“The more you rationalise, the more you move farther away from your authentic self.”
― Shannon L. Alder
I have a very critical and chatty mind. I overthink stuff.
And, I’m a worrier. I even worry about my worrying. Yes – I do recognise just how ridiculous this sounds.
I am also the queen of understanding the benefits of a health concept in my brain but failing to actually do anything about it.
Meditation is one such concept.
I love the idea of meditating. The calmness and serenity and focus that I imagine successful meditating will bring.
But actually sitting down to meditate regularly; creating the space and time in my day and committing to the act of meditating? – that all seems a bit hard, really. And, what if I suck at it? And, what if I can’t shut up my chatty mind? And, there are so many other things I could be doing with my time…
About a year ago, I even wrote a post about 5 Mindfulness Tips That Don’t Involve Meditation. A year ago. Sometimes I can really resist listening to what the universe is trying to tell me…
Well, guess what? I’ve started a daily meditation practice
Yep. I’ve committed to at least 15 minutes. Every day.
Like many things that I have procrastinated about in my life (let’s not sugar coat it!), starting and then committing to meditating was actually the most difficult part. And, I’ve found that if I really want to do something, I need to physically schedule it into my diary. It’s like my brain keeps an appointment with itself that way. Like it would be rude not to turn up. Strange but true.
And, after just a few short months, I promise I am noticing a change. Not just me – others have commented, too. Apparently, I am getting my zen on!
There is a reason meditation (and yoga, too) is referred to as a ‘practice’ and not as just a ‘sit there and think about it’. It turns out you do actually have to do it to effect any change. Huh! Who knew?
But, just why is meditation so good for us?
To answer this question, I need to dust off some of my psychology texts…
Meditation has been proven to increase cortical thickness in our brains. (i) The cerebral cortex, the outer covering of our brain’s hemispheres, is the most developed part of the human brain. It’s responsible for many of our ‘higher-order’ functions – things like planning, problem solving, memory and comprehension. Science indicates that general intelligence is positively correlated with cortical thickness.
It turns out that before and after meditation testing has revealed increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning, cognition and emotional regulation.
More importantly for me, these same images showed a decrease in grey-matter density in the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with the emotional responses of stress, anxiety and fear – also known as the ‘Fight or Flight Stress Response’. It’s our lizard brain.
This is especially great news for those of us who worry about worrying. The chronic stress that comes from all that worry causes your body to release chemicals such as cortisol that cause inflammation, weight gain and compromises the immune system.
That increased focus I referred to earlier is real, too. There is a modern myth around the importance of multitasking – what psychologists call task-switching. We seem to feel that we’re only successful if we’re juggling multiple balls at a time in our modern lives. In reality, this just means we dilute our effectiveness at just about everything we’re trying to do.
And, of course, this adds to our stress levels, too. No Bueno!
Researchers at Yale University discovered that meditation actually de-activates our non-present mind-state. (ii) The study found that meditators demonstrate stronger neural connections in brain regions associated with self-monitoring, awareness and cognitive control – and not just during meditation.
And, if all of that brain-improving stuff doesn’t convince you, I’m here to tell you that you feel better for meditating. Really.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
How to start meditating
It’s all very well and good to talk about meditating. How does one actually go about doing it?
For me, starting with the breath makes sense. The breath is always with us and it’s an easy focal point.
First, turn your phone onto aeroplane
mode and set the alarm for 5 minutes.
Lie down on the floor and get comfortable. I find it more comfortable and supportive to raise my knees, keeping my feet on the floor.
Place a hand gently on your tummy.
Now, breathe in and out through your nose. Your hand should rise on your tummy as you inhale, and then lower as you exhale. It’s important that it is your tummy and not your chest rising and falling.
Continue to breathe in and out through your nose, noticing the rise and fall of your tummy.
As you relax into the breathing, gently start to increase the length of your exhale. Don’t worry about your inhale – your body will naturally look after this.
Focus on breathing until your alarm sounds.
Congratulations. You have just meditated!
(i) Evidence builds that meditation strengthens the brain, UCLA researchers say
(ii) Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity