Dealing with anxiety has always been at the core of what I do. For those of you familiar with my curriculum, you know that relaxation training is at least a small part of every lesson. Deep breathing and positive self-talk are constantly on the agenda. Some of my clients though, need more. I have been working with young people and adults on a strategy that I think of as preventative maintenance against feeling overwhelmed. This strategy is something that can take many forms, but is almost always of service no matter what challenges we may face.
Why should you be meditating?
A zen master was once quoted as saying, " One should meditate for at least twenty minutes as day, unless you are too busy, in which case you should meditate for an hour." In Western civilization, we, as a culture, don't do well with peaceful quiet time. Even so, many parts of our society are embracing meditation. Almost every major religion encourages it. It is a part of almost all of the twelve step programs out there and it is a central component of the mindfulness movement in America.
New research is showing that there is a good reason for this new push to meditate. A new book by journalist Daniel Goleman and prominent neuroscientist Richard Davidson entitled, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is putting hard science behind what has long been known in the Eastern world. In their book, they point out five good reasons why you should be meditating.
1. Meditation improves our resiliency to stress
In the research cited , regular meditation dampened the stress reactors in our brains and increased the connections between the rational and emotional centers in the brain. Both of these help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it.
2. Meditation increases our compassionate concern for others
Regular meditations that focus on understanding and compassion show measurable increases in compassionate responses in research. "The cultivation of a loving concern for other people's well-being has a surprising and unique benefit: the brain circuitry for happiness emerges, along with compassion," write the authors.
3. Meditation augments our capacity to focus and pay attention
It's not too surprising that meditation would affect attention, since many practices focus on this very skill. In fact, researchers have found that meditation helps to combat habituation-the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Studies have shown that improved attention seems to last up to five years after mindfulness training.
4. Meditation helps us to feel lighter and less self-focused
According to studies, activity in the "default network"-the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activity, ruminates on thoughts, feelings, and experiences-quiets down in longtime meditators. This suggests less thinking about ourselves and our place in the world. Meditators also seemed to have a smaller or less developed part of the brain that is related to pleasure, but also addiction. According to the authors, "These regions very likely underlie what traditional [Buddhist] texts see as the root causes of suffering: attachment and aversion."
5. Meditation leads to some improvements in markers of health
There is now good evidence that meditation affects physical aspects of health as well the mental. For example, practicing meditation lessons the inflammatory response in people exposed to psychological stressors, particularly for long-term meditators. Also, meditators were shown to have increased activity of an enzyme implicated in longer cell life and, therefore, longevity. It is small wonder then that cultures traditionally associated with meditation live longer lives.
Finding resources on how to meditate is not difficult. Any internet search will likely turn up hundreds of sites that will support your practice. Finding the time may be more challenging, but it doesn't take a huge commitment. Start with just ten minutes a day. The benefits will more than pay for any time lost to the activity.