Meditation was first developed in India many years ago (around 5000-3500 BCE). It took quite some time to become popular in the western world, but today it is celebrated as a therapeutic tool to ease stress, anxiety, depression, and addictions. In the past years, it has also become recognized to improve mental performance, and it consequently became a multi-billion dollar business.
If you’ve never tried it, you may be wondering how something so simple as sitting with your eyes closed could deliver such incredible benefits.
How meditation works
Meditation is about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective over one’s thoughts. Many think that meditating is about trying to achieve a zen state of mind, but that’s not the point. Observing one’s thoughts, and then letting go of them – so that eventually you may start to better understand them – is the real goal of each meditation practice.
There are different techniques to go through this mental process. Some focus on the breath and bodily sensation, others make you visualize an object, and others help you to channel your thoughts towards acts of love and kindness.
A typical meditation session involves you sitting on a chair or cross-legged on the floor with eyes closed. Once you assume a comfortable position and focus on your breath, you should start noticing your thoughts. At this point, according to what type of technique you’re using, you will try to let those thoughts go away by focusing on something else (this could be your breath or a mental image you created).
With time and practice, you may be able to reach a state of mind where very few thought (or none) are present.
Despite the simplicity of this process, meditating for more than ten minutes is extremely tough for most. Many people that try meditation get discouraged by the fact that “they can’t stop thinking”. In fact, it has been proven that people spend most of their days being anything but mindful and peaceful.
In a 2010 study,(1) Harvard researchers asked more than 2000 adults about their thoughts and actions at random moments throughout their day via an iPhone app. People’s minds wandered 47% of the time, and mind wandering often triggered unhappiness, the scientists reported.
They also observed that spending time observing our thoughts, without getting stuck on them, may help to better understand oneself, and possibly being able to reduce the number of negative thoughts one experiences.
What science says about meditation
People have practiced meditation for thousands of years, but scientists have studied its effects for only a dozen. In the past few years, many studies have been published about the neurological benefits of meditation, proving it to improve brain function in many different ways.
These benefits range from preserving the aging brain(2), to improving happiness by reducing the activity of the brain’s “me center” (3) (monkey mind), and a more recent study has even proven that meditation is as powerful as antidepressants in treating depression, anxiety, and pain. (4)
Many more studies are being conducted every day on meditation, and we can expect to gain a lot more insight in the near future.
Can anyone meditate?
Millions of people are practicing mindfulness meditation every day with great results, but there are also as many people that have tried meditating and didn’t like it or didn’t manage to be consistent with their practice.
The most important part of developing a meditation practice is consistency. You don’t have to meditate every single day in a row, but the benefits are tied to regular, consistent practice.
Some studies (5) claim that some benefits of meditation such as improved mood, decreased stress and decreased blood pressure can be felt after a single session. Some other benefits like increased focus and decreased anxiety may be experienced after a few weeks and others take longer to develop.
Some people claim that as little as five minutes of meditation per day can make miracles, but research shows that a regular practice associated with benefits involves 10-20 minutes of meditation at least three times per week.
What’s the best way to begin a meditation practice
A good place to start for aspiring mediators is Headspace. Andy Puddicombe, a former English student in sport science, that dropped his studies to travel to Asia and trained as a Buddhist monk, created Headspace with the goal of helping millions of people to live a more mindful life. Over 30 million people have downloaded and use headspace. This is due to his simplicity and its beautiful design and animations.
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