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The Health Benefits of Meditation
We take a look at the health benefits of meditation. There are several types of meditation that you can practice and all demonstrate numerous (scientifically proven) health benefits.
Learning the art of meditation can be a frustrating ordeal, which is paradoxical to say the least. There are many different types of meditation, with differing methods, but all share similar aims - namely increasing your levels of relaxation, focus and presence. While meditation is traditionally associated with ancient Asian religions such as the Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Vedic traditions, it now has wide acceptance beyond these institutions. For example, Transcendental Meditation bares no religious significance yet is practiced by thousands of people worldwide.
Meditation has become such a common practice globally that the world of science has gotten involved to determine whether there are any actual health benefits to meditation. The research into meditation has led to some surprising results, though probably not so surprising if you are a Buddhist or a practitioner of meditation. Before discussing the health benefits, let's take a look at the varieties of meditation practiced throughout the world, and the common ways to practice meditation.
Meditation is typically observed in silence, practitioners are recommended to sit still with their back straight, and legs crossed either in the half-lotus or full-lotus position. It is important to find a comfortable position to meditate in, as sessions can go on uninterrupted for typically 20 minutes, so many people choose to sit either on a cushion, or on a chair with their feet on the floor. It is common to rest your hands one on top of the other, with palms facing upwards. Here are some of the different types of meditation popular today:
This form of meditation involves focussing your attention on/being mindful of something, commonly your breath, but this can also be your thoughts, emotions or sensations. The aim it to keep you present, paying attention to the ‘here and now’, and so you observe the thoughts, feelings and sensations that flow through your body and your stream of consciousness, acknowledge these objects, and move on. In being mindful of your breathing, it is hoped that you become aware of the impermanence of everything. Contemplating the impermanence of thoughts, breath, sensations, and the interactions between body and mind allows you to explore yourself and uncover your true nature. It is said to have a very relaxing effect on participants and insight into your true nature is supposed to lead to nirvana if you are of a Buddhist persuasion.
This type of meditation (as with most of them), is about focussing, pacifying and calming your mind. Traditionally, Samatha meditation is used as a preparation for Vipissana meditation mentioned above, as it pacifies the mind, and gives strength to your concentration ability, allowing you to develop insight and achieve liberation (insight leading to liberation is done through Vipissana meditation). Despite these religious connotations, both forms of meditation can be practiced by non-religious people, and will be beneficial in terms of the clarity of mind, focus, and relaxation they provide.
Practiced by a number of institutions including Transcendental Meditation (TM), this form of meditation involves repeating a chant or mantra, either internally or out loud. In TM, this mantra is given to you by your mentor and is to be kept secret and repeated internally, whereas many other meditation forms such as yoga require you to repeat the sound ‘Om’ out loud. The chanting is used to focus your concentration on one thing and not pay attention to distractions from the outside world or your mind’s train of thought. This helps to keep your mind present, and the repetitive chanting helps you to relax.
There is no formal method of meditation in Zen buddhism, or at least there wasn’t originally, as there were no instructors to guide followers of Zen. Instead, practitioners of Zen were supposed to realise the true nature of the mind themselves. Zen meditation was referred to as ‘just sitting’ as that is, at first, what the practitioners must do. Now however, Zen is typically associated with a form of meditation that involves reflecting on koans - riddles that perplex the mind, and through contemplation and self-discovery lead to the true nature of the mind, or ‘mind dharma’. Koans are contemplated to stop the mind from wandering, famous examples include; “What was your original face before your mother and father were born?”, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “If a tree falls with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
This list is not exclusive, and there are many other forms of meditation practised all over the world. Other meditation types that you may want to look up are; Chakra, Taoist, Compassion, and Guided Visualisation.
As we can see, all of these forms of meditation have in common the virtues of patience, relaxation, present awareness, and focus. The medical benefits of being relaxed are well known to practitioners, who live more calm and focussed lives. Studies have shown that regardless of which form of meditation you embark on, or are currently practicing, you will be able to access the benefits of a relaxed and focussed mind. These benefits include:
Meditation has been scientifically proven to increase your brain’s gray matter density in areas associated with memory (the hippocampus).
As well as denser gray matter in the hippocampus, meditation also leads to a reduction in your brain’s amygdala. This is the part of the brain that regulates stress, anxiety, and fear, and so meditation poses an obvious health benefit in reducing stress. Brain waves in the right frontal cortex move to the left frontal cortex during meditation sessions, the former causes stress in individuals, while the latter regulates calmness. This mental shift therefore decreases the negative effects of stress and anxiety. Stress is commonly linked with many health problems, and the reduction of stress will increase life expectancy. Stress causes adrenalin and cortisol which raises your heart rate and blood pressure. Stress can also lower your immune system and cause problems regarding fertility, so the proven fact that meditation reduces stress is a great health benefit.
Reduced Chance of Infertility:
This health benefit is linked to stress levels. Infertility can be cause in part by high levels of stress making the body reject the possibility of becoming pregnant. Meditation helps to reduce and relieve stress as explained above, and so with regular practice can help to increase your chances of fertility.
Reduced Blood Pressure:
A 2009 study revealed that meditation reduces blood pressure which has the benefit of preventing cardiac problems such as heart attacks. It also has the added bonus of leading to/helping with weight loss.
In 2008 it was revealed that meditation increases your empathy which is not strictly a health benefit, but is certainly an attribute that deserves promotion and should be seen as beneficial.
Greater Focus/Increased Attention Span:
A 2007 study revealed that meditation can lead to a longer attention span and more focussed and creative trains of thought. This makes sense when most forms of meditation involve practicing focus. Increased focus also allows you to process information faster, which leads to increased intelligence as well. A greater attention span and increased intelligence are health benefits as they reduce the risk of you accidentally causing harm to yourself.
Improved Immune System:
Meditation improves your immune system by providing you with more disease-fighting genes. The benefits of this are obvious, as it provides you with greater ability to fight off disease, reducing the likelihood of you becoming ill.
Decreased Effects of Mental Disorders:
Meditation has been shown to help reduce the effects of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and fear. This was briefly touched on above, and is linked with the boost of serotonin in your system.The ability to relax and not dwell on the problems that cause anxiety and fear show that meditation is certainly beneficial to your health.
Through boosted serotonin levels, meditation can cause your level of well-being and happiness to increase. This goes hand in hand with meditation helping to eliminate depression as an obvious mental health benefit.
This is brought about through an increase in genes that protect you from forms of pain including muscle/joint pain, back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation (which is linked to asthma, skin conditions (psoriasis), arthritis etc.) and headaches.The pain is dampened through a meditators ability to remain present, which makes it easier to cope with pain by not dwelling on the feeling, but acknowledging it and moving on.
Some other things that meditation is reported to help with include relieving the symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), the prevention of ulcers, helping cure insomnia, and reducing the effect of menopause symptoms, as well as being shown to help quit smoking and to fight off cancer.
All of the benefits listed above show that meditation leads to a longer and healthier life. Practicing for merely 15-20 minutes twice a day (normally once in the morning and once at night) can have significant benefits to your health and longevity. The longer you practice, the greater the benefits will be. Meditation is a skill and a discipline that can take years to truly perfect and appreciate the value of. If you are not a practitioner yet, and find it too daunting to focus for 20 minutes at a time, then start off with just 5 minute sessions and slowly increase the time you meditate for. Any amount of time is better than no time at all, and with all these health benefits possible, you could even save on your health insurance in the long-term by claiming for less, maintaining a healthy low premium as well as a healthy mind and body.