When you hear the word “meditation,” you might picture men and women sitting on yoga mats, breathing in and out and chanting “Ommmm.” Soothing music plays and an instructor in flowing pants chants peaceful melodies.
This is how some people meditate. However, you don’t need yoga mats or a perfect “Ommmm” to get yourself into a meditative state. Meditation is a tool that you can use anytime and anywhere to reflect on your emotions, slow down your thoughts, and be more “in the moment.”
What does it mean to be “in the moment?” Too often, we don’t take the time to stop and look around us. We are so caught up in our own minds that we fail to notice what is happening outside of ourselves. For instance, I used to walk the same five blocks to get to school every single day. As I walked, my mind would be spinning with thoughts of tests, homework, band practice, and friends. One day, out of the blue, I stopped for a moment and looked up. Suddenly, my entire view changed. I noticed a rooftop covered in sunflower pots that I had never noticed before. I noticed that the air smelled like cinnamon as I passed a neighbor’s house. The same five blocks that I thought I knew so well turned into five completely different streets.
This practice of bringing ourselves back from the mess in our heads to the present moment is known in psychology as mindful awareness, or mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the focusing of attention or awareness on ourselves, our bodies, and our surroundings. Rather than letting ourselves get carried away by our thoughts and feelings, mindfulness meditation teaches us to observe our thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally, and watch them pass by as though we are outside observers peering in to our own brains.
Mindfulness meditation can change your brain!
Scientists used to believe that once we reach a certain point in our development, our brains are done forming forever. They believed that we start with small little baby brains, learn lots of stuff, and create bigger adult brains that are set for life. However, brain researchers have discovered that this is not the case at all! Our brains are, in fact, moldable and changeable. In the neuroscience community, this is known as plasticity (think of plastic, which can be reshaped into tons of different things).
This plasticity stuff is really good news for us. It means that we have the power to change how we think and feel. And most importantly, it means that we can become happier, healthier, smarter, and more compassionate people. We are not stuck with the brains we are given—change is in our hands.
While there are many ways to change and reshape our brains, mindfulness meditation is one tool that is scientifically proven to lead to important and positive brain change. Take the following study, for example. Researchers divided people into two groups: one group was taught mindfulness meditation exercises and one group was not. Both groups went about their business for 8 weeks. The mindfulness meditation group kept on meditating, week after week, while the other group did not meditate. The researchers took pictures of these people’s brains before and after the experiment. When they examined these pictures at the end of the study, they found that the mindfulness meditators had strengthened areas of the brain associated with memory and empathy, and weakened areas of brain associated with stress. The non-meditators did not show these same changes. These results are staggering. Mindfulness meditation literally changed the size and shape of areas in these people’s brains, making them sharper, kinder, and less stressed out.
Practicing meditation can even make you a more compassionate person, according to some research! Researchers at Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital created an experiment where they took meditators and non-meditators and placed them in an office waiting room. An actress who was part of the experiment entered the waiting room on crunches. She appeared to be in pain as she staggered in, looking to sit down. The only problem—no empty seats. So, who gave up their seat for the woman?
Interestingly, 50% of the participants who learned to meditate gave up their seat to the woman, while only 15% of the non-meditators offered their chair. It’s not that the people who learned to meditate all of the sudden became amazingly nice people, and the non-meditators were rude and unhelpful. It’s the impact that meditation can have on your view of the world. When you feel at peace with yourself and get outside your own head, you are more receptive to the needs of others.
Mindfulness meditation has also been scientifically proven to improve the body’s immune response to disease, reduce pain and stress hormones, and increase attention. People who practice mindfulness have a higher quality of life and even appear to be physically healthier!
Mindfulness meditation in action
Let’s think of an example of a situation where your emotions or thoughts might get the best of you. Sometimes when we are angry or sad or nervous, our emotions can feel out of control. Imagine that you are quietly listening to your iPod in the car, when your little sister swoops over and grabs the iPod from your hands. She plugs the headphones into her ears and starts listening to her favorite Disney songs. You feel your anger rising as you attempt to grab the iPod back, which turns into a full-fledged fight over the device. Your mom or dad turns around from the driver’s seat and yells at you to settle down and give your sister the iPod, because you’re the oldest and you should know better. Infuriating! Little siblings always get away with everything!
You get more and more angry as you sit and watch your sister using your iPod. Your parents are so unfair! They always take her side. Hours later, you still find yourself feeling mad about that car ride. Your chest feels tight like it sometimes does when you are really pissed off. In situations like these, you can pull out mindfulness meditation from your tool belt! But what exactly should you do?
Here’s are some mindfulness exercises to try:
- One Minute Breathing: S tart by taking several deep breaths. Fill your belly up with air like a balloon and gently let the air out. Focus on your breath for one minute. Breathe in and out slowly, holding your breath for a count of six and slowly exhaling. As your mind wanders to other things, try to bring your attention back to your breath.
- Mindful Observation: Pick an object in the room and observe it for one minute. Notice the color, texture, shape, smell, and size of the object. Pick up the object and observe how it feels against your skin. By focusing carefully on one object, you can improve your concentration and cool down your thoughts.
- The Game of Five: It’s simple! Notice five things in your day that you don’t typically notice. Use your senses—try to hear, smell, feel, or see things that you normally don’t see. Try looking around on your path to school, or listening carefully to the sounds from your bedroom window. When you are angry, take the time to step outside yourself and notice your surroundings.
The most important element of mindfulness meditation is not to get down on yourself for “doing it wrong.” Just dive in and give it a try! It can be really difficult to quiet your mind. It’s like having someone tell you not to think about pink elephants—and then all you can to do is think about pink elephants! When you first start using your mindfulness tool belt, negative thoughts may come rushing into your mind. Expect these thoughts. Expert meditators have spent years and years practicing their craft. However, you can and will build up your skills with repeated practice. Remember–your minds are moldable, so start molding!
Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W., DeSteno, D. (In press). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits-A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35-44.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
Klatt, M. D., Buckworth, J., & Malarkey, W. B. (2009). Effects of low-dose mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR-ld) on working adults. Health Education & Behavior, 36(3), 601-614.