Most people understand that it would be in their own best interest to start working out to get more physically in shape. However, most of us don’t apply this same line of reasoning to our minds. Our minds are very important. They’re the basis for our experience. The quality of our minds can very much determine the quality of our lives. Our minds are always with us, so it makes sense to want to train them to improve the character of our experience, such as our relationship to the world and our relationship with others.
So, what’s something we can do to train our minds that’s been put through scientific scrutiny so we can take comfort in knowing a proven method to use them to the best of our ability?
Something that’s been recently studied and shows quite a few benefits is mindfulness-based meditation. Mindfulness meditation is the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. One may focus specifically on the breath, on certain sounds, on certain smells, or on certain sensations within the body. The goal is to simply focus on whatever arises in the present moment. The opposite of this would be to be lost in thought, which, in itself, can be tricky to understand, because much of the time we don’t even realize that we’re lost in thought.
I don’t want to spend the length of this article describing mindfulness meditation, but I want to share the benefits that have recently been studied and documented.
So here we go…
1) Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Research has widely shown that mindfulness is useful when coping with stress. A paper in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research suggests that “mindfulness training might enhance general features of coping with distress and disability in everyday life.” The paper even goes as far as to suggest that it can enhance these same features in people with more extraordinary conditions of serious disorder or stress. The patients included in this study were those with fibromyalgia, cancer diagnoses, coronary artery diseases, depression, chronic pain, anxiety, obesity, and binge-eating disorder.
While the bulk of the research on mindfulness related to dealing with stress seems to suggest that mindfulness doesn’t help get rid of stress or prevent it, it helps people cope with stress and helps them recover better from stress whenever they experience it. In the above-mentioned paper, many such improvements were seen across a spectrum of standardized mental health measures, including quality of life, depression, and anxiety. Benefits were also seen in physical well-being, such as dealing with medical symptoms, sensory pain, and physical impairment.
2) Improves Focus/Attention
It would make sense that meditation improves attention and focus, because the whole practice centers on paying close attention to whatever arises in the present moment. It’s widely known that whatever you specifically practice is what you’ll get better at. If you practice bench pressing, you’ll probably get better at it. This applies to meditation, as well. If you practice paying close attention, even for 10-minutes a day, it’s likely that this will start to apply to other parts of your day, as well. A paper in SAGE Journals in Psychological Science suggests that intensive meditation training improves aspects of attention, but it also improves other core cognitive processes, such as working memory capacity and non-verbal intelligence.
3) Decreases Symptoms of Depression
In the same way meditation helps to cope with stress and anxiety, it can help manage symptoms of depression. A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that participants in an 8-week mindfulness-based stressed reduction (MBSR) program had decreased the severity and symptoms of depression. A mindfulness-based meditation practice seems to decrease symptoms of depression by allowing you to be mindful of experiences associated with depression. Having the ability to be mindful of negative emotions and stressful situations allows one to not sit with those experiences for a prolonged period of time. There’s a huge difference between allowing yourself to be angry for a couple minutes compared to an entire day. The next time you feel negative emotions coming on, try to fully experience all sensations of that emotion and see how long those feelings actually stick around.
4) Improves Sleep
A study in JAMA Internal Medicine researched the effectiveness of a mindfulness meditation program on older adults who experienced sleep disturbances. What the study found was the mindfulness meditation program had roughly the same effect on improving sleep as other pharmacotherapy treatment modalities. It seems that meditation has this effect in the same way that meditation helps deal with stress. Meditation can help train the brain to be less reactive to stressors and other stimuli that puts the body in an excited state. Having the ability to be less reactive to such stimuli helps to put the body in a more relaxed state, which allows for better sleep.
5) Increases Compassion
The Department of Psychological Science in SAGE Journals conducted a study of 39 individuals to test whether or not meditation had any effect on compassion. What they found was that individuals who participated in 8 weeks of meditation were 5 times as likely to show compassion by giving up their seat to someone who was suffering than those who didn’t participate in the meditation practice. What’s more striking is that the help occurred in a social context, where other individuals were not helping the person suffering, which would make it less likely for another individual to take action to help the sufferer. There are multiple reasons why meditation may increase our compassion for other people, but it’s likely that the chatter in our minds is reduced, making us more focused on the outside world and less on ourselves.
6) Increases the Quality of Relationships
Understanding what meditation can do to help all the above mentioned carries some weight to other things that we would like to see in our lives, such as having quality relationships. If we can learn to deal with our stress and negative experiences here in this world, do you think that it could help us build better relationships with other people? Do you think being able to hold a longer attention span and being less lost in thought in our own minds can help open us up to the experiences of others? I would say, “Yes” to both of these questions. Meditation has been shown to increase the quality of our minds and how we interact with the world, so that it would be understandable to think this would transfer to our relationships with others.
As I was beginning to research this article, I was quite blown away with the depth of literature supporting the benefits of meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation. I always knew it was something that was very beneficial—drawing from my own experiences with meditation, but I was unaware of how much research was out there supporting my original thoughts. If you think about what you’d like to see change within your mind that supports your contribution to the world and those around you, it becomes apparent that meditation helps us to increase those things. As mentioned earlier, our minds determine the character of our experience. It only makes sense that we need to start training our minds to live a life full of what we want to experience within the world.
Quality Meditation Apps:
Waking Up by Sam Harris https://wakingup.com/
This one I personally use and find it to be phenomenal. The only downside is that there is a somewhat costly monthly rate.
10% Happier by Dan Harris https://www.10percenthappier.com/
I haven’t personally used this app, but I have heard great things.
Headspace seems to be one of the most popular meditation apps and one that starts the user off very slowly.
Links to Research Articles:
Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30863901/MBSRMAJPR2004.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1549041134&Signature=ZawLlMOjBOng1In%2FzHUMPQoirRQ%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DMindfulness-based_stress_reduction_and_h.pdf
Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3132583/
Decreased Symptoms of Depression After Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: Potential Moderating Effects of Religiosity, Spirituality, Trait Mindfulness, Sex and Age. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4365440/
Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998
Meditation Increases Compassionate Response to Suffering. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Paul_Condon/publication/256075736_Meditation_Increases_Compassionate_Response_to_Suffering/links/568192b708ae051f9aec5469/Meditation-Increases-Compassionate-Response-to-Suffering.pdf