Meditation found me on divine accident, and it has been by far the most positive addition in the history of my life. It is an ancient practice, passed down in Indian oral traditions dating back to 3000 BCE. Most of us associate the practice with Buddhism and in spiritual traditions of the east, although it has been practiced in sects of ancient Christianity for millennium. In Western culture, most of us are aware of its existence, yet because it is not mainstream practice, we remain unaware of the enormous mental and social health benefits which come from meditation. Now more than ever, with factions of people at odds with each other and a declining sense of inner peace, the time is ripe to consider widespread applicability.
The tangible effects of a regular meditation practice include increased concentration and awareness, and a greater sense of well-being. It helps maintain brain health and aids in alleviating mental stress. It alters the structure of the brain, decreasing the size of the amygdala responsible for fear and anger responses, and increases the size of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive decision making. This brain center manages higher order brain function, like increased awareness, concentration, and decision making. Changes in the brain show, with meditation, higher-order functions become stronger, while lower-order brain activities decrease. Along with vigorous exercise, meditation facilitates growth of new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory. Both on and off the cushion, experienced meditators are able to alter brain waves, leading to increasing states of awareness and peace. As attention is turned within, alpha and theta waves increase, from the normal activity-based beta waves. Producing alpha waves helps people tap into the onset of rest and relaxation and can also fuel creativity. Theta waves deepen the relaxation response.
Meditation releases key neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals that balance hormones and influence mood and systems throughout the body. It has a measurable influence on:
- Serotonin—increases this feel good chemical
- Cortisol—decreases this stress hormone
- DHEA—boosts levels of this longevity hormone
- GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid)—improves the calming effect of this transmitter in your central nervous system (CNS)
- Melatonin: Boosts sleep hormone
- Endorphins—increases the natural high of this happiness neurotransmitter
- Growth Hormone—elevates levels of this youth-preserving chemical
Aside from the structural and chemical benefits of mediation, as a part of spiritual practice, meditation increases empathy, compassion, and prosocial values. Prayer is talking; meditation is listening. When engaged in a consistent daily practice along with sacred readings, contemplation, prayer, and meditation, emotions and reactivity are readily altered as they are experienced at a deep subconscious level during the process of meditation. For example, in Buddhist Lamrim meditation, attributes such as compassion, equanimity, and equalizing the self with others are studied in devotional format as the subject of daily prayer and meditation. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this practice is well known to change the mental states of practitioners. It is possible to extend this practice to any religious or spiritual tradition using the sacred texts of any.
Mediation practice also brings a person home to themselves, interiorizing attention in a culture which most often faces outward. It is an opportunity to connect to the truth within, reconnect with one’s deeply held values, and make external adjustments accordingly. It offers daily opportunity to nurture and attend to the inner voice and needs of the self.
For a beginning meditator, developing a practice takes dedication. Yet like any discipline, as daily practice becomes habit and positive results begin compounding, most practitioners come to find levels of relaxation, peace, love, and joy unsurpassed to any they have ever known. It is a compelling path and one worth pursuing.
Krista is a Certified Life Coach in the areas of Wellness, Transformational Change, and Spirituality who helps people implement an authentic healthy lifestyle, leave behind harmful habits and behaviors, and step into their highest potential. She is also a Certified Meditation Instructor and Yoga Teacher. For more information on her transformational change, wellness programs, and coaching visit www.theomshanty.com.