So much has been written lately about the benefits of meditation, with much of it aimed at helping people deal with holiday stress. But few people are successful at forming new habits during the busiest time of year. A better idea is to start new habits in January. This may explain the recent trend toward meditation retreats.
If the idea of a 10-day silent retreat sounds like heaven, you either love meditation or you are surrounded by small children all day long. Few people seek out a silent retreat, but those who do find it totally rejuvenates them. A better place to start may be to practice mindfulness meditation and see how it affects your state of mind.
How does meditation affect the brain?
Even if you’re a skeptic, it’s hard to ignore the scientific evidence in favor of meditation. Scientists say that meditators benefit from measurable changes in their brains after meditating for 30 minutes per day over an eight-week period. Some of the most notable changes are seen in the gray-matter density of the brain, which is associated with empathy, stress, memory and sense of self.
Recent studies show MRI brain scans that were taken before and after a participant’s meditation regimen. The practice of meditation seemed to increase gray matter in the hippocampus, which is important for memory and learning. MRI imagery also showed a decrease in gray matter within the amygdala, which is associated with stress and anxiety.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Not surprisingly, the most common questions about meditation revolve around the “how” rather than the “why.” People seem to understand its benefits, but they have a hard time knowing if they are doing it right. So how exactly did all these study volunteer who were new to the practice, meditate? For the most part, they used something called “mindfulness meditation,” a practice that became popular back in the late 70s.
The main idea of mindfulness meditation is to focus attention on different objects, such as breathing, emotions or thoughts. According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Britta Holzel, it’s all about bringing the mind back into the “here and now” as opposed to letting it drift into the past or future. It traces its roots to many of the Buddhist meditation techniques that are still being used on silent retreats today.
Studying the brain’s response to meditation is still in its infancy, and there is much to be learned, but its findings shed light on what many practitioners already believed. It is important to remember that the brain is very complicated and further study may be required to pinpoint what exactly caused an increase in gray matter, but this is an interesting start. A study from 2009 also suggests a reduction in blood pressure among patients with heart disease. Another study from 2007 suggested that meditation gives people longer attention spans.