When you hear someone talk about meditation, what's the image that comes to mind?
Do you picture someone with a serene face out in a grassy field with birds chirping?
Or do you envision an enlightened monk looking perfectly peaceful (and maybe even levitating)?
Why do images like this come to mind when people think of meditation?
For a long time, meditation was a fringe activity that wasn't taken very seriously by the mainstream public.
Light-hearted jokes were made about in sitcoms (like every single sitcom), and cartoonists used it as a popular punch line.
There was a kind of "yeah wouldn't that be nice, pff no thanks" air about meditation.
Either that or a way more intense cult-like following of meditators I would be inclined to run in the opposite direction if I saw them.
But, over the last few years, meditation has garnered a lot more mainstream attention with nearly every celebrity endorsing it (which certainly helped).
Modern neuroscience should take the most credit for this change in the Western attitude toward meditation.
Neuroscience has now been studying the impact of meditation on the brain for decades, and the research and results are astounding.
The benefits to mental and physical health are almost innumerable.
Along with physical exercise and nutrition, there is nothing better than regular meditation at reducing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, addiction, and even schizophrenia.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
What is meditation exactly?
Well, let's start by going back to those images we thought of earlier, the blissful people who look serene and perfectly peaceful.
Let's rip that bandaid off right away.
That might be a place you can achieve after many years of disciplined practice and daily meditation for hours every day.
The more accurate image of meditation would be someone sitting down and becoming super frustrated after about 3 minutes of effort and standing up and quitting.
I know this because I used to teach meditation and I've practiced Zazen meditation over the course of 13 years.
Trust me, this is good news.
So many people stop meditating because they expect, and want, that serene blissful perfection and get so frustrated when they don't get it that they give up.
But, if you go in expecting to get frustrated then you'll outlast so many others and who knows, maybe you'll actually experience that state of bliss.
Bliss or no bliss, the benefits of meditation actually come from the part of meditation that is the most frustrating.
Meditation is the practice of daily structured discipline in the attempt to maintain focus on a specific thing.
Friction in the mind is created while you meditate by the constant stream of thoughts that pop into your brain while you are trying to stay attentive to one thing only.
It's like trying to look at a piece of art while an obnoxious group of people behind you are throwing a party.
But, as I said, the benefits come from the friction itself.
The more times you have to re-focus the more benefits you get from the practice.
Now let's look at how meditation reduces anxiety and depression (as a start).
But how does meditation actually improve mental health?
How does meditation improve depression and anxiety?
The answer is, in a lot of ways!
Both depression and anxiety have a time orientation.
Depression keeps you in the past, and anxiety keeps you in the future, meditation keeps you in the present moment.
Daily meditation increases your capacity to be observant of the present moment and take an objective look at the world you live in.
You begin to notice how often things are neutral, that most of your waking life isn't actually provoking anxiety, nor is it making you sad.
Those things exist as thoughts that you put on replay.
Meditation opens your awareness to the here and now, not the back then or maybe when.
Meditation has also been proven to reduce communication between the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).
Put more simply it separates fear and worry from our sense of self.
That means meditation has a direct impact on the impulses of the mind that tell us to feel anxious, depressed, stressed, and overwhelmed.
Daily meditation also lowers our heart rate which sends signals to the brain that we can relax.
This subsequently lowers blood pressure and decreases stress which reduces the risk of heart disease and strengthens our immune system.
On top of that, the effort it takes to re-focus strengthens the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex which improves memory and inhibits the onset of neurodegenerative disease.
It is a mouthful to say that a daily meditation routine helps prevent heart attacks, Alzheimer's, depression and anxiety, and stress, while simultaneously improving your memory, problem-solving abilities, immune system, and feelings of contentedness and joy.
There isn't a single aspect of health that meditation doesn't improve.
So, how do you start?
This is my favorite part because it's so easy!
All you have to do is focus on one thing for 5 minutes.
You can close your eyes and focus on your breathing, or keep your eyes open and let your gaze naturally land somewhere in front of you.
My recommendation is to sit in a comfortable position (though Zen prefers a very uncomfortable position) and allow your eyes to naturally fall to an object in front of you.
It could be a spot on the wall or floor or a book on the shelf; literally anywhere your eyes naturally fall will work.
Pour all your concentration into that one thing and breathe.
Your mind will naturally pull your attention to various thoughts about work, chores, other people, conflicts, and much more, all in an attempt to distract you from the present moment.
Simply, and gently, bring your attention back to that single point of focus.
You'll have to do this a lot, like A LOT, but that's okay.
Remember the benefits come from the friction of having to refocus while trying to stay focused.
5 minutes is all you need!
If you are still not convinced that meditation is worth it, then I highly recommend watching the full podcast above and reading a book called Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright.
The book is not about the religion of Buddhism, it's about how modern neuroscience is affirming what Buddhism teaches about our perceptions, and how meditation works.
It's fun and easy to read, which is saying a lot considering how much I dread reading books.
The facts at the end of the day are that meditation reduces depression and anxiety and improves multiple dimensions of physical health.
In just 5 minutes per day, you can make significant changes to your psychology.
Practicing meditation can be the first step in changing your life towards greater well-being and contentment by boosting resilience to stressors while providing much needed relaxation and calm.
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