According to Wikipedia, Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content, or as an end in itself.
Meditation is often associated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, or Hinduism. While it certainly has its roots in religion, what intrigued me was some studies done around different aspects of meditation. While there were some very flawed studies on meditation beginning in the 1950s, there is a growing subfield of neurological research that focuses on the processes and effects of meditation. Using fMRI and EEG to peer into the bodies and minds to see what happens while meditating and which changes occur to those who meditate regularly.
Meditation can refer to a variety of different practices, but most research that I see focuses on a type commonly known in Western society as mindfulness. Mindfulness is described in Bhante Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English as “a state of presence of mind which concerns a clear awareness of one's inner and outer experiences, including thoughts, sensations, emotions, actions or surroundings as they exist at any given moment”. Personally, until I started the practice myself, it was hard to wrap my head around exactly what mindfulness is. The closest I can come to describing my own experience is to say that it is being present in the experience of the moment and holding that presence without judgement of it.
Research has shown both physical and mental benefits to the practice of mindfulness. According to a study published in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, depression was significantly reduced in patients with three or more previous episodes after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Another intervention known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has shown promise in helping with physical conditions such as chronic pain. A study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine shows that during a ten week program using MBSR statistically researchers noted statistically significant drops in present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, mood disturbance, anxiety and depression. As a result there was a decline in pain medication use and a rise in level of activity and feelings of self-esteem. Many of the participants of the study remained compliant with meditation as part of their daily lives in the 15-month followup.
Another area where mindfulness can be helpful is in focusing attention. One area shown to improve is sustained attention where those who meditate are better mentally prepared to complete a task. Selective attention is another area where meditators are better able to limit their attention to a specific sensory input. Lastly, executive control attention, the type of attention that we use to inhibit distraction, is improved through practicing meditation.
Many benefits are to be gained by using meditation, but there have been some adverse effects reported as well. In the case of some with certain psychiatric conditions, there have been reports of worsening symptoms. However, these cases have been very rare and more research needs to be done in those cases. It is also worth noting that meditation is not suggested to be used as a replacement for conventional intervention or an excuse to delay seeing a doctor, but there is little risk in giving it a try.
We cannot hope to improve our physical attributes without exercising the associated parts of our body. Similarly, we cannot hope to improve our mental attributes without exercising our mind through examination of our consciousness and learning to become in tune with how we experience awareness in the present moment.
As far as my personal experience with meditation is concerned, I have noticed changes in myself since I started regular meditation in January of this year. Less depressive thoughts, more patience, more empathy, less distraction, a stronger sense of interconnection, and decreased substance use are just some of the changes may have been influenced in part by my experiences in meditation. I have also made conscious efforts in these areas and self-educated through a lot of reading, but I certainly feel that these efforts have been aided by taking a daily time for myself in meditation. The key has been regularity.
If you think you could benefit from some of these effects, perhaps meditation is worth a try. There is little risk and if you find that after trying it for awhile that it is not for you, it is no harder to stop than regular physical exercise.
Have you tried or been interested in meditation? Let me know more about your own experiences in the comments.
Kirk is busy finding ideas, and technology, that will improve the world around us. Follow him on twitter @kirkaug.