Most of us have heard the virtues of meditation extolled time and again. But what do we really know about how meditation works? What is meditation? What is meditation used for?
Understanding the science behind meditation can make it more appealing to many people. So let’s dive right in: How does meditation work?
How Meditation Works
To answer the question, “how does meditation work?” it’s important to narrow our scope since there are two ways to interpret the question. First, we can look at it as a plea to understand how meditation works in the brain. Secondly, we can look at it as a question of how meditation influences our health and wellbeing long-term, including physical health, stress reduction, chronic pain management, improved focus, and more.
To begin with, let’s look at the brain.
How Meditation Works in the Brain
It’s essential to understand how the brain works at a basic level before digging deeper into meditation's effects on the brain. Information about the world is gathered and interpreted through your neural circuits inside the brain. These are essentially networks of neurons that communicate with each other through synaptic connections. This is most important because, over time, the least used connections are pruned away, and those used the most are strengthened.
As you meditate, you exercise some of the most beneficial connections that offer super-charged results for your health and well-being. In effect, repeated use and strengthening of these connections can result in the following positive changes:
Better Awareness of the Body
While in medication, one of the goals is to become more aware of your physical body. You are tasked with noticing how every part of you feels — the sensations in your shoulders, back, and head; what it feels like to have your lungs expand and contract with each breath. Noticing these sensations will strengthen those connections that pertain to how you perceive and interpret your physical body awareness. The effects will persist over time.
One of the most frequently-cited benefits of meditation is an improved attention span. Essentially, when you meditate, you are exercising your brain’s ability to focus on just one thing at a time. In any session, that might be your breath, a mantra, an object, or an aspirational emotion or sensation (like peace). With this exercise, your strengthened focus can extend to other parts of your life. As an example, you’ll be better able to spend undistracted time on a project.
Less Focus on “Me”
Everyone has a “Me Center” in their brain. Its scientific name is the medial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for interpreting your unique perspective on life — your experiences and the emotions you relate to. The “Me Center” connections grow weak after continual meditation. This is good, however, because it allows you to focus less on daydreaming / ruminating thoughts about what the “self” has done wrong, how the “self” has messed up, or how the “self” is going to fail.
Regulated Emotional Responses
Meditation slows everything down — your thinking and reasoning and your emotions. Doing so helps you acknowledge the patterns you might not have seen before. If, for example, you get worked up with worry every time you remember a specific painful experience, you might register this progression more clearly after meditating for a while. In turn, you will be better able to control and regulate these emotions the next time they come up. Moreover, these positive stress management effects are said to persist over time.
How Meditation Improves Wellbeing
Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
The beauty of meditation practice, as mentioned earlier, is in its positive effects on all aspects of our health and overall wellbeing. Incorporating meditation into your daily routine will quickly lead to positive changes in your daily routine, physical health, and mental health. Believe it or not, mindfulness-based stress reduction practices, including meditation, have positively shifted dynamics in those with post-traumatic stress disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, and ADH.
Now, let’s look at some most easy-to-achieve meditation practice benefits.
Slows You Down
Modern life is extremely fast-paced which ultimately leads to increased stress levels, psychological distress and increased anxiety. In order to combat and navigate the turmoil of today’s reality, it’s essential to slow down and cultivate more peace in the day-to-day.
Since meditation, in itself, is about slowing down, it’s a great tool to activate more stillness and calm. Despite being an actual activity, meditation practice focuses on reversing the motion and doing internal work by simply focusing on the present, rather than chasing towards something. The goal is to sit in stillness with an exceptional focus on presence. Practiced the right way, meditation is the perfect remedy for those who struggle with sleep problems as it helps you calm your mind before bed.
Improves Sense of Focus
Each moment of a meditation session is crucial. Each second of an in-breath or out-breath is approached with awareness and absolute presence. Once you master this mindfulness technique during your practice, you will easily start applying the same principles to your day-to-day routine and any challenging moments. Practiced frequently, meditation improves overall focus wherever and whenever you are.
Mindfulness meditation, especially, will train your brain to notice the little things around you and within you. Instead of being distracted by jarring and frightening events of the past or future, you can pay attention to the beauty and splendor of the present.
Softens Your Muscles
Meditation is excellent for cramped or tight muscles. With better awareness of the body, you can conscientiously release strain in those areas that are contracted or especially tense.
Promotes Positive Emotions
Alongside combating the negative effects of a modern man, meditation can make you feel good and take control of your negative thoughts. Emotional regulation is a big aspect of meditation and good evidence suggests that consistent practice appears to boost serotonin levels aka happiness hormones
Trying Meditation for Yourself
Here are some tips to help you get started with meditation.
1. Start small.
No need to start meditating for two hours every morning and every evening. If you’re starting on your own, begin meditating for just five to ten minutes daily. Alternatively, start your practice with a meditation instructor. The best meditation instructors will work with your personal needs in mind and cater your meditation session to your unique goals. To further boost your meditation training, you can start meditating a teacher for longer periods of time. The remarkable thing is that you’ll instantly notice positive changes in your life.
2. Don’t be too rigid.
Meditation is a journey, not a destination. Don’t worry if you don’t take to meditation right away. Don’t worry if you only do a five or ten-minute session. Don’t worry if you feel wiggly or uncomfortable during your first few meditations — or if your mind wanders. All of these things are a part of the learning process.
3. Incorporate it everywhere.
You don’t need to devote your life to meditation. You can practice it anywhere. Mindfulness, for example, is a sister to meditation. With mindfulness, the goal is to put all of your focus and attention on the present moment — no matter what is happening. In this way, mindfulness techniques apply anywhere, anytime. Whenever you feel you mind wandering during a task, find yourself in a stressful situation, or in a fight or flight mode, come back to what you practice during your meditation and apply it to real life.
Meditation: Frequently Asked Questions
How do you meditate on something?
Guided meditations and imagery-based meditations will often have you focus on something. For example, you might focus on a mantra (a personal “slogan” that you repeat during meditation). Or, you could focus on visualizing a peaceful setting, like a beach landscape or a beautiful mountain view. You can also meditate on a thought or feeling, such as “peace,” “compassion,” or “calmness.”
What are some of the different types of meditation techniques available?
There are many different types of meditation. Here is a list of some of the most common types: