by Michael W. Taft
I started meditating over 30 years ago, and it has proven to be a life-changing practice for me. When I reflect on my own experience, or listen to that of my friends and students, I realize that there was almost no area of life that meditation doesn’t improve or enhance in some way. When I went looking for some scientific backing for these anecdotal experiences, I found a huge amount of studies available. What follows is just a smattering of the overwhelming research into the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Have a look:
Improve Your Focus — Focus is a trainable skill, and meditation systematically trains you to focus. What’s more, your focus isn’t just better when you’re meditating, but all day long as you go about your business. Mindfulness’s positive effect on concentration has been proven in this long-term study, and this study, and has even been shown to make a big difference in novice meditators after only ten days.
Reduce Your Stress — We’ve all heard that meditation can help you to relax and become less stressed out. It is a proven way to deeply relax. Science shows that it can even make very stressful situations easier to handle. It lowers your cortisol levels—the hormone most responsible for stress. A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies found that mindfulness is a useful intervention for treating anxiety and mood disorders.
Enhance Your Empathy — Mindfulness will help you connect to other people. One mindfulness practice is called “loving kindness” meditation, in which you focus on feelings of love and compassion. Experiments show that over time this can dramatically boost your empathy (sense of emotional connection) with other people. Medical students under intense stress report higher levels of empathy when they meditate.
Reduce Your Emotional Reactivity — How long does it take you to recover from an upsetting event? Mindfulness can reduce that time measurably, and get you back on your feet faster after emotional upheavals.
Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility — Tired of being stuck in the same old rut? Mindfulness has been shown to increase “cognitive flexibility,” which means it allows you to see the world in a new way, and behave differently than you have in the past. It helps you to respond to negative or stressful situations more skillfully.
Boost Your Memory — How many facts you can hold in your head at once, what scientists call “working memory” is a crucial aspect of effectiveness in learning, problem solving, and organization. A study of military personnel under stress showed that those who practiced mindfulness experienced a boost in working memory, as well as feeling better than those who didn’t practice. Another study shows that it not only improves memory, but boosts test scores, too. Even practicing mindfulness for as short as 4 days may improve memory and other cognitive skills.
Make You Less Sensitive to Pain — Mindfulness meditation changes your physical brain structure in many ways; one is that it actually increases the thickness of your cortex, which reduces your sensitivity to pain.
Give You a Better Brain — Mindfulness trains the prefrontal lobe area of your brain (it actually gets bigger!), as well as enhancing other areas which give the benefits of an entire package of related functions such as self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation.
Obviously, mindfulness meditation is an important part of any ongoing wellbeing program. The secret to gaining the benefits of mindfulness is simple: do it everyday, ideally with the guidance of an experienced meditation mentor.
photo by Kevin Lebianco