Happy Labor Day, workers of the world! Are you enjoying a well-deserved respite from the 9-5 grind? Unfortunately, Bacillus subtilis can’t read calendars: my bacteria are blissfully unaware that today is a federal holiday, which means that this plucky proletarian PhD candidate is spending Labor Day laboring.
Today happens to be the first of September, so it seems like a good opportunity to work on myself as well as my science. As we enter the next lunar cycle and bid goodbye to summer, I am issuing myself a challenge: to meditate every day. September will be The Month of Mindfulness.
Now, I must admit that the inspiration for the meditation challenge comes from my rad Dad, and two of our dear family friends: MaryAnne and Christi Jo. These awesome individuals started THEIR meditation challenge at the beginning of the summer. I’ve been looped in on a group message between these fine folks as they discuss the benefits they have begun to reap from establishing a daily devotion to meditation practice.
These Baby-Boomer-Buddha-in-waitings’ devotion is impressive, but they aren’t the first in our family to find inspiration through introspection. My grandmother has been meditating every day for 25 years: she is one of the most compassionate, even-keeled women I have ever met.
Anecdotal evidence from my family is one thing, but meditation has been subjected to rigorous scientific study. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation programs are associated with relief from symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain. Randomized controlled trials have demonstrated that meditation is beneficial for treating chronic insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meditation is a great adjunct-therapy for a plethora of pathologies, but healthy individuals stand to reap rewards from incorporating moments of mindfulness into their daily routines. Meditation impacts brain wave activity, neurotransmitter, and hormone levels. Meditation reduces bloodstream levels of the stress-hormone cortisol. Long-term meditators outperform non-meditators on tests requiring attention, and visual discernment. Meditation is associated with improved cognitive function, and may even heighten the ability to mount an effective immune response.
I am currently a sporadic meditator. I take advantage of my yoga practice to clear my mind and sit with my breath. I am sometimes able to let my mind wander away into a blissful, meditative state during my most excellent long runs.
However, all of the studies I cited earlier expounding on the magical benefits of meditation investigated the effects of a consistent practice. I want to incorporate meditation into my daily routine! Would any of you, my gentle readers, care to join me?
The goal of meditation is to clear your mind of all distractions and enter a peaceful state, free from thought. This deceptively simple task can be INCREDIBLY difficult: we all live in the 21st century, our to-do-lists are 10 kilometers long, and it’s only a matter of time before we start grafting our iPhones into our skulls at birth. Meditation is an attempt to let the churning cyclone of cognition go for a while, and simply BE.
There are two basic approaches to meditation: Transcendental (or Mantra-based) and Mindfulness. Both are beneficial, and just because you resonate with one style doesn’t mean you are stuck with it forever. Meditation is training for your brain, and just like training your body, sometimes a little variation can help you break through a plateau. I think of the two styles as tuning OUT and tuning IN. In Transcendental Meditation you repeat a simple mantra to yourself over, and over, and over again. By directing your focus to your mantra, eventually the distractions of the outside world slip away. If thoughts start to bubble up to the surface you gently acknowledge them, but you do not follow them, instead you return your attention to your mantra. The mantra can be anything: a nonsense word, a sanskrit word, the name of your favorite pet. I’m a fan of the mantra: “So’ham”, which means “I am that.” Sihks use the mantra: “Sat-nam,” which means “true name.” The mantra is a tool to hang your focus on, the meaning of the mantra is almost incidental: as long as it doesn’t distract you.
Mindfulness meditation takes an opposite, but complimentary approach. Rather than closing yourself off from distractions by focusing on a single mantra, you achieve a state of thoughtlessness by becoming radically aware of every aspect of yourself and your surroundings. Body scanning is a great way to practice mindfulness meditation: sit comfortably, and starting at your toes try to focus all of your attention on each individual part of your body, one incremental digit at a time. Spend time sensing every inch of yourself, don’t spend too much time on any particular part, and don’t attach value to any sensation: just acknowledge each feeling and move onto your next facet. Once you’ve moved your awareness through your entire body, start over at the beginning again.
Meditation is a paradox: how can quieting the mind be more challenging than conquering a marathon? Meditation is the embodiment of simplicity in the essence of complexity. It’s HARD to sit quietly, and those thoughts and to-do-lists always seem ready to spring to the front of your cerebral cortex.
I’m viewing my meditation as training for my brain, and applying some of the same principles I use to train my body:
1) Start small. I am going to begin with the goal of meditating 5 minutes per day and work up to longer stretches.
2) Be persistent. Doing new things is hard. However, if you stick with them, you can reap the rewards. Sometimes I sit down and I cannot clear my head no matter how I try…that’s a sign that I need to try again later.
3) Be consistent. Practice makes better. When I have a day where I cannot quiet my mind, I owe it to myself to sit with myself again the next day. The more I practice medication, the easier it will become. I certainly couldn’t run a marathon the first few times I laced up my mizunos.
Who’s with me? Can I recruit a crew of meditators? It’s easy, all you need to do is find some quiet time for yourself every day! I’d love some (more) company during Serene September! Play alone in the comments, if you want.