This guest post is by Daniel Zandt. Daniel covers the scientific benefits of meditation and gives a great guide for different ways to do it. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! 1
Have you ever heard the old adage, “The power is within you”?
It’s one of those sayings that we tend to skim over. “Great!” the response will usually be, “But the sentiment doesn’t sit with the lived experience of my day-to-day life.” And it’s true. In the pursuit of our goals we have an array of “outside” needs: for information, experience, mentorship, and money. But those are not our only needs.
In this article I want to make the argument for meditation. I want to outline what I believe are the benefits of doing nothing for five or ten minutes every day. I’ll also make the point that meditation is one of those rare things that requires little outside “addition.” At its core, it’s a process of re-engaging with the stillness and stability inside us: there’s little to master and little to “get right.”
The Science Of Meditation In A Nutshell
Hundreds of studies into the effects of meditation have been carried out, including several meta-analyses. There are also a handful of organizations, chief amongst them the Mind & Life Institute, that are dedicated entirely to exploring the scientific dimension of contemplative practices.
Whilst it is now generally accepted beyond doubt in the scientific community that meditation is useful, most of the recent meta-analyses call for more research and greater methodological rigour.
One of the most compelling findings is that individuals who have meditated for long periods of time tend to have stronger neural connections between their lateral prefrontal cortex (LPC) and their insular cortex (IC), whilst also exhibiting a weakened connection between their IC and their medial prefrontal cortex (MPC). The IC is responsible for bodily self-awareness, and the MPC and LPC for our responses to those phenomena.
The MPC is the primary instigator of rumination and worry in response to perceived negative bodily stimuli, whereas the LPC is responsible for tempering our emotional responses and our rational interpretation of events. By strengthening our connections between the LPC and the IC, we’re better able to relate to negative feelings and emotions from a balanced, rational perspective.
On a slightly more practical level, test subjects have also shown improved performance in concentration tests across numerous studies. One at the University of North Carolina reported significant increases after only four days of short practice.2 The evidence for meditation as a method for stress reduction is so strong that it has established itself as a mainstream therapeutic practice, both in the NHS and as part of the well-known programme, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by psychotherapist Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is thought that meditation increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for feelings of calm and relaxation.
Finding A Practice
A meditation practice is a personal thing. Our temperaments will dictate which variation is best for us. If you’re getting started, or if what you’re trying isn’t working, I recommend three simple methods.
The teacher B. Alan Wallace has pointed out that, even with something as simple as sitting and being mindful of bodily sensations, we often adopt a “western” attitude. We see whatever we’re engaging in as just another technique to master and tick off the list. In our efforts to keep focused we start to tighten up – the complete antithesis of what we’re meant to be doing!
It’s difficult not to relax whilst focusing on the movements of your belly. You’re grounding yourself in your body whilst at the same time naturally encouraging what’s called “diaphragmatic breathing.” This particular way of breathing into the abdomen as opposed to the upper chest is widely regarded as effective in dealing with negative emotions.3 Try placing your left hand on your chest and your right on your belly, if you can breathe whilst only letting your left hand move a little, you’re doing it right.
1. Sit comfortably with your back straight and your hands resting in your lap.
2. Take a few deep, calming breaths. With each exhalation try and feel yourself relaxing into your body, consciously letting go.
3. When appropriate, let your attention rest on the sensation of your belly as you breathe in and out. Notice the rising on the in-breath and the falling on the out-breath. Don’t try to force or lead anything. Be mindful of the pauses between each breath.
4. If you become involved in thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sensations. The fact that you’re noticing your mind’s activity is a good thing. I was once told that catching a thought and returning back to the object of your attention is equivalent to lifting a weight, in this case with the mind as the muscle.
Focusing On The Nostrils
This is a common practice, perhaps the best-known in the west.
It involves resting your attention at your nostrils with each breath. This might be at the tip of your nose, or further up in the sinuses. It provides an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with the “flavours” of the breath: long or short, soft or rough, deep or shallow. In doing this, you’re fostering an intuitive understanding of the inter-relatedness of your in-the-moment breathing pattern and your physical or emotional state.
You can learn to “use” your breath to work with negative emotions whenever they arise. Remember the oft-cited advice, “Take a deep breath”? There is a basis to it. This is one of the reasons why I’m a proponent of using deep breathing exercises at work.
Sometimes we’re too agitated to sit and be still. In these cases a walking meditation can be our ally. Again, we simply focus on the sensations of our feet as we walk, slowly and deliberately.
Beginning with your left foot
Notice it lifting from the ground,
Your leg moving forward,
Your heel and forefoot touching the ground,
The weight shifting from one leg to the other,
Your right foot lifting from the ground…
Build Discipline & Overcome Boredom: Start With TWO Minutes
It’s amazing how hard just sitting and doing nothing for ten minutes can be, isn’t it? We seem to be almost scared of boredom. The fact that so many people have taken up meditation only to let it drift out of their lives is testament to this. It’s certainly happened to me a few times.
We often come to our sitting period with the expectation that it’s going to be totally enjoyable and engrossing. Whereas in a way that’s to miss the point. The purpose of what we’re trying to achieve is a deeper involvement with that place that’s non-emotional, that’s fundamentally stable and beyond whatever negative or positive emotion we may be experiencing at any single time.
There’s a wonderful quote by Pema Chödrön that goes, “You’re the sky – everything else, it’s just the weather.” Seen this way, boredom is an invitation to begin to explore that inner stillness that is not the boredom, to experience the space between yourself and the emotions.
With all that said, simply “going in” to the adverse emotions doesn’t make them any less difficult. We often need to couple this approach with self-discipline. In truth, the “mini-habits” philosophy really stands up here. I’ve found that the trick is starting small and building, incrementally, from there. Start with two minutes and increase every week or two weeks. As time passes and the benefits of regular sitting become apparent, your conviction to continue will grow stronger.
Measuring Your Progress
Michael Gerber (founder of E-Myth) was fond of saying that results, and little else, are the prime motivators of people. I think there’s a lot of truth to this.
We spend a lot of time looking for motivational prompts in books and on the web. But the times we feel most compelled to action are when we’re fuelled by consistent results: a promotion, an increasing bank-balance, positive feedback from our peers….
I think it’s important not to view meditation as just another technique to master. Judge your progress not by how well you’re able to “do the task” but by how it impacts your well-being day-to-day. Do you feel less stressed, less involved in painful emotions, more resilient to negative people and situations?
When you become aware of these benefits (and as time passes you will) they become some of the strongest prompts to keep meditation in your life.
Bringing Meditation to Work
I’m particularly interested in how we can use the skills developed in our practice at work. For many people, myself included, the workplace can be emotionally demanding. Here’s one of my favourite techniques…
In their book, The Healing Power of the Breath, Dr Patricia Gerbarg and Dr. Richard Brown outline a simple technique called “Coherent Breathing”. It involves progressively extending your breath to a count of five. This breathing rate is known as the “resonant rate,” where for most people HRV (heart rate variability)4 is at an optimal level.
It’s superb for weaving into your working day during those moments when you’re feeling overly-stressed or anxious.
Breathing in, two, three.
Breathing out, two, three.
Breathing in, two, three, four.
Breathing out, two, three, four.
Breathing in, two, three, four, five.
Breathing out, two, three, four, five.
If you find yourself getting breathless at a count of five, which equates to roughly five breaths per minute, simply retreat back to a count of three or four.
Your Lunch Break – Make A Commitment Now
It’s worth finding the time to sit for five minutes during your working day. Even if that’s all you do, you’ll almost immediately see the benefits. Our day-to-day happiness is dependent on our ability to work with negative emotions. Because we’re often faced with problematic situations at work, sometimes several in the course of a single day, we’re given the opportunity to see the practical benefits of meditation.
Even if it’s just sitting on a park bench to do “coherent breathing” for five minutes or escaping to the toilet to be mindful of your breath, a short segment taken out of your day can ground you in a calm, relaxed attitude.
I hope that you’ve found something useful in the suggestions I’ve outlined. Meditation and mindfulness are becoming much more accepted in today’s world, especially in the workplace (see Google’s mindfulness programme). I think this acceptance is based on two things: first, the recognition that traditional mind-body practices don’t need to come wrapped in religious dogma and secondly, a fuller awareness of its concrete benefits
I do hope you’ll give it a go and see for yourself!