Meditation, once viewed as a mystical custom limited to those seeking spiritual enlightenment, is now seen as an important practice for anyone pursuing health and wellness. Though still practiced by some in a religious context, the value of meditation is now recognized by many secular communities as well. As meditation has become a mainstream practice in the Western world, the public’s engagement has increased dramatically.
Especially within the past few years, the volume of people who practice meditation has soared. In fact, meditation might just be the fastest growing health trend out there. According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the use of meditative practices amongst adults in the U.S. increased greater than threefold from 4.1% in the year 2012 to 14.2% in 2017.
The surge in the popularity of meditation is reflected by its newfound common incorporation into various health magazines, books, yoga studios, online programs, apps, and more. Many different types of meditation have surfaced such as Concentration, Loving-Kindness, Choiceless, Transcendental and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Although there are distinctions in how these styles of meditation are practiced, they all share the common theme of turning inwards and honoring our present awareness.
Now that meditation has become somewhat demystified and highly accessible, it may seem easy to join in. However, for many of us, this may not be the case. Especially in the chaotic times in which we live, our bodies and minds are so conditioned to be running on overdrive. Therefore, the mere act of sitting in stillness, let alone finding a place of inner peace, can be a challenge at first.
Just as with any other skill, meditation often requires disciplined practice and a commitment to improvement. That said, it is important to note that there is no “wrong” way to meditate. Even if at first you shuffle around a bit and start thinking about what’s for dinner, the mere intention of the practice will serve you well. So let’s be gentle and patient with ourselves, respecting our dedication to our practice, just as it is.
In terms of the many benefits, it has been found that meditation has an impact on both psychological and physical levels. By dissipating stress and cultivating a calm mindset, meditation protects us from the effects of the daily stressful challenges we encounter. Also, through increasing our sense of awareness and connection, meditation holds the powerful potential to alter the way in which we interact with the world around us.
History of Meditation
It may be the case that meditation is only in recent years becoming a popular contemporary practice in our society; however, it is important to remember that meditation is truly an ancient practice that has been revered by a variety of cultures globally for thousands of years.
To provide some context, scholars and archaeologists have traced the earliest indications of meditation back to wall art from ancient India around 5,000-3,500 BCE. The earliest documented findings are from 1500 BCE and appear to come from the "Vedas," important texts in the religion of Hinduism.
Additional evidence has brought to light the particular significance of meditation in a variety of ancient religions. In many of these contexts, the concept of meditation is much more than a simple practice. It is a spiritual tradition by which certain existential religious goals may be achieved. In Hinduism, for example, meditation is used to reach eternal oneness ("moksha") by achieving a state of liberation and pure-consciousness. In Buddhism, the goal of meditation is to achieve enlightenment and the release from the cycle of rebirth ("nirvana"), enabling people to be less egocentric.
Around the 20th century, various literature and translated teachings from the East ultimately sparked an interest in bringing meditation to the Western world. Texts such as the "Siddhartha" or the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" resonated with Western readers. As meditation grew in popularity, its purpose, though inspired by its origins in the East, shifted as it became contextualized in the West. The focus on religious objectives became less prominent, while its value as a personal and therapeutic tool emerged.
In the 1960s, Transcendental meditation became particularly popular in America and Europe, known as an integral component of hippie culture. Interestingly, celebrities such as The Beatles, turned towards this type of meditation as a coping mechanism for fame.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a true pioneer in the field of mindfulness, founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts with the aim of using mindfulness practices as a method to treat chronic illness. Kabat-Zinn’s approach has in many ways demystified meditation, framing it as a technique that is useful for a variety of medical, as well as personal, purposes. Around this time the benefits of meditation were certainly recognized by many, however, it wasn’t until the 1990s that meditation made its way into the mainstream.
In 1996, Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dr. David Simon founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing which takes a holistic approach to health, seeking to address physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. This center is ultimately a nexus of ancient teachings and modern science and has been a revolutionary platform for raising awareness of and practicing meditation.
In the early 2000s, various books such as Chopra’s "The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire" provided accessible education to the public regarding the benefits of meditation and its effect on our consciousness. By 2012, over 700 mindfulness-based programs were available all over the world and since then, the practice of meditation has continued to increase in popularity.
Personal and Physiological Effects of Meditation
Part of the public’s interest in meditation stems from its connection to an array of personal benefits. According to one research paper which analyzes mindfulness studies, meditation is often applied in contexts of self-exploration, self-experience, and self-transformation.
Through referencing various studies, this paper points out the link of meditation to “self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-perspective change, self-consciousness, self-concept, self-deconstruction and reconstruction, self-referential processing, and so on” (Xiao et al., 2017). This begins to highlight the expansive impact of meditation on the self.
It appears that meditation facilitates the unique opportunity to change one’s relationship with and perspective on oneself. Especially when practiced over long periods of time, studies have suggested that meditative practices are connected to a heightened sense of self-compassion and overall acceptance. Interestingly, this paper specifies that “compassion-focused” meditation can be a useful tool for individuals who experience severe levels of shame and self-criticism to become more self-kind.
Additionally, it has been found that meditation reduces the tendency to self-identify with self-images. Meditation challenges the notion of a static self and cultivates one’s view of self as a dynamic and transformable entity. By tuning in to the sensations of the transitory state of the self, a productive deconstruction of self may ensue, a process referred to as “decentering” or “reperceiving” (Xiao et al., 2017).
By decreasing self-referential processing, the first-person experience may be improved, opening the mind to a new point of view in which the mediator may nonjudgmentally observe the self. In this way, meditation holds the potential for humankind to become less egocentric, as it emphasizes the connection between self and experience, while reducing that between self and ego.
By letting go of the ego, we may tap into a truly insightful subconscious/unconscious intelligence and open ourselves to our deepest thoughts. In this way, meditation may offer creative solutions to the many problems we face, foster deep connections with others and support profound self-healing.
Beyond the personal benefits of meditation, it is highly impactful in regards to matters of our physical and mental well-being. According to an article published by Chopra, practicing meditation has systemic effects on the body including the ability to boost the immune system, improve sleep, decrease blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, increase the efficiency of oxygen use, increase the production of DHEA (an anti-aging hormone), and reduce anxiety and depression (Brady et al., 2013).
One study from 2011 involving around 200 adult workers found that “mental silence-oriented meditation,” is an effective tool for alleviating work stress and feelings of depression (Manocha et al., 2011). Additionally, meditation may have a beneficial impact on cognition, as it has been found to improve creativity and increase focus. In a study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, it was found that meditation resulted in “changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress” (McGreevey et al., 2019). For example, decreased stress correlates with decreased gray matter density in the amygdala, a region of the brain related to the onset of anxiety and stress.
In fact, scientific research has attributed many of the observed benefits of meditation to physiological changes in the brain. For example, one particular study, found that the Default Mode Network (DMN) is substantially deactivated in the brains of experienced meditators. Activity in this network is linked to unfocused behavior, anxiety, and other conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADHD) or Alzheimer’s disease (Brewer et al., 2011). The reduced activity of the DMN that is attributed to meditation provides a scientific explanation for the decrease in mind-wandering that is commonly experienced by meditators.
Additionally, research findings have shown that meditation may protect against the physical decaying of the brain that occurs with aging. This deterioration has been linked to physical impairments and increases our risk of experiencing mental illness or other neurological conditions. In one particular study involving 50 meditation practitioners and 50 control participants, it was shown that meditation may correlate with less age-related gray matter atrophy of the brain.
While research on meditation is an emerging field, it simply confirms what has been observed for thousands of years: the effects of meditation are vast and profound. And just in case you were thinking that these benefits are limited to only the meditator, let’s explore just how wide reaching the impact of this practice may be.
Large-Scale Impact of Meditation
Along with the firsthand effects of meditation on personal and physiological levels, meditation has incredible benefits for all, even for those not directly engaged in a practice.
Especially with the current prevalence of technology and social media, we are often presented with situations in which we may feel the need to “prove” our adequacy to others. With that, comes the tendency to become swept up in the ego.
Meditation has the ability to help humans let go of this ego and enter a space of humility, compassion, and non-judgemental awareness. This perspective shift facilitates not only a deeper sense of connection to the self, but also to the world around us. By believing and manifesting that we are a part of something greater than ourselves, our minds are opened to the beautiful concept that even as individuals, our engagement with the world leaves an impact. Such an outlook can have a profound effect on our interactions and disposition towards other beings.
In fact, one research study found that even the practice of a simple loving-kindness meditation has the potential to significantly reduce prejudice towards strangers and homeless people (Parks et al., 2014). In addition, the study found that after practicing this meditation, the participants had more positive attitudes and increased intentions to pursue future contact with those around them, leading to an increase in connection amongst humans.
Additionally, there is evidence that the practice of cultivating a mindset of non-judgemental awareness can have a positive impact on relationships. It is understood that dysregulated cortisol levels are linked to destructive behavior in relationships such as aggression or withdrawal. One study involving 88 romantic couples examined the effects of mindfulness on the recovery of cortisol during stressful interactions.
Interestingly, the results of this study showed that the cortisol levels of participants with higher levels of mindfulness rebalanced more quickly during conflict than those of participants who did not engage in mindfulness (Laurent et al., 2016). These findings suggest the potential positive impact of mindfulness practices on relationships of any kind.
Overall, meditation encourages us to be expansive thinkers, creative problem solvers, and empathetic human beings. Engaging in this mindfulness practice allows us access to deeply insightful thoughts, connects us to our energetic qualities, heals our bodies and minds, and nurtures our connection to ourselves and to those around us. In other words, meditation helps us be the best version of ourselves.
The Dalai Lama once said, “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” So, let’s tap into this powerful practice, learn to transcend the ego and transform the world.
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Laurent, Heidemarie K., et al. “Mindfulness during Romantic Conflict Moderates the Impact of Negative Partner Behaviors on Cortisol Responses.”Hormones and Behavior, vol. 79, 2016, pp. 45–51., doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.01.005.