Over the last several decades there has been a burgeoning of interest in the scientific aspects of ancient spiritual practices, and an accompanying body of published research. Because of this, it’s now generally accepted that meditation is good for us.
Yet this is a reality that stands in contrast to what people thought forty or fifty years ago. Meditation was often seen as new-agey. And whilst it may have been accepted as a spiritual tool, few saw its potential for use in a secular context.
So why the change?
In this article, I’d like to answer that question by looking at some of the recently-discovered, empirically-based benefits. You’ll learn why meditation really can improve your mental, emotional and physical well-being.
A (very) brief history of meditation and science:
In 1975 Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, published The Relaxation Response. This book laid the first pillar of the bridge that was to form between ancient meditative techniques and modern science, shaking up a lot of widely-held assumptions in the process.
At the heart of the book was a simple premise: “Religious prayers and related mental techniques have measurable, definable physiologic effects on the body…”
Benson’s work continues to this day. More recently he has been involved in research that explores how meditative practice can positively alter gene expression, the process through which our genes affect us physiologically.
If we zoom forward to the modern day we can see a rich and emerging field, one that Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace has named “contemplative science”. Scientists like Richard Davis and Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, have been responsible for popularizing the notion of “brain plasticity.” Their research has shown that regular meditation can physically alter brain-structure.
All over the world, universities are funding research into the effects of a myriad of contemplative techniques—take the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, for example, or the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism, where Emma Seppala has led research into Buddhist “Metta Bhavana” practice. Even the Dalai Llama himself has offered support through the Mind & Life Foundation, which was purposefully set up to explore the confluence of religion and science.
So what are the health benefits of meditation?
Let’s have a look at some of the most well-researched benefits of meditative practice. If you haven’t already, I urge you to start, even if it’s only for five or ten minutes a day. An experience of the tangible effects in your own life is the surest way to remedy any doubts.
1. Lowers Stress.
High blood pressure, an inability to sleep, headaches, chest pain—all have been cited as consequences of high levels of stress. Of course, stress is absolutely normal and even beneficial in small doses. It’s when we’re constantly faced with stressors (looming deadlines, aggressive managers, technology that just won’t do as it’s told) that our body’s fight or flight response becomes overactive, leading to chronic, constant feelings of anxiety.
It’s through regularly engaging the aforementioned “relaxation response,” thereby affecting a host of healing physiological changes, that we can bring ourselves back to pre-stress levels. A 2014 meta-analysis confirmed the efficacy of meditation in relation to anxiety and stress.
2. Fosters Feelings of Social Connectedness.
Emma Seppala, a researcher at Stanford University, conducted a test to find out whether loving-kindness, or “metta”, meditation could engender increased feelings of social connectedness amongst the participants. She found that only 8 minutes of practice could have a noticeable effect.
3. Gives a Boost in Immunity.
By counteracting the negative effects of stress meditation also improves immunity.
4. Engenders Feelings of Happiness.
Work done by Richard Davidson has shown an increase in activity in the brain-areas associated with positive emotions during meditation. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is used to track blood-flow in the brain, as it will be increased to the areas, such as those associated with feelings of compassion, that are more active.
5. Increases Concentration.
B. Alan Wallace, one of the leading advocates of meditation in the West, dedicated an entire book, The Attention Revolution, to exploring the ways in which meditation can improve our quality of attention. Numerous studies have shown a link between subjective well-being and our ability to hold our attention on a given task. Have a look at this recent October 2014 study for an interesting overview.
Steps to getting started with mindfulness of breathing:
“Mindfulness of breathing” is a very popular technique, common in Buddhism, and one that’s utterly simple.
1. Seat yourself comfortably with a straight spine and rest your hands in your lap.
2. Take a handful of deep, calming breaths.
3. Bring your attention to the tip of your nostrils and notice the sensations there.
4. If you become distracted, just bring your attention back to the point of focus.
5. Don’t try to control the breathing, just breathe in a way that feels natural.
Author: Daniel Zandt
Editor: Caroline Beaton
Photo: elephant archives