For so many of us, the hardest thing to do is nothing.
Don’t let that scare you off from trying meditation, which only seems like nothing. Meditators may look like they’re lazily letting it all go, but what they’re really doing is actively putting it all together.
Science is still catching up with all the remarkably healthy and stress-busting benefits that accrue when you sit still, breathe deeply and focus on the present moment, according to Dana Dharmakaya Colgan of Oregon Health & Science University.
“This attention and concentration-focused work seems pretty simple, but when you look at what’s happening in the brain, it’s really quite complex,” she said. “Brain imaging has demonstrated (post-meditation) changes in brain volume, brain activity and connectivity between brain regions.”
Colgan is the veteran of about 6,000 hours of personal meditation time, she said. A burned-out teacher who turned to meditation for relief and inner peace, she wound up so profoundly changed and improved by her new practice that she eventually made it her life’s work as a clinical psychologist and researcher probing the mysteries of the mind-body connection.
“We can see the beneficial effects that meditation has on medical and mental health conditions,” she said. “Any condition that can be caused or worsened by stress can be alleviated by meditation.”
Conditions like what? Colgan listed a whole menu of miseries: “Hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain, attention deficit disorder, food disorders, sleep disorders, immune system disorders, stress, anxiety, depression.”
A nicer you
Meditation can achieve more than simply warding off problems. The brain grows with training, Colgan said, and imaging has demonstrated that people’s brains become more intricately wired up and literally heavier with regular meditation practice. While the brain’s gray matter — its central information-processing system — tends to decrease with age, meditation actively grows and preserves it.
Bolstering connections between the amygdala (the seat of emotions, gut reactions and fight-or-flight responses) and the prefrontal cortex (the rational decision-maker and the brake on those gut reactions) can result in a mind that’s calmer, less reactive and more resilient when facing life’s stressors, Colgan said.
That can be a godsend for combat veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder who might overreact to any loud sound, but it’s also useful for anybody who walks around in the typical daily fog of past associations and fallible memories, likes and dislikes, self-perpetuating habits and external pressures, Colgan said.
“Some interesting studies have found that most of us are not even here about 50 percent of the time. That is associated with lower levels of happiness,” she said.
The mundane brain tends to stay busily negative: anticipating problems, avoiding pain, rendering judgments, assigning labels.
“People who meditate are … better able to savor the joy life offers us,” Colgan said.
Mindfulness training that includes meditation has been shown to be “comparable to the use of antidepressants in preventing recurrence of depression,” she said.
Not surprisingly, all that health and happiness on the inside can add up to a nicer you on the outside. The emotional regulation and expansive mindset promoted by meditation have been shown to increase so-called prosocial behaviors — building compassion and kindness toward others, even breaking through barriers of bias and prejudice, Colgan said.
Police officers who took an eight-week mindfulness training course reported less reactivity and aggression, less burnout, better sleep and increased psychological flexibility, according to a 2018 article in the journal Psychiatry Research.
“We find that meditators have an increased ability to perceive reality more accurately,” Colgan said.
Not what you think
But what is meditation? Doesn’t it require squishing yourself down into cross-legged kindergartner position, lighting smelly incense and trying — or at least pretending — not to think?
“Good luck with that. Let me know how it goes for you,” Colgan said. “That’s an important myth to debunk — that when we meditate, we don’t think.”
The brain is a thinking machine, said meditation teacher Melonie Nielsen, the owner of Vancouver Yoga Center.
Meditation, she said, doesn’t seek to stop the brain from doing what it’s supposed to do — only to stop the machine from controlling its operator.
Meditation is a concentration exercise that aims to help you take charge of your own brain and recognize your unconscious patterns, habits and reactions, Nielsen said. Meditators may look like they’re loose and lazy, but they’re actually working hard at taming inner tigers.
Colgan said a Buddhist monk she once interviewed about his meditation practice likened it to knife sharpening: continuously improving that tool inside your head so it’s ready to cut through anything.
Relaxed yet focused
Here’s how to get started. Pick a time that will work for you. Many meditators find first thing in the morning ideal; others find meditation a sweet end-of-day treat, once responsibility is over.
Take a comfortable seat. Any chair that keeps you relaxed but alert is fine. Take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes, either completely or halfway. Settle in, quiet down and spend as long as feels right — two minutes? five? 10? — just being there.
“I would suggest attainable, small goals at first,” Nielsen said. “Can you sit still for five minutes? Can you enjoy doing nothing for 10 minutes?”
Truly, there’s not a lot more to it. Get rid of all your expectations, Nielsen said. Just sit.
“Meditation is just awareness. It’s just being,” Nielsen said. “We’ve made it sound so complex when it’s so simple.”
Except for this: The mind inevitably does wander around, start to chatter, dig up troubles. That’s why meditation usually involves some focal point for attention like focusing on the breath, perhaps even counting inhales and exhales up to 10 and back down again. Others focus on physical sensation: the hands, or forehead, or the subtle sensation of gravity nestling one’s bottom into its seat.
Other meditators tune their ears to all the sounds around them. Some adopt a silent or chanted word, whether a holy mantra or just a favorite idea, like “joy” or “peace.”
All of these techniques are meant to give your wandering, chattering mind an anchor. Devout Catholics who meditate by focusing on rosary beads are already familiar with this idea.
“There’s not one technique that’s better than another,” Nielsen said. “The best one is the one you’re willing to do every day. You can try a variety of techniques and see what works best.”
Be patient with yourself and the process, Nielsen added. People sometimes quit meditation because it doesn’t produce immediately miraculous results. It can be boring and bring up tough feelings.
That can happen at the start of a practice, Nielsen said: a flood of unwelcome junk, right in the middle of your bliss-seeking head.
“Especially in the beginning you’re going to have more of that,” she said. “You might just have to sit in all that turmoil for a while. That can be a sign of a successful meditation practice, all that turmoil at the beginning. The work of meditation is happening right there.”
Watch it all like a movie, she said. Is that old hurt, current anxiety or future plan back for another useless round? Don’t fight it, just notice it.
The deep dive
Somewhere amid all that turmoil, Nielsen promised, you’ll get the occasional, unexpected whiff of silence and peace.
“You might find that you drop into a completely still space every once in a while. And it’s very short,” she said. “And then it’s back to riding the waves of the mind.”
Think of your mind as the ocean, she said. Your attention is usually drawn to the exposed surface and busy upper layers, but if you can dive deep, you’ll discover great calm down there. The more you practice the deep dive, the better you’ll get at it — and also at bringing some of that calm and peace back up to the surface with you.
“Maybe you start really small,” Nielsen said. “Maybe you spend two minutes or five minutes, or one minute, sitting in gratitude.”
After a few days of that, you might just realize you’re enjoying it and feel eager for more.