How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Mindful Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Mindful Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Mindful Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz