If there is one thing common in all of us, it is the flaming urge to be happy and satisfied in life. Whether a crying baby, an insecure teenager, or a responsible family person, we all seek something that would comfort us.
But the question is: Are we looking for happiness in the right place?
Trinlay Rinpoche, an accomplished meditator and scholar, said that the real source of happiness lies in the clarity of thoughts. External factors can only be pleasurable as long as we are happy from the inside. According to Buddha, meditation trains the mind to “not dwell in the past or contemplate about the future.” It lets the mind settle in the ‘now’ and allows us to see the beauty of the present.
This article is an effort to understand why meditation works so well and how we can resort to its benefits for becoming a better version of ourselves.
A Look at the Benefits of Meditation
Meditation establishes a secure connection between our internal and external worlds. It awakens the body and benefits all aspects of the conscious and subconscious layers of the mind. Out of the numerous perks that meditation gives, a few are listed below.
1. Meditation enhances empathy
Loving-kindness or compassion meditation fires neural connections to brain sites that regulate positive emotions like empathy and kindness. The deep state of flow that meditation induces builds social connectedness and make us more affectionate and amicable as a person.
2. Meditation improves cognition
Researchers agree that an excellent way for professionals to increase the likelihood of success is to keep meditation practice as a part of their daily routine. Studies have revealed that both transcendent and mindful meditation practices improve the brain’s problem-solving and decision-making strategies, which can bring a desirable shift in our professional life.
3. Meditation is a natural stress stabilizer
Stress is the body’s response to unforeseen adversities. Encountering immediate threats increase the level of cortisol, or stress hormone in the body, and activates the Autonomic Nervous system, which is responsible for fight-or-flight responses. Brain studies of regular meditators revealed that they have lower cortisol level in their brains, which explains their resilience and insightful nature.
4. Meditation promotes emotional health and well-being
Studies have shown that meditation improves self-image and self-worth. When we meditate, we get a clear picture of our mind and become aware of the thoughts that drive our emotions and actions at the moment.
A large-scale study found that regular meditation decreases the likelihood of developing depression and mood-related disorders (Jain, Walsh, Cahn, 2015). Besides some forms of meditative practices which also promoted positive thinking, as researchers stated, and could improve the overall emotional health of an individual.
5. Meditation increases attention by inducing a state of flow
Have you noticed how meditation absorbs you into the moment? Mindful awareness comes naturally to us when we meditate, and we reach ‘flow’ state where our mind is in complete harmony with itself. A study on the effects of an eight-week mindful meditation course found that people who are regular meditation practitioners had heightened attention and concentration span. Even people who meditated for short durations showed more focus than individuals who did not meditate at all (Jha, Krompinger, Baine, 2007).
What Does the Latest Research and Science Show?
A recent survey on the incidence of meditation in the US population indicated a marked increase in the number of adults and children who practice meditation every day (Black, Barnes, Clarke, and Stussman, Nahin, 2018). Psychologists and allied mental health practitioners agree on the effectiveness of meditation in reducing physical, mental, and emotional disturbances.
1. Meditation and Pain
A study by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindful meditation reduces pain sensations in the body without using the brain’s natural opiates (Cherkin, Sherman, Balderson, Cook, Anderson, Hawkes, Hansen, and Turner, 2016). The research suggested that combining meditation practices with medication for treating pain conditions like osteoarthritis, headaches, and other chronic pains can be useful for providing long-term remedies.
2. Meditation and diseases
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in the US, has conducted studies to explore the impact of meditation on disorders like:
- Pain and fibromyalgia in teenagers.
- Stress-related disorders in adolescents and adults.
- Migraine, headaches, and hypertensive conditions.
- Anxiety and depression.
Most of their research and reviews show that committing to a daily practice improves the overall quality of life, and has long-term benefits for staying emotionally and physically healthy. Furthermore, studies show that meditation had similar effects as medications in treating depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems.
3. Meditation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Studies on the impact of meditation on Irritable Bowel Syndrome was initially conducted by the American College of Gastroenterology in 2014, with no significant establishments. Later, some studies on women with severe IBS symptoms showed that when they practiced mindful meditation regularly for two months, their symptoms significantly reduced.
Meditation practice helped in reducing the anxiety associated with IBS and improved the individual’s quality of life to a large extent (Gaylord, Palsson, Garland, Faurot, Coble, Mann, and Frey, 2011).
4 Interesting Studies
1. Future Directions in Meditation Science
While most studies focus on exploring the benefits of meditation on physical and mental health conditions, this research on the science of meditation examined the connection of meditation to spirituality, transpersonal transcendence, and mystical abilities.
Researchers believe that such allied impacts of meditation are as crucial as its key advantages, and practitioners should educate meditation seekers about these areas of functioning as well. A research on 1120 meditators, including beginners and novices, showed that meditation developed a sense of self-enhancement in them.
Besides helping them deal with the emotional and physical stressors, it also led the way for heightened spiritual awakening and freedom. Many scientists discarded and criticized this line of research, owing to its unconventional nature. However, there is enough empirical evidence that indicates such allied aspects of human living that are touched by meditation.
2. Cognitive Impact of Meditation
The Shamatha Project was a breakthrough investigation about the psychological benefits of meditation. Based on it, a journal on cognitive enhancement published research where scientists Anthony Zanesco and Clifford Saron, Ph.D. in Psychology, proved that continued meditation practices and retreats improved attention and cognition significantly.
The study was conducted in two phases at the Shambhala Mountain Center, Colorado, and involved 60 regular meditators on whom the effect of intensive practice was studied. The revelations of the investigation were impactful and drew the attention of veteran Buddhist monks, meditators, and scientists all over the world, including the Dalai Lama himself, and provided storing evidence of how the three-month rigorous meditation retreats improved perception and self-worth in the participants.
3. Benefits of Meditation as a Psychotherapy
One study on the therapeutic qualities of meditation revealed that:
- Regular practitioners who participated in the retreat without any pay were more self-content than non-meditators.
- Beginners who practiced meditation for 1-2 months showed improvement in physical and mental health than non-meditators who practiced for the same duration.
- Beginners and regular meditators showed increased signs of happiness and heightened self-esteem when they were randomly assigned to meditation sessions rather than when they received alternate forms of therapy.
4. Meditation and Well-being
A paper on Asian spiritualism proposed that meditation has positive impacts on happiness and subjective well-being.
Following trails of Dr. Herbert Benson’s study on meditation as a mechanism to find the ‘Mind-Body Balance’, the researchers of this paper discussed how meditative flow can help the body by optimizing blood pressure, regulating cardiac diseases, mitigating stress, reducing addiction, and regulating the Sympathetic Nervous System functioning, which is responsible for extreme fight-or-flight responses during stress.
Using ancient Tibetan Buddhism principles, this study illustrated the science of meditation and explained why the effects of regular practice might outdo scientific and alternate forms of treatment.
5 Proven Health Benefits of a Daily Practice
1. More fitness
Workout and physical exercise may not be enough to gain ideal fitness. Many scientists, nutritionists, and researchers of allied health sciences have indicated that the pathway to fitness lies in holistic lifestyle modification – including nutritious food, physical workout, yoga, and meditation regularly.
Psychologists agree that the primary goal of fitness is to get the mind and body function equally well. If our minds are clouded with negative and stressful contemplations, there are very poor chances of us benefitting from any workout regime.
Thorough meditation helps in clearing the limiting thoughts and self-beliefs and providing a continuous supply of motivation to the brain and body to keep going.
2. More Focus
Some studies on meditation and its effects on attention showed how meditation improved care by controlling the alpha brain waves. The alpha waves in the brain operate the way we use our sense organs and respond to external stimulations.
Considering the number of distractions that we have in this media driven world today, the team of scientists of this research created an eight-week mindful meditation program and assessments revealed that participants who completed the retreat showed heightened sensitivity to visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli.
3. More immunity
Studies on the impact of meditation on lowering the risk of cancer suggested that mindful relaxation and meditation practices boost the lymphocyte count in the body, and help in developing a natural shield for fighting toxic cells that create the fatal disease.
Although the study faced criticisms, the findings of this study provided substantial evidence on how meditation can make us more immune to painful infections and illness.
4. Reduced chances of age-related memory loss
By improving attention and focus, meditation helps the mind feel younger. Meditation practices like Kirtan Kriya, which involves chanting a mantra along with some specific finger movements to improve concentration, can help improve memory in dementia patients.
Besides reducing stress, such meditation exercises also support age-related memory loss and memory retention problems. Scientists say that encouraging older adults to practice meditation for as little as two minutes per day can bring a significant difference in the way they fight and cope with their memory dysfunctions.
5. Better prognosis for addiction
Overcoming substance abuse at any age requires a lot of self-control and discipline. Meditation helps in breaking the barrier of dry dependence. Research shows that implementing meditation sessions in rehabilitation programs can help a patient with substance dependence or addiction to control impulses and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Substance abusers who regularly meditate, show less aggression and craving. Also, they have signs of heightened self-awareness and usually recuperate sooner than non-meditators. Whether or not meditation directly contributes to addiction control is still a matter of investigation, but the impact of meditation in bringing a positive mental shift in addicts is undeniable and universally accepted.
The Benefits on Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being
1. Meditation reduces depression
Studies on mild and major depressive individuals showed that introducing an adjunct of meditation to their regular depression management strategies reduced the symptoms of loneliness and general low mood.
A study by Filip Raes on 400 adolescent students in Belgium showed that when they participated in mindful meditation programs, they had a noticeable reduction in depression, negative thinking, and stress for up to six months after the training (Ramel, Goldin, Carmona, and McQuaid, 2004).
2. Meditation helps to overcome postpartum blues
Research indicates that the effects of meditation can be similar to antidepressant drugs. Pregnant women and new mothers, who are at risk of developing depressive disorders due to sudden hormonal flushes in the body, benefitted a lot when they practiced meditation and yoga training.
The evidence clearly indicates that besides reducing mood fluctuations in new moms, meditation also helped them in developing a secure connection with the newborn (Dhillon, Sparks, and Duartes, 2017).
3. Meditation regulates anxiety and mood disorders
From generalized anxiety disorders to phobia, panic disorders, obsession, and bipolar mood swings, daily meditation practice helps in regulating the unreasonable emotional ups and downs.
Methods like Vipassana reduces the density of grey matter in brain areas that associate stress and anxiety and brings in overall emotional stability.
4. Meditation reduces stress
Unexpected encounters with adversities often fail our natural coping mechanisms and make us vulnerable to burnout and hypertension. By developing the habit of regular meditation, we can successfully tame our mind to survive the storm.
Studies have shown that Open Monitoring Meditation and Mindfulness-based Stress Relaxation Techniques reduce the stress hormones and make us more vigilant and self-aware.
Research suggests that if we introduce meditation into the work culture and encourage professionals to practice the same regularly, they surely could work more efficiently under stressful circumstances and prevent the workload from taking a toll on their health (Lazar et al., 2006).
5. Meditation builds resilience to pain
An interesting study by the University of Montreal proved that meditation builds endurance against physical pain. In the study, two groups received equal amounts of extreme heat in their bodies for a fair amount of time.
One of the groups had Zen Buddhist masters who were dedicated meditators, and the other group had thirteen non-meditators. Researchers were amazed at how the Zen masters reported significantly less pain than the other participants (Ziddan, Mertucci, Kraft, Gordon, McHaffie, and Coghill, 2011).
6. Meditation helps in dealing with ADHD
We have seen how meditation improves attention and focus. A study on 50 adult ADHD individuals showed that mindfulness and meditation practices reduced their hyperactivity and allowed them to enjoy increased impulse control (Schoenberg, Hepark, Kan, Barendregt, Speckens, 2014).
Brain examinations by Professor Eileen Lugers at the UCLA Laboratory of Neurology-imagine proved that meditators have more gyrification that helps the brain to process information faster and improve selective attention and focus.