Meditation is an ancient practice that has been used in many Indigenous and Eastern cultures for spiritual growth as part of daily life since at least 5,000 B.C.
However, since the 20th century, there has been a growing interest in meditation in the West, with researchers exploring the influence of meditation on the brain and its benefits for health and well-being, which is excellent since it gives newcomers a baseline for what they may expect from meditation.
Why don’t people meditate?
Thanks to more celebrities, athletes and CEOs, and influencers promoting the benefits of their daily meditation practices, most people have heard about meditation as a valuable technique to deal with the frantic pace of everyday life,
However, as a yoga and meditation teacher, I notice many people resist meditation. I frequently hear people say that meditation is too difficult for them; they are not sure what type of meditation to do; or they are too busy, too tired, or believe that “sitting still, doing nothing” is a waste of time, and they struggle to make meditation a regular practice or even to get started.
Why do people start meditating?
There are many reasons why people meditate.
I often hear from people that they are on the verge of burning out from the effects of:
Stress at work — work overload, co-worker tension, microaggressions at work, fear of job loss.
Relationship difficulties at home and health challenges leave them feeling drained and often struggling to relax, unwind and get a good night’s sleep.
Because of their feelings of overwhelm, dissatisfaction, and despair, people are seeking “something” to make them feel better, less stressed at work, and more connected with loved ones.
Yet the sense of being swamped and exhausted, combined with the influence of external global events on our mental health, means we are too anxious, worn-out, and weary to find the time to learn and add meditation into our already punishing schedules.
Everyone is looking for something to help them feel better
Here’s why I started meditation (hopefully, it may inspire you to start)
In my case, and I hate to admit it. Still, for at least 11 years, roughly 1990 to 2001, my life was a mess, except I didn’t realise it, everyone I knew was in a similar situation, so I thought that was how life was supposed to be.
(N.B. my life is still messy — however, these days I am better resourced, and it doesn’t take me 11 years to bounce back!)
I stumbled into the world of yoga, meditation and healing following an accumulation of stressful major life events, including:
- miscarriage in 1992
- giving birth to three children in the space of 18 months (1993 twins and in 1991, their elder sister)
- the sudden deaths of my close cousin, Sherry, aged 26, in 1995
- in 1997, my kind-hearted older brother, John, aka Johnnie, aged 37, also passed away
- struggling to keep my head afloat from working as a Probation Officer with young offenders in the community and adults serving custodial sentences
- being a mama to my three young children
- noticing cracks in my marriage, and being too worn out to do anything about them
Back then, I was miserable and emotionally drained without understanding it. And it affected my ability to concentrate on work and care for my young family.
I started meditation to get out of despair and find “inner peace.”
All of that made me question myself, which manifested physically in
- lack of sleep, as I burnt the candle at both ends to fit everything in
- panic attacks from missing necessary court appointments, struggling to finish parole reports on time and being in time to pick my children up from nursery.
- poor eating habits
- neglecting to take care of myself
Fortunately, my manager noticed my mistakes and suggested bereavement counselling.
Through the insights and breakthroughs I gained through counselling, I met my first yoga teacher, Shola Arewa, around 1999.
I participated in her weekly yoga lessons and monthly Sistah Moon Meditation Classes.
That started a decades-long journey of exploring and learning about “all things yoga-inspired and meditation related.
For interest, you can read more about my training lineage here.
I resigned from the Probation Service in 2004, and now, aged 59, with 20-plus years of being a yoga and meditation student and teaching for the last 15 years, I take better care of myself, and happy and am at peace.
Can you relate to anything I was going through there, and if so, do you believe learning to meditate could help you feel better?
Now that you know why people are interested in meditation and why I started let’s look at what meditation is and what happens to your brain and mood while you meditate so we can see what the science says.
This information will help you get a clearer picture of meditation and decide if meditation is proper for you.
What is meditation?
Most people have an idea or image of what meditation is.
For example, if you close your eyes and think about “meditation”, a meditation image or “a thought” will most likely appear in your mind.
- What do you notice?
- What thoughts pop up?
- If you notice any thoughts or images, how do you react or respond to them?
This simple exercise in noticing your thoughts and being aware of how you react or respond to those thoughts and feelings is part of the meditation process.
So, as you read this article, I invite you to pay attention to your posture, your thoughts, feelings and emotions and see what, if anything, comes up and how you react or respond to them.
The word meditation stems from meditatum, a Latin term that means ‘to ponder.’ ‘to think over, reflect, consider.
In his article, “What is Meditation and How to Start,” blogger and meditation teacher Giovanni states:
Meditation is a mental exercise that involves relaxation, focus, and awareness. Meditation is to the mind what physical exercise is to the body.
However, as Giovanni points out, when eastern contemplative practices were “imported” into Western culture, meditation (for lack of a better word) was used to define those mind-body and spiritual practices.
“… nowadays meditation has more the meaning of this exercise of focusing attention than to reflect deeply.”
Swami Rama, in his detailed article, “The Real Meaning of Meditation”, states:
Meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within.
Meditation is not a part of any religion; it is a science, which means that the process of meditation follows a particular order, has definite principles, and produces results that can be verified.
… In meditation, the mind is clear, relaxed, and inwardly focused. When you meditate, you are fully awake and alert, but your mind is not focused on the external world or the events taking place around you.
Meditation requires an inner state that is still and one-pointed so that the mind becomes silent. When the mind is silent and no longer distracts you, meditation deepens.
I like to describe meditation as a tool to help still and quiet the mind so we can see beyond the busyness of our everyday thoughts and reconnect with our inner spiritual heart.
Based on your understanding of meditation, how would you describe it?
What happens to us when we meditate?
If you’ve ever tried to meditate, how did you get on?
Even if it was just for a minute, did you notice anything shift in your mood?
What feelings, thoughts, and emotions did you notice if you did?
These might range from “frustration and feeling frazzled to contentment and being calm!”
Some of the popular responses many of my clients give as the primary benefits of meditation include, “feeling less anxious, less stressed and happier as they experience heightened levels of joy, happiness, contentment and inner peace.”
As you can see, there is “no wrong or right way” to feel when you meditate. People experience a broad spectrum of emotions and responses.
The most important thing is to start!
What are the health benefits of meditation?
The following four articles summarise the many research findings on regular meditation’s various mental and physical health benefits.
- 15 Ways Meditation Benefits Your Brain Power and Your Mood
- 7 Benefits of Meditation and how It Can Affect Your Brain
- Science Doesn’t Lie: Top 10 Reasons to Meditate
- Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Meditation
Based on research, the top 10 main mental and physical benefits of meditating are that it:
- Revitalises energy
- Fine-tunes concentration and focus
- Eases symptoms of anxiety, including better sleep and low mood
- Lessens stress levels
- Enriches mental health
- Magnifies critical thinking skills
- Boosts creativity
- Fosters awareness of inner peace and well-being
- Promotes feelings of interconnectedness with humanity and uncovers unconscious biases.
- Deepens the brain’s capacity for happiness, empathy, and compassion.
For more in-depth explanations, check out Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan’s pioneering book, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research With a Comprehensive Bibliography, 1931–1966.
Their book discusses, in more detail, the benefits of meditation to reduce anxiety while improving attention, concentration, and overall emotional well-being.
Meditation benefits the brain
Research conducted by Sara Lazar and team at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, USA, studies the impact of yoga and meditation on various cognitive and behavioural functions.
Their results show that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. They also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age related atrophy of certain areas of the brain.
In the video below, you can watch Sara Lazar’s TED Talk about the benefits of meditation and its impact on brain states.
Dr Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adds to the research benefits of meditation on the brain.
The Center’s Scholarly Publications provide valuable research evidence on the impact different meditation makes on our mind, brain and mood, based on the question “what constitutes a healthy mind?”
Meditation is one pillar that is recognised as beneficial to the cultivation of a “healthy mind.”
Many research studies by the David Lynch Foundation on the effects of meditation on your brain shows that transcendental meditation has numerous benefits for the mind and body.
Their studies show that meditation can:
· Change the size of critical regions of our brain
· Improve our memory
· Make us more empathetic and compassionate
· Make us more resilient under stress
What happens to your brain when you meditate?
In this section, we’ll look at how meditation alters the brain.
During everyday activities, most people function in beta “busy mode” brain wave frequency (13–30Hz cycles per second); for example — you are overthinking, analysing and scanning your environment, and processing information.
During beta brain waves, your brain frequency is fast, intense, and high.
This mode of activity stifles creativity, wisdom, and intuition.
During meditation, the body enters a state of “relaxed awareness”.
This is highlighted by an increase in the lower frequency alpha wave activity ( 8–12 Hz cycles per second) associated with a feeling of “relaxed awareness”.
As you enter deep meditation, there is an increase in the even slower theta waves (4–8Hz cycles per second).
Increased theta waves lead to the experience of “bliss” meditator experience.
Manage your mood with meditation
Research also shows meditation activates the brain chemical known as the “happy-making” hormones.
Sebastian Gendry’s article “Happy Hormones: Which One Is Your Favorite he explains the science of neurotransmitters and the “happiness hormones,” particularly Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphin, and their influence on the “relaxation-response” of meditation.
For further references about meditation’s effect on the brain, you may find the following articles helpful reading:
And, in the Forbes article (2015) “7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain,” Alice G. Walton explores the research and studies conducted on the relationship between meditation and its effect on the brain.
Alice Walton cites evidence from many studies that highlight the positive effects of regular meditation to preserve the ageing brain, reduce anxiety and social anxiety, and help with addiction.
Dr Herbert Benson, author and a professor at Harvard’s Medical School, was one of the first scientists to research meditation.
He reframed the practice of meditation as traditionally practised and renamed meditation the “Relaxation Response” which I believe made “meditation” more palatable to western ears, unfamiliar with the practice of “meditation”.
In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr Benson describes the scientific benefits of relaxation, explaining that regular practice of the Relaxation Response can be an effective treatment for many stress-related disorders.
“According to Dr Benson, one of the most valuable things we can do in life is to learn deep relaxation — making an effort to spend some time every day quieting our minds to create inner peace and better health.”
“The relaxation response involves a series of recognisable physiological and emotional changes in the body as a result of meditating.
Your body releases chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.”
As you practice the “relaxation response”, your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate slow down, and the level of alpha waves in the brain increases.
For an example of the Relaxation Response, watch this video, where Dr Benson leads you through a guided “Relaxation Response” meditation.
In the article, “Learn How to Counteract The Physiological Effects Of Stress,” Marilyn Mitchell explains that Dr Benson’s studies showed that the “relaxation response” reduces the “fight-flight-freeze” response to stressful situations. This activates the parasympathetic, the rest & digest, branch of the autonomous nervous system.
The Relaxation Response reduces the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol by stimulating the release of the hormones serotonin and dopamine, which helps you to recover quicker from a stressful situation.
What are the harmful effects of meditation?
So far, we have explored the powerful benefits of meditation.
However, as we know, there are always two sides to the same coin. Studies show harmful effects of meditation, for example, increases in depression, anxiety, and even psychosis or mania.
Clayton Micallef, a colleague and fellow meditation teacher, reminded me there is a need to expand the criteria used to measure the effects of meditation on the brain.
Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice, originally practiced to enhance spiritual evolution; however, most popular techniques used today, especially in the West, focus on meditation is more of a secular nature as a tool for relaxation and stress relief.
We can find further details about these studies in the following set of research papers and popular articles:
- Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation
- The Empirical Status of Mindfulness-Based Interventions: A Systematic Review of 44 Meta-Analyses of Randomized Controlled Trials
- 7 Surprising Reasons Why Meditation Could Be Hurting You
- Can Meditation Cause You Harm?
- The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists
Based on personal and professional experience and various scientific studies, I believe learning to meditate and develop a regular practice is a fantastic life skill.
It helps you effectively release tension, cultivate a calmer state of mind, and helps you bounce back from destress and stay balanced in stressful situations.
Based on your understanding of meditation, what do you think about the benefits of meditation you experience in your life?
Please share your thoughts, and I look forward to reading your replies. Thank you.
I originally wrote and published this article on Medium. You can read it here.
100 Days of Guided Meditations
Worried. Overwhelmed. Exhausted.
Ready to Finally Get A Handle on Stress?
Download the FREE 5-minute Slash Stress Slay Your Day video training and start to feel stronger, calmer, refreshed, and alert.