A Primer on Meditation
The practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, but we’re only beginning to unravel the science behind how this seemingly simple mental exercise can bring about significant changes in both our bodies and minds. Just like physical exercise, the more often you work out, the more benefits you’ll see and the longer they will last.
I’m comparing it to physical exercise for a reason: you don’t develop big biceps or toned abs by simply showing up at the gym. You do specific exercises. Meditation is the same — it is not the act of sitting idly, trying hard do nothing and clear all thoughts. It can involve focusing on a particular object, often the breath, while observing how the mind wanders, but returning the focus to that object (i.e. the breath). Through meditation, we get better acquainted with the behavior of our minds, and we enhance our ability to regulate our experience of our environment, rather than letting our environment dictate how we experience life.
With recent neuroscientific findings, meditation as a practice has been shown to literally rewire brain circuits that boost both mind and body health. These benefits of meditation have surfaced alongside the revelation that the brain can be deeply transformed through experience — a quality known as “neuroplasticity.” The amazing thing about meditating is that, on top of affecting brain functioning, it can have both short-term and long-term benefits in both brain and body.
A quick fix
A Harvard study showed that eliciting the body’s relaxation response could even affect our genes – in just minutes! They found that practices which induce body-mind relaxation, like diaphragmatic breathing, body scan, mantra repetition, mindfulness meditation, while passively ignoring intrusive thoughts, could dampen the genes involved in the inflammatory response, and promote those genes associated with DNA stability (hello longevity!). Other short-term benefits include reducing stress and blood pressure, improving attention, and possibly helping us make smarter choices.
A slow transformation
It’s fairly clear that in establishing a consistent practice we can experience enduring health benefits. For instance, the short-term benefits described above are only enhanced with regular practice. Other studies are beginning to shed light on the long-term benefits of consistent practice. Researchers have found denser gray matter in brain areas related to memory and emotional processing in expert meditators. Additionally, having a regular practice is associated with benefits to social aspects of our health, like boosting our mindfulness, empathy, and resilience. It can also help us regulate our thoughts so that we’re not so quick to judge, diminishing the potentially detrimental effects of stereotypes. Several studies also show a specific type of meditation, loving-kindness meditation, can make us kinder individuals, boosting our levels of compassion.
In this busy, stressful world, it's comforting to know that we can affect our genetic function by a simple act of self-reflection and a deep breath.