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It's simple, it's cheap (if not free) and it can radically increase your health. Learn more about mindfulness meditation.
We all all have what I like to call “the voices.” I tend to picture mine at a town hall meeting, with everyone taking turns at the mike. Sometimes the kind voice gets up front and offers a compliment, and sometimes the boring voice drones on for hours, imploring me to create a better bill-filing system and to tackle laundry piles. There’s the village hysteric, who shrilly warns of impending doom. There’s the mean girl who says, “You look gross in that and you’re probably going to get fired. PS, everyone thinks you’re an idiot.” And then on some days, all hell breaks loose and it’s a cacophony of urgent nattering. What would it take to shut them all up, even just for a minute?
Some people find peace from exercise, others from a glass of wine. But the surefire way to ensure that the voices quiet down? Experts, research and anecdotal evidence all point to one life strategy: meditation. As hundreds of studies continue to show the benefits of meditation every year, it’s becoming obvious that, while it isn’t a miracle cure for all that ails us, it’s an important weapon in our mental health arsenal.
There are many different types of meditation: transcendental (mantra-based), Zen (centred around counting breaths) and guided (whereby visualization places the mind in relaxing settings), to name just a few. In recent years, mindfulness meditation (also known as vipassana) has pulled ahead of the pack. Even the most conservative doctors have endorsed it as beneficial to patients suffering from a variety of maladies, including skin conditions and anxiety disorders.
A 2013 study from Harvard Medical School found that those who meditate can more easily ignore distractions. Published in The Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, a 2014 Johns Hopkins study found that meditation appears to relieve anxiety and depression symptoms to the same extent as antidepressants.
“It’s striking a chord with people who want to be participants—not recipients— when it comes to their health,” says Saki Santorelli, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the birthplace of mindfulness-based stress reduction, a structured eight-week program that’s taught in 740 settings around the world.
Many proponents of the practice, who believe that mindfulness works to heal the past and safeguard the future, have been touting its benefits for decades. But the conversation has become a lot more serious in recent years, thanks to investigative imaging technology and clinical research. “It was very lonely for me as a physician when I started practising,” says Dr. Lucinda Sykes, director of Meditation for Health, a private clinic in Toronto.
The images of flowing robes and chanting hippies that once had people scoffing have since been replaced by hard science. “We’re in an evolutionary conversation between science and contemplative practice traditions,” says Santorelli. “It’s certainly not a new conversation, but the science can now investigate the claims with much more precision.”
Through magnetic resonance imaging, we can see how regular meditation changes the brain. The amygdala, the part of the brain where anxiety is located, thins. The hippocampus, responsible for the formation and consolidation of memory, thickens. More research is being done to investigate why this happens, but the facts are irrefutable. Mindfulness is a mighty tool for fighting an array of diseases and disorders, such as insomnia, psoriasis, anxiety and chronic pain. It strengthens our immune systems, alleviates asthma, soothes depression and lessens the effects of hot flashes. The simplicity of the act—taking a few minutes every day to focus—is mind-blowing.
Mindfulness has gained more acceptance than some other forms of meditation because, while it has roots in Buddhist meditative practices, it isn’t dogmatic. “You don’t need a belief system in place to try it on,” says Santorelli. “We are seeing people use it in the military, police and fire departments, public schools, corporations and prisons.”
So how does one meditate mindfully? In general terms, while in a quiet space, observe your body (what feels good, what doesn’t), your breathing and your thoughts—all without judgment. Take note of what the voices are saying, but don’t engage with them.
“We end up living our daily lives so trapped in our thoughts that we fool ourselves into thinking we are our thoughts—and we’re not,” says Dr. Jesse Hanson, clinical director of Helix Healthcare in Toronto. “Meditation is about tracking thoughts and listening for the gaps between.”
The idea of these gaps has me picturing my town hall meeting during a coffee break, a hoarder’s home that’s been cleared out on a reality TV show, then the feeling of breaking free from a traffic jam and driving along a clear highway.
To attempt mindfulness meditation, I download an app called Headspace and settle in with the soothing voice of Andy, a U.K.-born Buddhist monk. Even if I don’t quite “get it” yet, I am carving out the time that eventually will allow me to fully experience the practice. The key is to take time to check in with myself daily.
Learning how to pause lets us see things more clearly, says Santorelli. “We feel more awake, more aware. And even if we do find ourselves falling back into old stress-inducing patterns, we can recover more quickly. We learn how to be in relationship to everything—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our family and friends. We learn how to be in relationship with the voices. We learn to not feed them and not make them so important. We realize how much possibility there is. We learn just how big we can be.”
We also learn how to be healthier, happier and more compassionate—not only to others but also to ourselves. There’s my revelation, my reason to stop saying, “I should meditate sometime,” and to actually do it. I don’t have to launch a grenade into my town hall meeting to silence the voices. I can decide who gets the floor. I can give the kind one more time for compliments and I can tell the anxious one that everything will be all right.