Oprah Winfrey has actually integrated meditation practices into her business, engaging her staff with regular meditative practices and she was pretty pleased with the results. “People who used to have migraines, don’t. People are sleeping better, people are having better relationships. People interact with other people better. It’s been fantastic”.
If you’ve heard about the benefits of meditation and thought you might see if you can get anywhere with it but just don’t know where to start, well consider this, between the 11thand 19thcentury Buddhist monks in northern Japan practiced a kind of meditation called Sokushinbutsu in which they would mummify themselves alive by slowly weaning themselves off of food and water before eventually starving to death.
Don’t do that.
I’m sure if they had the headspace app back then they may have opted out of that one, but there are a tonne of different avenues you can go down to start practicing meditation, Apps, guided tutorials online, lessons form practitioners.
But which type should you try?
The most common type of meditation right now is called mindfulness. This involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.
The purpose of mindfulness is to help us focus our attention on what’s going on in the present instead of being too occupied by worries about the future or anxieties from the past.
There are multiple other styles of meditation available also. Many Hollywood celebrities have started to incorporate transcendental meditation into their busy schedules, from Emily Blunt through to Clint Eastwood.
It’s praised for its significant impact on improving mood but some highlight that they feel it benefits their creativity as well. TM involves silently repeating a specific mantra inside your mind and focusing on it.
Frustratingly, a lot of us try it but give up too quickly because we can’t seem to focus, but no one ever asks why. What is going on in our brains that means we cant do this straight away and what do we have to do to get better?
Why is getting started so hard?
For anyone that’s been told, you must first quieten the mind like its just a case of flicking a switch, and nearly punched a hole through a wall because it’s so difficult, this little snippet of information may just help you next time around.
Lets say you’re trying to focus on your breath, and for a second or two you’re doing fine, then swoosh; your mind wonders off and you start thinking about llamas.
This is natural; it happens to everyone, not just you. All you really need to keep doing to start with is consciously make an effort to keep bringing the attention back to your breath whenever your mind wonders. What this is doing is telling your sub conscious that you want to focus on your breath (not llamas) and the more you do it, the more you will naturally be able to keep your attention on your breath. You are in effect, training your subconscious mind first.
This is when we can start to carry out sustained attention, and begin to notice some of the benefits of meditation everyone’s always spewing.
Once you’re doing it what’s happeningin our brains?
When we begin to succeed with our meditation we can cause transformations within the brain because our brains are plastic, meaning they are capable of changing.
- Increased volume of grey matter
In terms of physical changes in the brain, studies have been able to identify where the most profound changes occur. The major changes noted are increased grey matter in the hippocampus known to be important for learning and memory as well as self-awareness.
- Greater cortical folding
Meditators brains show greater amounts of cortical folding AKA Gyrification. This actually helps our brains become better at processing information, making decisions and forming memories.
- Decreased volume of neuronal activity in parts of the brain related to stress
Anxiety can lead to depression when we are constantly triggering our fight or flight response. This occurs because we are continually activating part of the brain known as the amygdala and making the neural connections in this area stronger and larger. Meditators decrease the amount of connections in this area causing it to be less active, however they also increase connections between the amygdala and the Pre frontal cortex, which can help ‘turn off’ the amygdala.
Your left pre frontal cortex
During meditation, studies have shown that the type of brain waves we produce can actually change. During the day when we are doing most of our thinking we are producing beta waves. When we begin to meditate we start to produce alpha waves, which have been shown to increase creativity and help reduce symptoms of depression. The most abundant brain wave during meditation however is the Theta wave, which is associated with deep relaxation.