It seems you can’t pick up a popular magazine, go on Facebook, or look in a newspaper these days without seeing something about mindfulness and meditation. Courses in mindfulness are showing up at hospitals, at corporate trainings, in the military and at sports training camps. Mindfulness is the topic of hundreds of research papers and hundreds of workshops around the country.
It’s becoming accepted as a legitimate course of study in colleges. Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., for example, offers a master’s degree in mindfulness studies. I even read that members of Congress are taking time out now and then to sit still, get quiet, and clear their minds (the most hopeful thing I’ve heard about Congress in some time). Search “mindfulness” on Amazon.com and you’ll come up with over 11,000 choices. Why is there so much interest in what at one time was thought to be a New Age fad?
The answer to that question is easy. Americans are stressed. As a culture, we are generally too busy, too over-stimulated, too worried, too much in debt and too sedentary. It’s true; we’re more connected in positive ways than ever. But laced in with the messages of endearment, funny videos and family photos on our devices is a constant stream of the mayhem in the world. The economy is still recovering. Finding a decent job and a loving partner are elusive goals for too many. Forty percent of the kids in the U.S. are being raised by single parents who are trying to do it all without enough support. Even the champion copers are having difficulty coping.
Every magazine at the checkout counter has articles on how to take better care of ourselves with diet and exercise and how to declutter our lives. Yes, we do need to adopt practical solutions to the mental and material overload. But we also need to explore new ways to manage the stresses that inevitably come our way without committing to more hours at the gym or a major cleanout of the garage (which may only add to the stress). For an increasing number of people, that’s where meditation comes in.
The benefits of meditation are many. Robert Benson in the 1960s and Jon Kabat-Zinn since the early 1990s both started their work with mindfulness in a search for techniques to reduce people’s stress. They, as well as other researchers, have found that a practice of some kind of meditation can decrease blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, calm gastrointestinal distress and reduce chronic pain. It can also promote relaxation and improve sleep.
For young people, meditation can increase their ability to concentrate and focus. Some studies show that regular practice of mindfulness techniques reduced kids’ symptoms of ADHD and anxiety, leading to better grades and improved scores on standardized tests.
Older folks benefit, too. Researchers at UCLA found that regular meditation can delay the effects of aging. People who meditated for at least four years had smaller reductions in the gray matter of the brain as they aged. (Gray matter is the part of the brain that processes information.) The researchers concluded that meditation may therefore be an important technique for lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Meditation helps people become more emotionally balanced and better problem-solvers. When people are less stressed and more peaceful, they can be better friends, partners and parents.
Meditation is a disciplined way to clear the mind and settle anxiety. Although grounded in ancient Asian practices, the point of practicing mindfulness is not to become an enlightened Buddhist but to use the techniques to give ourselves a break. Think of it as a 20-minute daily vacation.
Most forms of meditation require that we simply get quiet and slow down our breathing. By concentrating on breathing in and out, we still the mind and open ourselves to being present in the moment. We can simply experience sensations from within and from without. When we get distracted by a negative thought or a reminder of all we have to do, it’s important not to resist or judge it. Our only task is to notice it and let it go.
Some people use guided meditations to help stay on track. (You can find recordings on Youtube.) Some people do it with prayer. Still others adopt the relaxation response technique developed by Dr. Robert Benson that only involves thinking the word “One” over and over again while following the breath.
Too restless to just sit there? Meditation doesn’t require sitting still. We can meditate while walking, eating, listening to music or folding the laundry. To meditate means only to let go of stressful thoughts, lists of problems, and inner dialogues and instead to relax, breathe, and focus completely on what we’re doing in the moment.
It will take some time to learn to be still. It will take some practice to stay focused on your breath and not on the demands of the day. But for most people, it only takes an honest effort of 20 minutes a day for a few weeks to get into the rhythm of it and to start feeling the positive results.
So what are you waiting for? Meditation is a risk-free, drug-free practice that just might change your life. All you have to lose if it doesn’t work for you is 20 minutes a day. But chances are that it will be the best investment of 20 minutes you’ll ever make.