Did you know you can actually change your brain through meditation?
Studies have shown that when we put our minds into the alpha and theta waves (mental calm and wakeful rest), as opposed to the “planning & tasking” beta waves that are usually in action when we are conscious, it brings tremendous benefits: reducing stress, improving focus and memory, and emotional clarity.
But you cannot get those benefits from merely resting; those beta waves usually remain present as our minds still whir away in the background. But reaching alpha and theta wave states while we are still awake, rather than asleep, is extremely beneficial. Meditation is what achieves this state of consciousness without the mental activity of rumination and intentional thinking.
This is only one reason, among many, that I decided to take on meditation as one of my 30 Days projects. During the year, I've embarked on a different lifestyle challenge every thirty days, such as happiness, giving and eating locally.
I wanted to see for myself if meditating regularly could really have a meaningful effect. How often are we really silent? Really still with ourselves? Or are we usually busy thinking ahead about what we are going to do next, the shopping list, or those dozen emails we need to return?
The New York Times ran a big story during the summer on the incredible effects of meditation, and how it literally changes the brain. People who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. MRI brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory.
In 2003, the Washington Times reported that people who underwent meditation training produced more antibodies to a flu vaccine than people who didn't meditate, and Time Magazine ran a story that showed how meditation not only boosted the immune system, but rewired the brain to reduce stress.
Many research teams have studied this phenomenon, including joint scientists from Australia and Norway. Those researchers used special caps to measure brain waves on participants during meditative states, as well as during simple relaxation, with eyes closed but no meditation techniques. The deep relaxation theta and alpha waves were more abundant during meditation than during simple relaxation.
"The amount of alpha waves increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks," said Professor Øyvind Ellingsen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. "This is a sign of deep relaxation, but it does not mean that the mind is void."
The problem with merely resting instead of meditating is that the mind still wanders spontaneously and wants to problem solve, activating those beta waves. It's a "default activity" of the brain, says Ellingsen, and its mental processing levels are underestimated. Conscious meditation also brings completely different brain wave states than sleeping, (those are called delta waves).
Austin's very own Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor at The University of Texas, has done a lot of work around meditation and self-compassion. She says that our lack of self-compassion creates a lot of our depression and anxiety. "Giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic," Dr. Neff says.
Armed with this very convincing proof of the scientific health benefits of an ancient practice that the sages have done for thousands of years, I decided to try meditating every day for 30 days. My intention was to be disciplined, setting aside time for meditation of at least 15-20 minutes each day.
Sometimes I meditated toward the end of the work day, and found it extremely helpful in shutting my mind off the problem-solving work stuff, and putting into a more relaxed mode for the evening. The same thing happened when I would meditate just before bed; I sometimes have trouble sleeping, feeling like my brain just won't shut down. Meditation definitely helped my sleep.
When we meditate several important things happen physically and mentally. First, we are “focusing internally” and letting go of the outside world (similar to going to sleep, but without losing consciousness). This allows our brains to shift into more stable, stronger brain frequencies. When we can reduce our brain frequencies to these levels while staying awake we are able to bring the unconscious mind to the conscious level.
Despite these obvious benefits, I will admit that meditating daily proved to be harder than I thought, and was one of my more difficult 30 Day challenges. On a few days, I just flat-out forgot about meditating completely. I started out trying to set an alarm, but that didn't work; I couldn't always meditate at the same time every day.
And although I set a minimum of 15 minutes for meditation each day, I quickly realized that it took me at least five of those minutes to even begin to clear my mind of all the distractions that had been clamoring for its attention. I found myself thinking of all kinds of little things, my mind pinging around, and had to consciously let each of those thoughts go and settle back into focusing on my breathing.
The first week, I meditated to soothing music; but then I tried some guided meditations and found that those worked better for me. Somehow, having a voice to listen to and direct me into the meditation made it easier to concentrate on that, instead of my own thoughts. 5-10 minutes of guided meditation followed by 10-15 minutes of meditation on my own, with just soothing music or nature sounds, seems to be my perfect combination.
As I finally settled into a meditation routine, I can honestly say it helped me to feel more centered, more of a sense of calm, and more focused.
Here are some Austin-area and online resources to help you with meditation: