., Scott, T. and Daniel, K. (May 2015). Real food for Anxiety: Butter, Broth and Beyond. [online] The Anxiety Summit, Season 3. Available at: http://season3.theanxietysummit.com/., Scott, T. and Selhub, E. (May 2015). How to Heal Anxiety with Nature and the Body, not just the Mind. [online] The Anxiety Summit, Season 3. Available at: http://season3.theanxietysummit.com/.
- Meditation reduces cortisol and other stress hormones, and contributes to overall hormonal and neurotransmitter balance
- Meditation involving yogic breathing may lessen symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 173.
When you’re stressed, your lower brain (responsible for the fight or flight mechanism) sends signals to your higher brain (responsible for higher cognitive functioning) to shut down. This means your judgement, discipline, and cognitive functions are impaired. Regular meditation actually increases grey matter in the prefrontal cortex.
A Harvard study suggested that meditation can help rebuild grey matter in the brain and produce long lasting cognitive and psychological benefits such as increased concentration and attention Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T. and Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. [online] Psychiatry Research, 191 (1), pp. 36-43. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/ [accessed 13 Sept. 2017]..
A regular meditation practice:
- Can enable you to reduce your stress levels so that your higher brain centres can still function
- Can improve self control and discipline
- Can improve attention and concentration
- Can improve memory
Regular meditation practice can improve your sleep:
- A study showed increased plasma melatonin levels in experienced mediators after practicing meditation, compared to at the same hour without meditation on a control night Tooley, G. A., Armstrong, S. M., Norman, T. R. and Sali, A. (2000). Acute increases in night-time plasma melatonin levels following a period of meditation. [online] Biological Psychology, 53 (1), pp. 69-78. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10876066 [accessed 14 Sept. 2017].
- Subjects practised asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (yoga breathing) and meditation for 3 months, leading to a measurable increase in plasma melatonin levels Harinath, K., Malhotra, A. S., Pal, K., Prasad, R., Kumar, R., Kain, T. C., Rai, L. and Sawhney, R. C. (2004). Effects of Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation on cardiorespiratory performance, psychologic profile, and melatonin secretion. [online] Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10 (2), pp. 261-8. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15165407 [accessed 14 Sept. 2017].
Regular meditation practice can improve your mood and symptoms of depression:
- Regular practice over time reduces depressive symptoms Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 99.
- Regular practice Improves quality of life Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 149.
Regular meditation practice can reduce inflammation Rosenkranz, M. A., Davidson, R. J., MacCoon, D. G., Sheridan, J. F., Kalin, N. H. and Lutz, A. (2013). A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. [online] Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 27C, pp. 174-84. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3518553/ [accessed 14 Sept. 2017]. which, as we have seen in inflammation, can contribute to mental health issues.
Neurons are constantly firing together in our brain. When they fire, they exchange charged elements that produce electromagnetic fields made up of different brain waves. These waves, and their frequency, can be seen on brain scans Dispenza, J. (2014). You Are the Placebo. London: Hay House, p. 153..
Most of the time we oscillate between alpha and beta brain wave-states:
- Alpha is a creative, imaginative state, involving relaxation, and imagination
- Beta is fully conscious thought
- Low-range beta: when you are relaxed, engaged and interested, for instance when you’re reading a book
- Mid-range beta: when you’re focusing on an ongoing stimulus outside the body, for instance when you’re learning to play the piano
- High-range beta: used in crisis, when stress chemicals are produced, for instance you’re running away from someone
The higher the brain waves, the further you are from accessing your inner world. Dispenza, J. (2014). You Are the Placebo. London: Hay House, p. 153.
During meditation, we lower our brain wave-state. The lower you go, the deeper you can go into your sub/unconscious. During meditation:
- We transition from a high frequency beta to an alpha brain wave-state, which is associated with concentration, creativity and relaxation
- We activate the frontal lobe which lowers the volume on the brain circuits that process time and space
- We’re no longer in survival mode, but in a more creative, suggestible state with fewer stress hormones
- If we can drop down further to theta waves (the brain waves of deep sleep), a kind of twilight state where we’re half-awake, half-asleep (often described as ‘mind awake, body asleep’), we have access to our subconscious world
The neocortex is the home of our conscious awareness. It is where we construct thoughts, exercise analytical reasoning and rationality. It processes all the data which our senses perceive from the world. In our normal waking state the outside world has more meaning, and seems ‘more real’ than the inner world.
When we meditate, our thinking brain has access to our limbic brain, which is the seat of our emotional reflexes. Our awareness turns inwards, and we pay attention to our inner world which can be helpful in increasing awareness and understanding of our thoughts and feelings. The mystic Karlfried Durkheim postulated that we meditate for a greater transparency to our Being, or become “transparent to transcendent Being” http://www.katinkahesselink.net/sufi/durkheim.html.
Meditation can help us manifest healthy genes.
Four decades of brain research have proven that the brain is transformed by meditation, and now newer evidence suggests that genetic output also improves with meditation Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, p. 72.
How to meditate
The more you practice, the easier it tends to become. The most important thing is to approach your meditation practice with gentleness and be kind to yourself. It’s normal to find it difficult in the beginning, and to become frustrated with the feeling that you cannot clear your mind. But remember that meditation is not an end goal (to clear your mind) but a process, and that process is simply to become aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise.
If you have any tendency to bipolar and/or schizophrenia, meditation can be dangerous, so consult a medical professional Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 102..
The length of the meditation varies between different practices:
- Transcendental meditation tends to recommend two sessions of 20 minutes: one on waking, and one several hours before sleep
- Some recommend two sessions of 15 minutes Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 98.
- Dr Joe Dispenza suggests 40 minutes to one hour Dispenza, J. (2014). You Are the Placebo. London: Hay House, p. 269
- The key is regularity: doing it daily can become an enjoyable and healthy habit, and the benefits are cumulative
Bringing meditation to life
Taking time out to perform a regular meditation practice daily is great. However one of the most beneficial effects of meditation is when you can bring a meditative attitude to your daily life.
- The state you are in during meditation — calm, aware, present — is incredibly beneficial to your daily life, and the life of those around you
- An advanced meditation practice is to carry your meditative attitude into your daily lives, and maintain it in the face of stress and adversity
- This state will help you deal with stress and adversity in a more appropriate, loving, and wise way to the benefit of everyone involved
Different types of mediation
There are many different kinds of meditation, with their own origins and histories. Try a few to see which one feels right to you.
A meditation on a mantra, which can be a word or a phrase (meaningful, or not), repeated aloud or silently during meditation.
Often mantras are chosen by your teacher. However here are some examples of useful mantras Dispenza, J. (2014). You Are the Placebo. London: Hay House, p. 34.:
- “Nothing matters unless I choose to make it matter” (suggested by Neale Donald Walsch in “Conversations with God”)
- “I am loved”
- “I am whole”
- “Om mani padme hum” (Tibetan compassion prayer)
- “I am Source”
- “I am the light”
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation involves bringing non-judgemental awareness to the present moment while calmly acknowledging our bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings:
- Sit quietly, cross legged, in a half lotus or full lotus position, or in a chair
- Back straight
- Hands relaxed on your knees or thumb and index touching as they relax on your knees
- Take three deep breaths, and let go of any tension as you exhale
- Turn your attention inwards
- Notice your breath, how it feels as it goes in and out
- Notice any body sensations – discomfort, tension, or feelings of ease; notice them, and let them go, like clouds passing in the sky, or scenes on a movie screen which unfold before you and disappear
- Notice any thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go; observe them as you would clouds passing across the sky, or scenes on a movie screen which unfold before you and disappear
- Keep doing this over and over, sitting quietly as you observe your breath, your body sensations, your thoughts and your feelings, and let them go
This is the process of mindfulness meditation: to observe without judging. People sometimes feel they are “failing” at meditation because they cannot empty their minds of thoughts. But “successful” meditation simply means being willing to sit and observe the fullness of your mind, by observing your thoughts and feelings, and then letting them go. The process of letting these go can contribute, over the long term, to clearing the mind, but this should not be the aim of the meditation.
Benefits of mindfulness for mental health
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be particularly helpful with anxiety and depression. Anxiety often involves racing, persistent thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is especially helpful for anxiety since it:
- Trains the mind to bring awareness into the present and away from overactive fearful thoughts Sedlmeier, P., Eberth, J., Schwarz, M., Zimmermann, D., Haarig, F., Jaeger, S. and Kunze, S. (2012). The psychological effects of meditation: a meta-analysis. [online] Psychological Bulletin, 138 (6), pp. 1139-71. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22582738 [accessed 12 Sept. 2017].
- Activates brain regions involved with decision making and rationality
- Anxiety represents an inability to govern ruminative cognitive processes and is associated with decreased executive-level brain activity in the bilateral prefrontal cortices (PFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)
- The cognitive control of ruminative thought processes is mediated by activation in the PFC and ACC Zeidan, F., Martucci, K., Kraft, R., McHaffie, J. and Coghill, R. (2013). Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. [online] Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9 (6), pp. 751–9. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/9/6/751/1664700/Neural-correlates-of-mindfulness-meditation [accessed 12 Sept. 2017].
- Teaches meditators how to work with a range of difficult and stressful situations Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A. and Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. [online] Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78 (2), pp. 169-83. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20350028 [accessed 12 Sept. 2017].
- Reduces activity in the fear-triggering part of the brain – the amygdala Goldin, P. R. and Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. [online] Emotion, 10 (1), pp. 83-91. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20141305 [accessed 12 Sept. 2017].
Practicing mindful living
Practising mindful living means bringing an attitude of mindfulness into your every day life.
- When possible, do just one thing at a time
- Pay full attention to what you’re doing, as you are doing it
- When the mind wanders from what you are doing in the present moment, bring it gently back to the task at hand
- When we consciously acknowledge our mind wandering from the present moment, we realise that we’re returning our attention to the present moment Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 85.
- ‘Beginning again does not mean we have made an error — it is the heart of the practice, not a deviation from it’ Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 87.
- Repeat this step several billion times
- Investigate your distractions
- Gently observe your reactions when you are faced with unpleasant experiences, thoughts and feelings, rather than having a knee jerk “I hate this, get me out of here!” Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 128.
- Instead of trying to ignore or get rid of physical or mental discomfort, pay attention to these feelings with friendly curiosity, which will transform our experience Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 148.
- The Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Han says we should greet each thought and feeling like an old friend, saying “hello fear!”, “greetings anger!” etc.
Benefits of mindful living
Living mindfully allows us to get out of our heads, disengaging the auto-pilot there, and experience the world directly without the relentless commentary of our thoughts.
- As such, it opens us up to experiencing happiness and peace in the present moment
- When we are constantly preoccupied by future goals, fears or past experiences, we miss what we are actually experiencing in the moment
- Being mindfully in the present moment helps us be open to all sources of information
- It enables us to be more aware of ourselves through our senses, emotions and thoughts, and therefore become more effective and focussed problem solvers and actors of our lives
- It helps us to respond creatively and thoughtfully to the present moment, freeing us from reflex thoughts and reactions which can start a cascade of unhelpful feelings and actions Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way through Depression. New York: Guildford Press, p. 81.
A specific type of mindfulness meditation that is helpful for anxiety is open monitoring. This involves sitting and noticing what is happening in the environment around and within you. Practitioners find a quiet stillness from which to watch their thoughts and allow them to pass without becoming overwhelmed by them. Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B. and Colzato, L.S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review. [online] Frontiers in Psychology, 5, p. 1083. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4171985/ [accessed 18 Sept. 2017].
Focusing your attention on one thing – an image, a flame, a word, your breath. When you have thoughts and feelings simply let them go, and bring your attention back to the object on which you have chosen to focus your attention. Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B. and Colzato, L.S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review. [online] Frontiers in Psychology, 5, p. 1083. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4171985/ [accessed 18 Sept. 2017].
Meditation which focuses on an imagined image or visual. Holt, S. and Macdonald, I. (2011). Depression: Natural Remedies That Really Work. Auckland, NZ: Press, p. 97.
Focuses on noticing the breath, thoughts, and feelings.
Different meditation traditions often use chanting as a form of meditation.
Walking slowly, mindfully, gently treading the earth with deliberate awareness, while noticing without judgement our body sensations, thoughts and feelings, is a form of walking meditation.
Ideally done in nature, taking in the sights, sounds and smells around you, noticing how it feels to gently place one foot in front of the other, while acknowledging thoughts and feelings, and letting them go.
O’Donovan, H. (2015). Mindful Walking: Walk Your Way to Mental and Physical Well-Being. London: Hachette.