The Benefits of Meditation
Over the past three decades, a radical and extremely interesting change has occurred in the way people in the West regard meditation. Until the 1980’s, the term "meditator" brought to mind a guy in an orange robe, with a long, white, messy beard, sitting alone on top of a mountain. Nowadays, future mothers engage in pregnancy meditation, stressed bank employees meditate to relax, athletes meditate to improve their scores, and people undergoing therapy meditate to improve their condition. Meditation is suddenly thought to be cool.
There are several reasons for this significant change. Two of the most important ones are therapy and scientific research. Nowadays, different branches of psychological therapy use meditation as a central tool for working with clients. Counselling psychologists, psychotherapists and clinical psychologists all utilise the power of meditation and integrate it into the therapeutic process aimed to resolve a variety of difficulties faced by the clients. Clinical psychologists frequently offer their clients meditation sessions and recommend that they practice meditation daily. Meditation is also included in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), one of the most commonly used models of therapy, whose purpose is changing people's behaviour by changing their thought patterns. Meditation has become so popular in CBT that a new branch was developed - MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy). MBCT combines traditional CBT strategies with the experience of Mindfulness, and has proved very effective in treating various conditions, especially depression.
But why has meditation become so prominent in therapy all of a sudden? The answer lies in scientific research. Western society expects each of its products to be scientifically tested in a laboratory before it passes the legitimacy test. Meditation went through thousands of experiments with astonishing results. Even the greatest believers in meditation are frequently surprised at the potency and efficiency of the meditative experience. Meditation has a powerfully favourable impact in different spheres. Physiologically, meditation has been shown to:
* Have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. Meditation improves the condition of the cardiovascular system by lowering heartbeat rate and blood pressure.
* Assist in controlling hypertension
* Assist in effectively treating certain conditions (e.g., diabetes)
* Relieve pain
On a psychological or cognitive level, meditation has been shown to:
* Improve reaction time and perceptual motor skills
* Enhance de-automatisation: Meditation breaks the habit of acting automatically without full attention.
* Improve concentration and attention
* Help overcome addiction and chemical dependency
* Improve memory
* Decrease anxiety and stress
* Improve sleep
The subjective reports of people who engage in meditation describe the following influences of meditation:
* Inner peace
* Clearer perception
I invite you to re-read this list and imagine that someone is offering you a new vitamin - Vitamin M. You are told to take it once a day and then rest for ten minutes. To promote the distribution of this new vitamin, it is offered to you for free. In your opinion, what would happen at the pharmacies? I would imagine long queues, dozens of people fighting for the privilege of getting hold of the amazing new vitamin M. Now consider this: This vitamin is already at your disposal, cost free, with results that have been proven by numerous scientific studies.
Meditation is also very helpful in dealing with addictions. It increases our ability to control our attention (see below) and shift it away from nagging addictive stimuli (cigarettes, food, etc.) to the present moment (a conversation with a friend, or reading, for example), thus significantly reducing dependency. In a study conducted at Yale University, a group of nicotine-dependent adults was randomly given one of two treatments: mindfulness meditation, and the American Lung Association's standard treatment to quit smoking. Both treatments were administered over four weeks. In terms of reducing cigarette use, the results of the mindfulness group were better than those of the group that was given the standard treatment and, no less important, the first group had more success in maintaining this change four months after the treatment. In average, the mindfulness participants reduced their cigarette consumption by 90% (from eighteen to two cigarettes per day); 35% of them quit smoking altogether.
Meditation has also been linked with the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. One main reason for these complaints has to do with our mind's tendency to plunge uncontrollably into negative thoughts that are usually rooted in the past. To prevent this from happening, it is tremendously helpful to learn how to calm down the mind and focus on the present moment. Several meta-analyses (combining the results of dozens of different studies) support this argument. Sleep disorder, for example, is a complaint meditation has been shown to be very helpful with. In the US and the UK, approximately one in four individuals suffers from a sleep disorder. Meditation reduces anxiety and stress, and the relaxation it brings improves the quality of our sleep.
The effect of meditation is not limited to difficult experiences; meditation also helps boost our wellbeing. There is a strong connection between the experience of meditation and positive psychology, i.e., the study of human strengths and best potentials. One of the goals of meditation, indeed one of its consequences as well, is to catalyse the development of our internal potentials and improve wellbeing. Meditation is linked with higher-level factors such as self-esteem, self-actualisation, autonomy, satisfaction with life, and positive affect. Research has also indicated that dedicated meditators experience significantly higher levels of psychological wellbeing than non-meditators. Meditation has also been shown to promote positive inter-personal emotions such as empathy and compassion, while improving self-acceptance, meaning and purpose in life, and personal growth.
Perhaps the most amazing discovery of research is that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. Compared with non-meditators, the brains of individuals who meditate regularly have specific regions that are more developed. These are the regions associated, for example, with attention, interoception (sensitivity to stimuli coming from within the body), and sensory processing. Meditation has been shown to have an effect on an area called the Amygdala, located at the base of the brain, which participates in processing emotions. People who meditate show weaker activation of the Amygdala, which results in greater emotional stability and an improved response to stress.
No matter which of these positive influences you are seeking when you turn to meditation, you will benefit from an array of wonderful influences as long as you meditate regularly.
Written by Dr Itai Ivtan
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist and a senior lecturer at the University of East London. His work is focusing on Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, and Spirituality. You can find his workshops, books, and scientific work on his website: http://www.awarenessisfreedom.com/