When most people think about meditation, they think about learning to relax or lower their stress. It certainly will do that, but it does so much more! Feeling relaxed and stress free are beneficial states that will come and go. While it is important to be able to induce positive states to centre ourselves, research has shown that these states can be converted into traits, leading to the increase of grey matter in the brain. Specifically, grey matter associated with attention and emotional regulation.
This neurological change from state to trait, is important because increased attention and emotional regulation are the opposite of what ails us. If you can have more attention (or are more mindful) you can keep yourself on track better towards what you want to or should be doing rather than letting life pull you around and being reactive to life situations. Having greater emotional regulation means that a negative thought or feeling is just a noticed negative thought or feeling and not the first step in a downward-spiraling negative reaction that is at the core of anger issues, anxiety and depression. Learn to strengthen these two traits and you will feel less stress more often, you will feel more in control, you will feel happier. Not just after you meditate, but you will have an increased tendency for it the rest of your day or week.
In this great (16 min) TED Talk, Mathieu Ricard talks about this research and speaks of the importance of using meditation to increase altruism. He makes a great case for it, but I think the real interesting gem are his slides on the grey matter changes in the brain.
This slide shows how when long-term, experienced meditators – with over 50,000 hours of practice! – are put in an MRI, their brains light up in significantly increased ways as compared to people with little to no experience with meditation. (They are really using their brains!) As impressive as this is, though, it can also be discouraging for new meditators as 50,000 hours is a high bar to reach… roughly 30 years of practice if you meditate for ~4 hours per day! But, stay with us, because the benefits of meditation do not take that long to start taking hold!
After a mere 4 weeks of doing mindfulness meditation an average of 27 minutes per day, participants in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program showed a massive increase in grey matter density. There is hope!
To actually change your brain for the better meditating for 4 weeks, for 27 min per day! Wow! That works out to roughly only 14 hours of practice for lasting neurological changes. Many people spend much more time than that on Facebook or watching TV! Think of the benefits.
So, is meditation a cure all? No. It isn’t even a guaranteed permanent change. There is an expression that you get more of whatever you pay attention to. Just as learning to watch your thoughts and emotions will make you more mindful, attentive, and have greater emotional regulation, if you slip back into paying attention to anger, you will get more angry, pay attention to worry and life seems scarier. However, with less than 30 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation to bolster you against these slides to the negative, it is a very small payout for the tremendous payoff it gives.
Compare these results with the money spent on psychiatric medication, on the rampant lost hours from sick leaves from work, even from the subjective lost hours, days and years of your life spent being unhappy and less productive. Meditation seems pretty darn cost effective. It’s a gift to give yourself and improves your relationships with others in your life. Imagine if mindfulness were part of the regular school curriculum? What a world we’d have then!
So, learn to develop a meditation practice and if someone implies that you are dense, you can respond with pride that yes, your grey matter is very dense, thank you very much!
Learn mindfulness meditation in one of Sugar Ridge’s upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 5-Day Retreat