There is a scenario tossed around occasionally about scientists doggedly slugging their way up the mountain of reality by experimentation on testable hypotheses only to find, when they reach the top, the theologians are sitting up there having tea.
That’s certainly not going to happen with every religious belief or practice. However, an increasing body of scientific evidence is pointing to the mental and physical health benefits of an ancient practice that is found in many of the world’s religions: meditation.
Stop! Don’t leave! I’m not suggesting you wear beads and sit cross-legged in the forest chanting, “Om.” Give me another moment to present the evidence and explain the practice before you reject this blog as hazy unrealistic spiritualism.
Depending on your faith or worldview, there might be specific ways for you to practice meditation, but the basic practice of meditation is available to everyone from Atheists to Zoroastrians. At the end of this blog I will give you a link to a powerful, simple, free resource to help you get started if you are willing to at least give it a shot. Somewhat ironically, it is a cell phone app (they also have a web site version).
My personal experience is that when I have taken time to meditate, my outlook on my whole day… really my whole life… is subtly changed for the better. I find myself living with a calmer spirit, an increased sense of gratitude, greater hopefulness and a positive feeling of being able to handle the challenges life throws my way.
Setting the religious elements aside, meditation is essentially about practicing mental focus. Our minds are active travelers through time and space. We spend time reliving the past and rehearsing various possible futures. We think about what is going on in places we are not. The Mayo Clinic (might as well start with the big guns!) describes meditation as a time when “you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.” (This article on their web site is a good overview.)
Obviously there is a ton of information available in the internet so, beyond my personal testimony and the endorsement of the Mayo Clinic, I’m going to give you a short bullet list of the benefits of meditation with each item linked to its source. Note that these are all practical, evidence-based, non-religious/spiritual web sites.
- physically changes your brain in positive ways, including reducing depression and anxiety. (Click here for article on Forbes.com)
- builds resilience, boosts emotional intelligence, enhances creativity, improves relationships, increases focus. (Click here for article in Harvard Business Review)
- can help relieve the symptoms of chronic pain. (Click here for article in Massachusetts Institute of Technology News)
- may reduce the degradation of our telomeres (the end caps of DNA) that happens with age and can be accelerated by chronic stress. (Click here for video on Nutritionfacts.org)
- boosts your health, happiness, social life, self-control, and productivity along with keeping you real and making you wiser. (Click here for article in Psychology Today, with links)
In the most basic form of meditation, the meditator sits in a comfortable but alert posture (think sitting up straight in a chair with the hands resting in the lap), closes her eyes and breathes in a slow, steady, natural way. Then meditator focuses her mind simply on the sensations associated with the breathe moving in and out of her body. When the mind wanders, the meditator gently and nonjudgmentally returns the focus of the mind to the breath. It’s important to use some kind of timer so you don’t end up worrying about how much time you are spending meditating. 🙂
I sometimes repeat a short mantra that focuses me on life as I think God is calling me to live it according to my Christian faith: “I am here. I am now. I am loved. And I love.” I say these phrases silently in slow rhythm as I breathe in and out, focusing on being just where I am at that moment in space and time.
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