One of the best and most easily available ways we can become healthier and happier is through mindfulness and meditation. Studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation have a measurable positive impact on our lives. Mindfulness is not just about our minds but our whole beings. When we are all mind, things can get rigid. When we are all heart, things can get chaotic. Both lead to stress. But when they work together, the heart leading through empathy, the mind guiding us with focus and attention, we become harmonious human beings.
Science has now caught up with ancient wisdom about meditation and the results are overwhelming and unambiguous. What study after study shows is that meditation and mindfulness training profoundly affects every aspect of our lives - our bodies, our minds, our physical health, and our emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s not quite the fountain of youth, but it’s pretty close. Meditation can be called a miracle drug. Herbert Benson and William Proctor write in their book ‘Relaxation Revolution’ that mind-body science is considered as the third primary treatment option in medicine, right alongside surgery and drugs. They write how meditation can impact nausea, diabetes, asthma, skin reactions, ulcers, cough, congestive heart failure, dizziness, postoperative swelling, and anxiety.
The authors conclude, “It is not an overstatement to say that virtually every single health problem and disease can be improved with the mind-body approach”.
A study funded by the National Institute of Health showed a 23 percent decrease in mortality in people who meditated versus those who did not, a 30 percent decrease in death due to cardiovascular problems, and a significant decrease in cancer mortality. “This effect is equivalent to discovering an entirely new class of drugs but without the inevitable side effects” observed Mark Williams and Danny Penman. (Professor Mark Williams is the tutor at Oxford University and Ruby Wax was on one of his Masters Courses).
Another study found that meditation increased levels of antibodies to the flu vaccine, and the practice was also found to decrease the severity and length of colds, while researchers at Wake Forest University found that meditation lowered pain intensity.
How does it do all this? It’s not just about distracting us from pain and stress; it literally changes us at the genetic level. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre, and Harvard Medical School found that the relaxation response – the state of calm produced by meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises actually switched on genes that are related to augmenting our immune system, reducing inflammation, and fighting a range of conditions from arthritis and high blood pressure to diabetes.
It also physically changes our brains. One study found that meditation can actually increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex region of the brain and slow the thinning that occurs there as we age, impacting cognitive functions such as sensory and emotional processing. Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and leading scholar on the impact of contemplative practices on the brain, used magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRI’s) to study the brain activity of Tibetan monks. The studies have illuminated for the first time the further reaches of human plasticity and transformation. He calls meditation mental training. What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one. And when our brain is changed, so is the way in which we experience the world. Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree says French Buddhist monk and molecular geneticist Matthieu Ricard. “It completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are”.
And this automatically changes how you respond to what is happening in your life, your level of stress, and your ability to tap into your wisdom when making decisions.
“You don’t learn to sail in stormy seas,” Ricard says. “You go to a secluded place, not to avoid the world, but to avoid distractions until you build your strength and you can deal with anything”.
And the building of your strength, equanimity, and wisdom is very tangible and measurable as gamma wave levels (high-frequency brain waves) can now be measured for happiness and reduced tendency toward negative thoughts and feelings.
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or the hills…. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in their own mind…. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself”. – Marcus Aurelius
Meditation can also have profound effects on a host of other psychological conditions. Researchers at UCLA found that mindfulness and meditation helped lower feelings of loneliness among the elderly, whilst researchers from the University of Michigan documented that military veterans experienced lowered levels of post-traumatic stress disorder after mindfulness training. Meditation has also been found to reduce depression amongst pregnant women and teens. And it’s not just about reducing negative emotions, it’s also about boosting positive ones. A study led by university of North Carolina professor Barbara Fredrickson found that meditation increased ‘positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest and amusement.’ It also resulted in increases in a variety of personal resources, including mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, and good physical health. A study of patients with a history of depression at the University of Cambridge found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy lowered the risk of depression relapse in participants who had experienced three or more episodes from 78 to 36 percent.
Meditation may be a wonder drug, but it does need to be regularly refilled. To get all these benefits we need to make it part of our everyday lives.
Happiness and well-being are not just magical traits that some are blessed with and others are not. Richard Davison has come to view “happiness not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis…if you want to be a good tennis player you can’t just pick up a racket – you have to practice” he said. We can actually practice to enhance our well-being. Every strand of scientific evidence points in that direction.
It’s hard to think of anything else that is simultaneously so simple and so powerful. It’s a vital tool not just for us as individuals, but collectively, as well. “Vanquishing infectious disease has left us living with chronic diseases of lifestyle and aging,” says Matthieu Ricard “leading to the possibility that healthcare can focus on increasing human flourishing by putting the person’s well-being, body, mind, and spirit at the centre, empowering them for optimal life”.
It is important to recognize that meditation is not just an Eastern practice. Our Western traditions of prayer and contemplation, and the Stoic philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, fulfill the same purpose. And every Christian tradition incorporates some equivalent form of mindfulness. In the sixth century, Saint Benedict established the tradition of Lectio Divina (divine reading) a four-part practice of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The Quakers built their belief system almost entirely around what are, in effect, the principles of mindfulness. Believing that the light of God is in everyone.
Information taken from Arianna Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’ – the third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life. – I thoroughly recommend this book. One of the most important books that I have read for our current time. She is an amazing woman!
If you would like to know more about Mindfulness or if you know anyone who is suffering from anxiety please contact me or ask them to get in touch and book a free 20-minute call so I can explain how I can help.
Love Lynda xx