I’ve heard this time and time again, in Facebook forums, from friends, from corporate executives… they all wonder why they should waste their precious little time by sitting and effectively doing nothing? “Besides,” they say, “my brain is too busy and I am too busy and I need to do the washing and run a million errands and…” the list goes on.
Despite this, it seems that everyone who’s successful these days is practicing with something that they refer to as mindfulness or even the more ambiguous tome of ‘wellness’. “What even is that?” I hear you ask with a slightly frantic urgency. I heard you already have a million things to do and by reading this, you’re probably wasting more precious time that you could be actually doing said things. But wait. I promise I’ll clear it all up for you.
A modern synopsis of meditation
Mindfulness is a term that is most famously touted by the inventor of one of the longest standing and most well researched meditation programs called ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” or MBSR. MBSR is an 8 week course that teaches a Buddhist based meditation or mindfulness practice.
After meditating for many years himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn wanted to assist his cancer patients with their pain management so he took his Buddhist learnings and packaged them in an easily digestible, secular format and took it to the masses. Also, just for the record, mindfulness and meditation can be used interchangeably but I prefer meditation because it refers more to the act of ‘doing something’ as opposed to mindfulness which is a bit more ambiguous and hard to describe in a short, succinct way. Basically our brain can digest meditation more easy than mindfulness because it sounds like the act of doing something as opposed to a state of being.
Brain: So, what the hell is meditation?
Put shortly, it’s brain training. Others will describe it differently, but I like to call it training because our brain and culture feel more at ease ‘doing something.’
Brain: Ok… sounds like doing ‘something’ so I guess that’s good.
So what do you actually do then?
Well, as a matter of fact, you do nothing.
Brain: See I told you this was bull@*#t.
Ok, I’ll explain. Meditation is the process of concentrating or focusing your attention on something, be it your breath, a mantra or your body. There are many different ways to do it, I’ll talk about that later.
An example of meditation may be to concentrate on our breath with clear, alert attention. This simple act is quite challenging because our brains are wired to think. We form patterns and we think compulsively about things, life, people, stuff, what we want, don’t want, our neighbours annoying yappy dog, your partner not putting the rubbish out, relationship issues, not having a relationship… children, family, money, work, ALL. THE. THINGS.
Our brain is constantly working until we switch off at night and sleep.
This is fine but there are a few issues…
Brain: Wait, you’re losing me. I’m bored. I still don’t get why I should meditate. It sounds like a waste of time, just sitting and doing nothing. How is that meant to do anything?
I’m getting there. Let’s start by laying out some of the cumulative benefits that are brought about by meditation and then we’ll get to the rest.
Cumulative Benefits of Meditation
Better interpersonal relationships
More clarity and increased problem solving skills
Reduced stress levels
Increased ability to regulate moods and symptoms relating to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
Increased pain management
The list goes on.
Brain: This is starting to sound a little too magical. Do nothing and get all that?
Basically the practice of meditation, training your brain to notice when you’re slipping away from concentrating on your breath, is allowing you to become aware of your thoughts. When you start to notice your thoughts, you start to notice patterns of thinking, whether they be bad or good.
The Reptilian Brain
Let me put it another way. Our brains, as a result of our experience in prehistoric times, and evolving from reptilian roots have something called the reptilian brain. You can read more about it in a great book called “Why Zebras Have Stripes”. The reptilian brain was wonderful when there were predators that wanted to eat us. We were constantly on the lookout, we knew what the danger signs were, we noticed tiger droppings and footprints and were constantly on the look-out for threats because otherwise we and our children would have been eaten. Our species wouldn’t have survived this last million years without our warning signals.
The problem however, with this is that now fast-forward many hundreds of years later, and we and in a stressful scenario and our warning signs are triggered, we dump cortisol and go into fight or flight when we have a fight with a partner, a disagreement with our boss or colleague or if someone on the street threatens us, but we aren’t able to go for a run, and let out the cortisol, it just sits there ruminating and often many of the issues which trigger these stressful moments aren’t resolved such as workplace altercations. It is something that sits in our body and we dwell on it trying to find an answer.
Cortisol takes around 20-60 minutes (sometimes longer) to dissipate from our bodies. But in that time, our brain will often remember that stressful situation and re-live it mentally….
Oh, I forgot to say… our brain actually can’t tell the difference between imagining something and the real thing. So say, you see a movie and you are totally scared out of your wits, or emotionally moved to tears by the death of the heroine, you are basically living it too. In other words, your body just can’t separate a story from the reality… which also means that when you replay a shitty situation you’ve just had with your boss in your brain, you are releasing the very same cocktail of stress chemicals in your body as if you were experiencing it.
This is tricky because if it’s something that you haven’t found a resolution for, or it was just damned stressful, you will have those stress chemicals in your body for an hour say, and towards the end of that hour, you’ve had a nice chat with someone, you have done some emailing and nearly feel better, but you replay that movie, just one more time because you are trying to reconcile it in your brain and WHHOOOOOOOOOSSSSHHHHHH, another chemical dump and the cycle starts again. You feel that dread in the pit of your stomach, that trapped feeling, thinking ‘what the hell am I going to do about this?!” and then you are back at square one.
So, now what?
The Cortisol Factor
What does prolonged cortisol in your system do to you?
Well - I for one can preach, ‘I’ve been there, done that’ and I feel like I’m still trying to work on it to be honest. I’m not perfect either as my relationship with meditation has ebbed and flowed over the last 8 years.
Weight Gain. (Yep - that nasty one.)
All the above lead to diseases like cancer which is why
It’s not just cortisol that’s bad for you…. Disorganised and unharmonious thoughts are scientifically proven to increase disease in the body. If you look into the work of Dr Joe Dispenza, he has some amazing research results about why more coherent brain-waves, as a result of mediation, are so much more healthy for our bodies.
Basically, he describes that our neural (brain) systems operate and function in a more coherent way when and after we have been meditating. Constant stress and disharmony within our brain and neural pathways are pre-cursers to degeneration of our bodily functions and systems - which is why it’s important to have great neural health (we have neural systems in other areas of our bodies, such as the heart and stomach too!).
The other thing is that when we are in ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode our frontal lobes where our best decision making happens are effectively numbed. This is problematic because it impairs our ability to make great decisions.
If we meditate, we are basically able to start getting good at observing or looking at the kind of thoughts we have. By slowing down we can catch ourselves repeating our shopping lists, to-do lists, ‘I must remember to email that person” or ‘I have to pay that parking fine’. We can stop, and observe ourselves during meditation and allow ourselves to become aware of those thought patterns.
Then what starts happening, is that you also start to notice the emotions that go with thoughts as they enter and arise. The feeling that goes with “bugger, I forgot to put the rubbish out’ or ‘I have so much on my to-do list that it’s overwhelming’. While meditating we are able to start what I like to call ‘self diagnosing’ - or at least becoming aware of the thought patterns that lie within us, that have been developed over the years and think about what thoughts bring about what emotions.
By becoming aware of our emotional responses, we can say ‘hey, I don’t actually feel like being stressed right now’ and you are able to stop indulging in that thought.
It’s not going to be the quick-fix for all life’s issues but it allows you to start being aware of your thought patterns which assists you with getting too emotionally caught up in things that you can’t change. For example someone in traffic cuts you off and you start to feel like you have the choice about whether or not to react angrily because your brain goes into self awareness and chooses to either go down the path of stress and anger. Or simply not to.
You start realising that sometimes it feels better not to go down those same paths. You start recognising at the beginning of familiar conversations with loved ones that you don’t want to go down the familiar path of aggression. So you try a new angle. Perhaps one with more love and care in your wording and you find that through being a little bit more ‘mindful’, you are able to navigate life with a little more grace and tact.
So, why not give meditation a go?
It has been scientifically proven to form a new habit, you need 66 days of consistent practice… so why not give it a go.