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It has been heralded as the life-changing remedy for all mental, emotional and physical conditions. Yet for many of us, its benefits remain out of reach. Why?

Is it because it’s too hard?

Because we’re just not doing it right?

Or because the benefits aren’t as big as “they” said”?

Here we explore the proven benefits of meditation along with the challenges that you may find in practising it.

What meditation CAN do

Meditation, along with its offshoot mindfulness, is proven to boost your mental and physical health.

Thousands of studies suggest it can help you reduce stress, improve sleep, increase focus and improve anxiety, depression and insomnia, and even reduce blood pressure.

There are too many studies to go into here, but let’s focus on some of the most popular benefits:

Stress reduction

Meditation is scientifically proven to reduce stress within eight weeks of regular practice.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, found that meditating can change your brain, particularly the parts of the brain linked with stress.

She conducted a study of people who had never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. In the group who learned meditation, she found differences in five areas of the brain, including the parts involved in mind-wandering, in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation; in empathy and compassion and in the amygdala, the part for anxiety, fear and stress.

Focus

Meditation is proven to help you improve your focus, and in today’s “attention economy”, that’s something of a superpower.

Researchers from the University of Washington studied the impact of an eight-week course on mindfulness-based meditation on a group of knowledge workers. They found those who trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion afterwards.

Anxiety, depression, and insomnia

A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression.

Another 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.

What meditation CAN’T do

While meditation and mindfulness are proven to help deal with the challenges of life, they’re not a cure-all.

One of the reasons people give up or get frustrated with meditation is the expectation that it will solve all your problems and transform your life.

Recently, numerous psychotherapists and meditation teachers have voiced concern about the commercialisation of mindfulness.

Dr Nicholas Van Dam, Senior Lecturer in Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, was a co-author of a paper called Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Along with psychiatrists, psychologists, and mindfulness experts from 15 different institutions, he says we need to be wary of people over-selling the benefits of meditation.

“I think the biggest concern among my co-authors and I is that people will give up on mindfulness and/or meditation because they try it and it doesn’t work as promised,” says Dr Van Dam.

Another concern is that when people are told they can, and should, ease their stress with mindfulness, it can imply that our stress is caused by us and our inability to control our minds, not by the inequalities of the system we live in.

In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King say there’s a risk that mindfulness is used to “pacify feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level, rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress.”

What can you do?

The best approach is to practise mindfulness and meditation to help you reduce the impacts of life’s challenges.

Don’t expect it to transform your thinking or cure your depression or anxiety. Instead, use it as one of several tools to help build your resilience to stress.

You can start by finding an online program or real-life class that guides you until you feel you can do it on your own. Some evidence-based, free or low-cost programs and apps include:

Or, try it now. Mindful.org provides an easy, do-it-yourself start to mindfulness, which is summarised here:

  1. Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you.
  2. Set a time limit such as 5 or 10 minutes.
  3. Notice your body.
  4. Feel your breath. Follow the sensation of your breath as it goes out and as it goes in.
  5. Notice when your mind has wandered. Simply return your attention to the breath.
  6. Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself or obsess over the content of your thoughts. Just come back..

“Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility, nor is it attempting to be a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes.”

Chogyam Trungpa

What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

The best way to understand the difference between these two terms, which are often used interchangeably, is to think of mindfulness as a way of being, and meditation as a practice.

You take time out to meditate. But you can live your life with mindfulness.

In Positive Psychology, author and therapist Dr Joshua Schultz, explains it this way:

“Meditation is a practice, and through this practice, one can develop different qualities, including mindfulness.

“Meditation is one method through which someone may learn to live mindfully. We can also think about meditation as a tool to develop mindfulness.”

However, there are many ways to practise mindfulness as a form of meditation. You may have seen the term “mindfulness meditation”, or heard about John Kabat-Zinn’s popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR).  Mindfulness meditation is the practice of being present in the moment. When we practise this enough, we learn to become more mindful throughout the day, even when doing other things such as walking, washing up or listening in a meeting.

This article was previously published in the Well at Work Newsletter

Janelle

Author Janelle

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