Meditation Can Literally Change Your Brain

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with meditation over the years. My most recent meditation stint was this time last year after my 15 year old dog, Elly, passed. Meditation was the only thing that helped me feel grounded during that sad time. I kept it up for about 6 months but gradually the routine shifted to every other day, then once a week, then once a month, then not at all. Just in the last month I’ve started again and it feels good. It’s like feeling more buoyant while riding through choppy ocean waves of life’s ups and downs. It’s subtle but effective.

There is scientific backing for this feeling. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar has an informative TED talk explaining how brain scans show meditation to improve memory, enhance your ability to focus, increase quality of life, and make you more compassionate and resilient to stress. Her research study tracked how different brain areas respond to meditation. Gray matter in the hippocampus (your brain area for learning, memory and emotional regulation) increased and gray matter in the amygdala (the fight or flight, stress headquarters of your brain) decreased with meditation. Based on changes in neuroplasticity (how brain cells change how they talk to each other with repetition), Lazar states that “mediation can literally change your brain!”

Other research shows that mediation lowers blood pressurereduces anxiety and depression,and improves insomnia since its calms your brain after a long day helping you fall asleep. Meditation is definitely a practice which has a learning curve, but just 10 minutes a day can provide better focus and reduced distraction.

With all those benefits, and the fact that it’s free, why not give it a try?

Don’t let meditation sound daunting. Remember it’s a practice that will get easier over time. Just the gentle activity of sitting still and doing nothing for 10 minutes is a great start. Here are some basic instructions:

  • Sit comfortably in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Turn off the TV or radio, and silence your phone. Set a timer for 10 minutes. If you’re brand new to meditation you may want to start with a shorter time, such as 3-5 minutes.
  • Breathe deeply and focus on your breath. It may help to repeat a word with each breath in and out, such as love and gratitude, or calm and focus. You can use any mantra here and it can change from day to day.
  • Take notice of the sensations in your body and thoughts that arise.
  • You may have a hard time sitting still or feel that your mind is racing. That’s ok. Just notice it and come back to your breath. You can also try a walking meditation where you slowly walk while focusing on your breath and letting go of other thoughts. Labyrinths are set up for this purpose.

Meditation is a practice of refocusing your thoughts over and over again. It’s not about clearing your mind completely, but rather just noticing and refocusing. Even the best yogis and monks have to practice. Honestly, I find it to be a practice in letting go.

If your mind is still racing try the Bach flower essence White Chestnut, which helps create a peaceful mind. Place a couple of drops on your tongue and a few minutes later you’ll simply forget what you were stewing about.

Check out some apps and online programs to help you get started. I’ve heard good things about Headspace (www.headspace.com), biofeedback tools like Heart Math (www.heartmath.com) which measures your vital signs to show that you’re calming down, and guided visualizations or recordings such as Dr. Mark Hyman’s UltraCalm CD.

Enjoy the quiet time, even if its just 10 minutes a day, it’s meaningful!