Today, I’d like to talk about a very simple and free health practice that is accessible to all of us. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and you don’t need any special tools or equipment to do it. It’s such an important tool for maintaining health and is so effective that not only has this practice stood the test of time in a range of Eastern health traditions, but we are now also seeing it prescribed by Western medicine practitioners from GPs to orthopaedic surgeons and cardiologists. The magic health tool that I’m talking about here is meditation!
Today I’d like to talk a little bit about meditation and answer some of the common questions that I get asked about it – I’ll talk about why it’s important and how we can benefit from it. I’m also going to share with you some exciting research that shows just how powerful this practice is, and talk about the measurable physical outcomes that can be observed in our health as a result of integrating this practice into our lives. We will finish up with some easy guidelines and an intro into starting your own meditation practice, which will lead us up to the accompanying bonus episode to this one – a short, guided five minute meditation that will ease you into the benefits of this amazing practice. So let’s get into it.
So what is meditation? There are many different schools and traditions of meditation, but if we are talking about it from an umbrella perspective, meditation is the act of bringing our awareness to the present moment, and gently observing what is going on for our mind and body in this moment – without getting attached to it. To assist in anchoring our attention in the present, we might choose to focus on various anchor points – this might be the breath, it might be a sound or a chant, it might be a body sensation or a feeling – and these are just some examples of different focus points that we can come back to. Part of being human is our active minds: you might have heard the term “monkey mind”, or “mental chatter”, and it’s very normal for our minds to wander during a period of meditation. When it does go off on a wander, however, these focus points of breath, or sound or sensation, can help to remind us to bring our mind gently back to the task at hand.
I like to imagine a curious puppy as our mind, and it keeps escaping it’s basket. It’s in the puppy’s nature to go off and wander and explore and create adventures for itself. But we can also gently and repeatedly guide the puppy back to their resting place. And over time the puppy, like our mind, can develop the ability to stay in one place for longer. Meditation is a cumulative skill that develops with time and training. So in the same way that we wouldn’t expect to be able to run a 10 kilometre run without any training, we can take the pressure off ourselves with respect to meditation also and be gentle with our expectations around it – particularly when we’re starting out. I still have days where my mind is determined to go off in all different directions, and that passes with time – it’s important to not get frustrated about that wandering, because it’s a very normal part of the experience of our human mind. A wandering mind is common, it’s a very human aspect of ourselves, but it’s up to us what we choose to do when we discover it’s wandering during our meditation.
Another analogy that I like is that of a computer desktop that is cluttered with open windows, and all of the open windows are clamoring for our attention. So how do you feel when you think of that situation? I know for me it doesn’t feel very clear, and instead I feel foggy and heavy in the head. The act of bringing our minds to a single-pointed focus through meditation has the effect of closing all those open windows down for a while. It gives our minds and nervous systems and much needed rest – it gives them some breathing space so that they can refresh their focus and we can refresh our clarity of mind.
Common to many schools of meditation is this intention to bring the mind to a single, or soft, focus – and to quiet down all of that chatter and all of those different tangents that the mind goes off into. Part of that soft focus or attention is to also allow the mind to come back to the present moment. I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of the present moment and the importance of it to meditation and our general health, because the present moment (when we think about it) is the only time that is real or that truly exists, the past has gone. It’s already behind us. And not only that, but it’s also often distorted by the subjectivity of our memories and the strength of our emotions. A good example of this is when we ask different people about their experience of the same situation, you might get wildly different answers. Meanwhile the future is yet to come, yet despite this, despite the fact that it’s not here yet, many of us might spend a vast majority of our time and headspace either thinking, reflecting, or reliving the past or projecting, worrying and racing ahead into the future while ignoring the precious moment right now that we’re living in. That’s not to say that we can’t reflect on the past and learn from our experiences, or that we can’t plan and hope and daydream about the future, but also it’s very important to bring our awareness to the present moment because then it allows us to have a soft awareness of what is going on for our mind and body in that moment. Again, this going off into the past and into the future is a very human thing to do – it’s what keeps us safe, by being able to learn from our experiences and plan and adapt for potential similar situations in the future.
We’ve been blessed with these beautiful minds that give us so many benefits and advantages, yet at the same time, they can also work to our detriment if they’re exhausting us by consistently rambling all over the place and thinking about a million things at once. I’m definitely speaking from personal experience here! All of that Yang and busy-ness and activity are wonderful thing, but like everything in life, we need to balance it out with the opposing energy, which is the Yin, that calm, that quiet time. I know for myself, if I go too hard on that busy-ness and mental activity without the balancing Yin time, then my health feels the effects of that on all levels – I might feel more emotionally reactive, or digestion might not work as well, or sleep might suffer. And for all of that thinking, I actually find that I have much more clarity of thought after meditating, and after actually closing down that activity, or calming down that overactivity for a little while.
Part of what happens when we’re in that hyper-stimulated mental state – when we’re overwhelmed by all the open browser windows and the mind is having a good old chatter – is that the stress and strain of juggling all of that activity can start to cause stress for the body. When we’re stressed, our body can start to release stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and it can come with other changes in our body that are part of the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight or flight nervous system. This might be things like elevated heartbeat, or an increase in blood pressure. This is an adaptive processes -the fight or flight system is an adaptive system that helps us to be primed to escape from danger. That’s why our heartrate goes up, our blood pressure goes up, more blood is pumped to the heart and lungs and the limbs so we can make a quick escape from danger. Now because we need all of our resources to escape danger, or what the body perceives as danger, we shut down any non-essential functions – so anything that’s not immediately relevant to our survival, like digestion, healing of tissue or any injury repair, balancing our hormones, and all of our biochemicals and molecules of information that are doing all sorts of important work in the body. All of that gets put on the backburner while our body focuses on the immediate stress – or threat – at hand. Like I said before, this is an adaptive and helpful process if it’s used in the short term or when appropriate. But in the course of our modern life, we’re faced with many situations and triggers that might cause us to feel repeated or chronic stress. When this happens, the body can end up in a state of chronic inflammation, which as we touched on in last episode, has been implicated in many – if not most – diseases today.
In light of how detrimental that chronic inflammation can be for our health and wellness, our vitality and energy levels, any health practice that is going to drop those inflammation levels and keep them under control is going to be beneficial for us on many levels. A health practice that offers that is meditation. And therefore, extrapolating from that point, most of us, if not all of us, can benefit from a meditation practice because of its widespread reach in reducing inflammation, which is then implicated in a variety of symptoms and imbalances in the body. There’s been already so many wonderful research papers conducted into the benefits of meditation, and the benefits of meditation for our health, and the mechanisms by which that happens. When I looked recently on the research database, there were over 62,000 papers relating to meditation. I thought I’d pull out a few key points.
There’s been a few small trials that look at meditation’s effect in lowering blood pressure; there were some that looked at meditation and its ability to help psoriasis heal; there were trials looking at meditation healing immune response in vaccine recipients and cancer patients and there were other studies looking at the impact of meditation on mood. One of the mechanisms by which meditation is believed to have this positive effect on the body is by allowing us to switch out of that fight or flight response and into the complimentary nervous system mode – the parasympathetic or the rest and digest, repair and heal mode. When we drop into a state of meditation, we are taking deeper breaths, and our state of alertness is softening – these are all qualities that we wouldn’t be embracing if we are on high alert, or running from danger. By sending these physical, outward signals of safety to our body, our body can then start to soften and relax and switch into that parasympathetic nervous system, which is the state in which healing becomes really potent and possible.
Anyone who’s had a bit of an “acu-nap” while having acupuncture and goes into that deep space of relaxation – that is a parasympathetic state, and acupuncture has been shown to get us there. But we can also get there through meditation, that’s one of the mechanisms by which it’s believed to work. Another interesting mechanism by which meditation is believed to have positive influences on the body is by its effect on the telomeres. And you might have heard about telomeres – these are the end caps on chromosomes and they play a key role in how cells age. Basically each time that our cells reproduce and replicate, the telomeres, which are like little shoelace caps at the end of the chromosome, get shorter and shorter and more deteriorated. Over time the quality of the cell replication deteriorates as well. This process could be likened to taking repeated photocopies of the same image – over time you’ll lose quality and resolution as you continually photocopy that same image. What they found, and I’ve got the link in the show notes, is that meditation could affect an enzyme called telomerase, which is an enzyme, or a little active molecule, that helps to build up these end caps of chromosomes. What that indicates is that meditation can stop cell deterioration and can have an impact on how we age – it can play a role in slowing cellular aging. So not only can meditation be a direct benefit to our physical and biological health, but it can also slow potentially the aging process!
On that positive note, I thought we’d have a quick chat about some questions regarding meditation. And then I’ll leave you with a bonus episode to follow this one so you can put that into practice. Some of the common questions: one of the common ones I get is “I’m no good at it! My mind just keeps going all over the place!” And as we touched on earlier in this episode, that is a very normal and human thing. If our mind didn’t go to the Yang extremes of busy-ness, it also wouldn’t have the Yin calm and quiet states. Both are essential parts of our minds, and essential parts of life. Meditation isn’t about necessarily achieving some imagined state of complete serenity, although that can certainly be part of it, and that will certainly pop up at various times throughout your meditation practice in your life. But the practice of meditation is just about doing it – it’s just about sitting and doing it, and over time the benefits build. It’s about setting up that habit and that discipline and really, that gift of time for yourself, to just sit with yourself for five or 10 or 20 minutes, whatever time you can afford, gift yourself or to set aside for yourself. And like most skills, the more we meditate, the better we get at it. I wouldn’t expect to sit in front of a piano and become a virtuoso, or pick up a surfboard and be amazing straight off the bat. It takes time! The more time that we dedicate to it, the more cumulative those benefits and skills are.
Another objection that I get from time to time is “I don’t have time. I’m so busy”, and I get it. Modern life can be hectic, especially when we’re juggling many competing demands on our time – family and work and kids and friends and life admin and all of that stuff takes time. But interestingly, taking time out to meditate can actually make us more productive. I mentioned in last week’s episode that Microsoft Japan trialled a period of a four day workweek and found that productivity went up 40%, so more isn’t always more. One of my lovely patients mentioned to me just the other day that when they know they have a really busy day, that’s when they make extra time to meditate at lunchtime, because they know that they’ll actually be much more efficient if they put in that five or 10 minutes at lunchtime. And we are really just talking about five or 10 minutes. We can all find five or 10 minutes in our day to give our bodies and minds the gift of self care.
So “when is a good time to meditate”? “When should I meditate”? Well, any meditation is great – anytime that you gift yourself to sit with yourself and sit in quiet awareness is a good time. But it’s also lovely to use meditation as bookends for your day, so you might start with meditation on waking and then finish up the day and prepare your body for sleep, calming down the nervous system with a meditation before you fall asleep. And the beauty of doing meditation at these times is that often they are times that the busy-ness of the day doesn’t encroach on so much, so they’re usually times that we can dedicate as a set practice each and every day. Another aspect that I really like about starting the day with meditation is that it allows us to start the day with intention, and to create the reality that we want for that day. Rather than getting up and reaching for our phone, for example, which might then set up a chain reaction of reactivity to different posts and a roller coaster of emotions before we’ve even really begun our day, if we just start the day with a few minutes of connecting to ourselves, we can use that energy and that calming of the nervous to set a positive tone for the day.
Another point that I’d like to raise with meditation is the importance of maintaining soft awareness and soft focus while you’re doing it – and releasing judgment. Very often our ego, or our mind, will like to get involved and start telling us stories- it will start to tell us that “maybe I’m no good at this”, or look, “I’m sort of failing at meditation”, or “what’s the point of it anyway”? Or “I could be doing a million other things”, and that’s okay. That’s really normal, and that’s the ego’s job, actually. The ego is there to protect us and to keep us in a familiar state. So when we try something unfamiliar, like sitting in a quiet state of awareness and observing our emotions and our sensations, and without attaching to what’s going on, but just quietly observing, then that can be uncomfortable for the ego. The ego can try and distract us and take us off on other tangents. And that’s okay – you can just come back to the breath, or come back to whatever your focus point is for that meditation.
There’s many different meditation schools and traditions out there. For example, there’s ones that focus on the breath, there’s ones that focus on a mantra or a sound, there’s loving kindness meditations which focus on a feeling of love, radiating out from your heart and sharing that love with those around you. So if you are new to meditation, it’s worth trying a few different kinds of meditation to see what resonates with you. In addition to all the teachers and schools out there, we’re very lucky now that there are some amazing meditation apps that are accessible to all of us. One of these is Headspace, there’s also Insight Timer, which has many free meditations – I’ve popped that in the show notes. I’ve also uploaded a bonus episode, which is me guiding you through a five minutes seated meditation, so you’re welcome to listen to that too.
I hope this has been helpful and inspiring. I think meditation can benefit all of us. It’s simple and free and we can do it anywhere. You can even just roll out of bed first thing in the morning, and even just sit quietly on the floor and bring your focus to your breath for five minutes, and that will yield benefits as well! So on that note, thanks so much for listening today.
Links & Research
Carlson, L. E., Beattie, T. L., Giese-Davis, J., Faris, P., Tamagawa, R., Fick, L. J., Degelman, E. S. and Speca, M. (2015). Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors. Cancer, 121: 476–484.
Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J.T., Folkman, S., Blackburn, E. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1172: 34-53.
Kaliman, P., Álvarez-López, M.J., Cosín-Tomás, M., Rosenkranz, M.A., Lutz, A., Davidson, R.J. (2014). Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 40: 96-107.
Ornish, D., Magbanua, M.J., Weidner, G., Weinberg, V., Kemp, C., Green, C., Mattie, M.D., Marlin, R., Simko, J., Shinohara, K., Haqq, C.M., Carroll, P.R. (2008). Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention. PNAS, 105(24): 8369-8374.