Do you ever feel a need for solitude, a desire for a little bit of time alone with your own mind? Having that feeling and acting upon it are two totally different things. It’s hard to put everything on hold and make it happen.
If you’ve tried any kind of meditation before and struggled to keep the practice going, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
And if you haven't tried before, well… There’s an old Zen Buddhist saying that goes: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you're too busy. In that case, you should meditate for an hour a day.”
You get the idea: It’s easy for things to come up and distract us from settling down to meditate. But more powerful are the reasons to go ahead and do it.
Here are some of the most powerful reasons you should try meditation…
Meditation is a deep, introspective process.
The English word meditation originates from the Latin word meditatum, which means to ponder.
And that makes a lot of sense. Because the practice of meditation teaches us to take a step back and observe our own mind and thoughts.
The aim is to acknowledge the inner workings of the mind and accept them. A great analogy to understand the process is to imagine your thoughts are like leaves floating down the stream of consciousness.
The mind doesn’t just think, it can also be aware that it is thinking. You’ll experience a form of pure awareness that will allow you to experience the world directly, unclouded by your thoughts, feelings and emotions.
You can think of meditation as climbing a mountain. From the summit you can see clearly for miles around. This perspective of pure awareness transcends thinking. It allows you to step away from negative self-talk and judgmental thoughts and instead look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.
You’ll become less likely to perpetuate your own suffering by doing things that make yourself and others less happy. You’ll experience a sense of wonder and quiet contentment emerging in your life.
Meditation is a deep, introspective process, but it comes in many forms. I’d suggest you try as many different types of meditations as possible (mindfulness, breathing, visualisation, tatraka, mantra to name a few) and take the time to reflect on each of them to discover which resonates best with you.
Coming to this realisation, you will start to understand yourself a bit better and be able to build a daily meditation practice that suits you.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking out new landscapes but in having new eyes” - Marcel Proust
You will lower stress, and improves your focus and decision-making.
Meditation has a number of proven health benefits. In several studies, MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of meditation, the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ centre, the amygdala, appears to reduce in size.
This primal region of the brain is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex (associated with awareness, concentration and decision-making) grows.
While the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that meditation changes the structure of the brain. After all, pretty much everything we do does so. But it’s exciting that recent research is suggesting links between regular meditation, positive mental health and improved cognition.
Meditation began before the birth of modern civilisation. And it’s still going strong.
Although we can’t know exactly when people began to meditate, experts agree that the practice started thousands of years ago. In fact, wall art depicting people seated in meditative postures with half-closed eyes can be found in the Indus Valley, South-East Asia. It’s been dated somewhere between 5,000 and 3,500 BC.
This is one of the earliest traces of meditation and has been linked to the Hindu tradition, which includes both the Yogis (who meditated in caves) and the sages of the Vedic culture.
However, the oldest written evidence of meditation appears in ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas in 1,500 BCE. The Vedas are a collection of hymns and other ancient religious texts written in India between about 1,500 and 1,000 BC. It includes liturgical material, mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered to be sacred by the Vedic religion.
1,500 BC is the time when the Vedas made it onto paper, but they were memorised and passed down by way of oral tradition long before they were finally written down.
Between 600 and 500 BC, the Chinese sage Laozi established Taoism in China. Taoists developed many meditation practices over the centuries, including Tai Chi. Around the same time, Siddhartha Gautama, or Buddha, left his privileged life to attain enlightenment and learned meditation from the Yogis.
People who put the Buddha’s teachings into practice and obtained wisdom and insight then started to teach others. Seekers would travel long distances to learn from great teachers who lived in countries far from their own and bring their teachings back home. At one point, people were practicing forms of
Buddhist meditation from Indonesia to Japan and from modern-day Afghanistan to Mongolia.
Western interest in Eastern religions and philosophies seems to have begun only in the 19th century. The most widely practised forms of Buddhist meditations practiced in the west today include Vipassana (Mindfulness), Samatha (Concentration) and Loving-Kindness.
So you get the idea: people have been meditating in various forms for thousands of years. So there must be something to it.
You will experience a heightened sense of connection to the world around you.
This is particularly the case through a type of practice known as loving-kindness meditation.
And scientific discoveries have been able to explain this change. Dr Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, revealed in the mid-70’s that meditation induces a deeply relaxing state he named “The Relaxation Response”. The Relaxation Response is a natural antidote to stress that engages the parasympathetic system, countering the negative biological effects of the fight or flight response.
The relaxation response increases the body’s levels of Oxytocin. Oxytocin is also colloquially known as the “love hormone”; It’s responsible for increasing our bonding, romantic attachments, and levels of empathy.
The relaxation response triggered by meditation increases the release of Oxycontin, which makes you feel greater empathy and connection with others. The repetition of the mantras anchors them in consciousness.
In related research, MRI brain imaging has shown that a small part of our brain called the anterior insula becomes activated through mindfulness meditation. This finding is significant because it’s a part of the brain that’s integral to our sense of human connection. It allows us to have feelings of empathy.
The study found that mindfulness meditation could provide an adaptive mechanism in coping with distress due to the empathic sharing of others' suffering, in turn enabling compassionate behavior.
You will awaken from autopilot mode and become consciously aware.
Although we are human beings, we often behave more like human doings. Our attention to the present moment is limited, with our thoughts and worries often focused ahead or behind us.
Daniel Simons is a prominent experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois. He’s carried out several experiments that show how we miss obvious things because our attention is elsewhere.
In one of his experiments, an actor stops a person in the street to ask for directions. As the person offers some directions, two people carrying a huge door appear between them. The person’s view is blocked by the door and the actor switches for another person who looks completely different and is wearing totally different clothes. Despite all of these changes, only 50% of people studied noticed the switch!
Both of these examples show what can happen when we are absorbed in our busyness. Our minds can be purged of consciousness while we go about our day on autopilot.
Our autopilot has flaws in terms of being aware of the present moment, but really it’s also humanity’s greatest asset. Without it, we’d struggle to concentrate on more than one thing at a time and our working memory would overflow.
Because of this ability, the brain can help us execute complex tasks with very little input from our conscious mind at all, like driving.
One of the aims of meditation is to wrestle back control of your conscious mind from the autopilot we have all developed.
Unless we keep a check on them, negative thoughts and feelings can aggregate into patterns that amplify our emotions and spiral downwards. And before you know it, you’ll feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety and sadness.
This is where meditation and mindfulness can help.
These practices retrain your brain to notice when the autopilot is taking over, so that you can make conscious choices about what you’d like to be focusing on. With meditation, you’ll re-learn your natural ability to focus on one thing at a time and declutter your mind from stress, anxieties and other negative emotions that otherwise build up insidiously.
Mindfulness, in particular, teaches you to re-learn having an awareness of everyday activities. It allows you to experience life as it unfolds, moment by moment.
You’ll find new pleasure in hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching, reconnecting with all your senses and witnessing the beauty of the present moment.
A simple meditation practice will, in turn, help you restore a sense of calm, balance and peace.
Suddenly, dedicating 10 minutes a day seems like a small sacrifice to make to unlock something so powerful.
Interested in exploring meditation for the first time? Check out my Introduction to Meditation Course. Across 5 serene weekly classes, you’ll learn the basics of meditation and get acquainted with a range of powerful techniques.