The benefits of meditation include laying the cornerstone for transformation. While simple, meditation resets our brain waves, letting the calming effects ripple out to fill our entire day. It offsets what Eastern civilizations call “monkey mind” or what Westerners call “anxiety.”
By Dr. Randall Bell, Socio-Economist and Trauma Recovery Expert
One day my cardiologist told me about a Harvard neuroscientist, Dr. Sarah W. Lazar, who learned about meditation by accident. Dr. Lazar had injured herself while training for the Boston Marathon. Her physical therapist told her to do stretching exercises, so Dr. Lazar took up yoga.
Dr. Lazar told a reporter, “The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart, and I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah – I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open-hearted and able to see things from others’ points of view.”
Her curiosity piqued from this experience, Dr. Lazar researched the scientific literature on meditation and found evidence that the practice reduces a host of problems, such as anxiety, depression, and stress. It also improves the overall quality of life. Intrigued by both her own experience and the academic literature, Dr. Lazar began performing neuroscience research into the impact of meditation and yoga on various cognitive and behavioral functions at Harvard Medical Center using brain scans.
The Scientific Benefits of Meditation
Dr. Lazar compared people who had meditated for years with others who did not meditate at all. The study showed that those who meditated had increased gray matter in several regions of their brains, including the areas responsible for decision-making, auditory senses, and memory. In a stunning discovery, the neurological team found that 50-year-old people who meditated had the same amount of gray matter as those who were 25!
In another study, Dr. Lazar put people who had never meditated into an eight-week program. In only two months, the brain scans showed a measurable thickening in several regions of the brain responsible for learning, memory, emotions, and empathy. Their brains also revealed shrinking of the areas associated with stress, anxiety, fear, and aggression.
I now have a six-inch-thick binder containing scientific studies published on the topic of meditation. Hundreds of university studies from schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Brown, Yale, UCLA, and Vanderbilt provide verifiable and reproducible studies that demonstrate its effectiveness.
Meditation has a host of verifiable benefits, including cognitive thinking skills, mental health, workplace performance, relationships, and overall well-being. It also measurably reduces chronic pain, mind-wandering, fearful memories, PTSD, and symptoms related to childhood adversity. Meditation and mindfulness also improve character and ethical behavior.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness, or the mind-body connection, simply means being present in the moment or changing our focus of awareness on the present. We are not thinking about the regrets of the past or the anxiety over tomorrow, but our minds are in the here and now. This means that we do not dwell on times outside of our current control but rather maintain a clear focus on what is happening and suspend concerns on whatever has happened or might happen. We take life one day at a time. In a mindful state, we function in sync intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. Furthermore, it means that we are aware of our physical state: our body and our breathing. We are motivated to deliberately pause before reacting to situations in terms of what we say, think, feel, or do.
The process of critical self-reflection involves us carefully slowing down and evaluating our situation and the events and circumstances that got us here. By intentionally focusing and taking time to reflect on an event, many things can happen. We can differentiate between the event and our interpretation of the event and evaluate what went wrong and what went right. For example, if we were in a car crash, the event could be all the actual logistics of what happened, but our interpretation could be filled with emotions. Perhaps a wrong turn caused the accident, but we were fortunate to get excellent medical care.
We can reflect upon how much control we have over a situation and all the possible choices and outcomes. We can note the difference between acting out or simply walking away. From this evaluation, we can see how to respond better, going forward. We can use the experience to generate growth that otherwise might not have been.
A Deceptively Simple Practice with Powerful Effects
While the effects are powerful, meditation is deceptively simple. We mainly focus on our breath. Some add mantras to their reflection, such as thinking of the word “so” while inhaling and “hum” while exhaling. Some use audio-guided meditations or create visualizations to expel unwanted energy or to focus on an abstract concept, such as compassion. Blank-mind meditation is another form where we dismiss all thoughts from our minds. Some sit, some stand, some walk, and some perform yoga poses or exercise forms as in tai chi or qigong.
Generally, it takes 5 to 30 minutes a day to see results, but some suggest it only takes six deep breaths to get the benefits of grounding. It may be better to have two shorter sessions in the morning and evening, rather than one long one. It is best not to meditate right after exercising and be sitting rather than lying down. Several apps can help develop this habit.
The most significant benefits come when we meditate daily, even for a few minutes. By eliminating distractions and being mindful of “now,” we connect with our inner voice. If a distracting sound or thought comes to mind, we don’t judge it but gently observe it without judgment or bring our minds back to our breathing.
Meditation lays the cornerstone for transformation. While simple, it resets our brain waves, letting the calming effects ripple out to fill our entire day. It offsets what Eastern civilizations call “monkey mind” or what Westerners call “anxiety.”
When I was facing another round of heart surgery, my cardiologist explained how brain waves work and prescribed 10 minutes of meditation a day, every day. I just sat comfortably, closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing. It was easy, and my blood pressure dropped considerably. As demonstrated from the cells in San Quentin Prison to the great hall of Harvard Medical School, meditation is shown to heal broken hearts.
The Benefits of Meditation, Grounding, Prayer, and Ritual
For many who are healing and in transformation, grounding combined with prayer are vital components. As faith is a personal journey, prayer looks different to different people. However, prayer and grounding are two different things. Grounding is focused-breathing and an effort to listen to our inner voice, while prayer is not focused on breathing but instead communicating with God or a higher power. How that is combined is a personal choice.
Almost without exception, every thriver I know has a ritual of some kind, often in the early morning. They meditate, but they may also pray, stretch, read something inspirational, have a good coffee, or plan out their day. They may journal or write “thank you” cards. This is a time to contemplate, as Mark Twain once said that the two most important days in our lives are the day we were born and the day we learn why.
We may shift focus on that we are not humans having spiritual experiences – we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Whatever it looks like to you, this “daily quiet time,” or DQT, helps us identify and focus on our “why” in life.
We all want to climb a mountain. Meditation and our morning rituals allow us to connect with our inner voice so that we end up climbing the right mountain.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Post-Traumatic Thriving: The Art, Science, & Stories of Resilience (Core IQ Press, 2021) by Randall Bell, Ph.D. This juxtaposes outcomes of scientific studies with true stories to reveal common denominators among “thrivers.” Divided into three sections – The Dive Stage, The Survive Stage, and The Thrive Stage – he outlines a step-by-step process toward authentic healing. The book explores the inspirational stories of more than a dozen people who used the energy generated by their trauma to fuel future achievements – including Dr. Bell’s own experiences with trauma. As a socio-economist, he has consulted on more disasters on earth than anyone in history. Often called the “Master of Disaster,” Dr. Bell is squarely focused on authentic recovery and resilience. www.coreiq.com
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