Last year, I went through a hard time. I was consumed by work, stressed out and felt dangerously close to burning out. After noticing that I was in the midst of a rough patch, a friend recommended that I try meditation. Being both an atheist and a little cynical, I was skeptical. To me, meditation conjured up ideas of ethereal Buddhists, or the eccentric monks that dance jubilantly through central London, handing out leaflets about spirituality to sullen City workers. It felt a little incongruous to my 21st century working life.
I’ve always been into sport – exercise is a great way to stay healthy and burn off stress. My friend made a good point: he asked me why I invest so much in my physical fitness but not my mental fitness. I said that it’s not a matter of neglect; it’s more a lack of understanding of how and what I can do to improve it.
So I put my preconceptions aside and decided to give it a shot – and truly, meditation changed my life. Now I want to tell you how it can change yours. (No orange robes required.)
Meditation & mindfulness
Meditation goes hand in hand with mindfulness. Bemindful.co.uk’s definition of mindfulness captures the essence pretty well: “Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.” Training mindfulness through meditation helps us to deal with our thoughts, emotions and challenges more productively.
Practicing meditation cultivates mindfulness. If you think about it, it’s exercise for the mind. We’re all aware of the benefits of physical exercise (improved fitness, stress release and an increased lifespan), but we neglect the exercise we can do for our mind. In the short-term, meditation relaxes us. In the longer-term, it aids mindfulness, boosts our concentration levels and listening skills, helps us to manage stress, and clarifies our thought process, fostering better decision-making and leadership skills.
It is not just the case that people feel different because of meditation – it actually changes their brain structure. The more people meditate, the more their brain changes. Meditation experts show a higher density of nerve connections in the the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain linked to executive functioning and attention. More brain power equals more computation power. A second indicator of higher attention is brain wave activity in monks. Their baseline level of gamma waves – waves associated with attention – is higher than that of a normal adult during rest, and markedly higher during meditation.
Furthermore, Harvard Medical School recruited novices and trained them how to meditate on their own. The novices meditated for about 30 minutes per day on average for 8 weeks. Neuroimaging studies showed the thickening in four brain regions that play a role in emotion regulation, memory, learning and empathy. The practice of meditation changes the brain’s structure in experts and novices alike.
My first attempts at meditation were difficult. I found it difficult to switch off, finding that my brain flooded with thoughts as soon as I tried to silence it. However, don’t let this discourage you – the initial struggle to ‘switch off’ is a very natural part of the meditation teething process. I stuck with meditating for ten minutes per day, and within three weeks I really began to see the difference.
I was less stressed and I was sleeping better. I also started pausing before dealing with situations. This was really put to the test when my boiler broke down and a pipe burst in my living room in the middle of January. I got home and soaked my feet on the carpet. But before breaking down in a fit of anger, I stopped, took in what had happened and started to think about a solution. I may have kicked over a chair in frustration, but at least I spent some time contemplating it first.
Meditating boosted my mindfulness and improved my mental state, helping me to get through a tough time at work. I’ve now been meditating for just over six months, and the difference to my professional life is marked: I’m a better leader, better listener and better task manager.
It sounds terribly cliche, but meditation really is about the journey. I mean, you wouldn’t give up on running after your first run because your calves hurt, would you? Similarly, don’t expect to be a master meditator after one meditation.
Start small. Meditate for one minute per day. Sit up straight and look straight ahead – eyes closed or not. Start by observing your breath. Slowly inhale, hold your breath for a second and exhale. Count to 10 with your breaths and start again. Repeat this for about a minute. Headspace have an awesome app that offers a free introductory course to meditation.
The most important thing about meditating is to get into a routine – like you would do when taking up a new sport or exercise. Try meditating in the morning or evening.
Flex your mental fitness
Like any new hobby, starting is the hardest part. But trust me – this one is worth it. Throw away any preconceptions you have about ascetic, bald-headed monks and drumming in the street. Practising meditation and training mindfulness have real benefits that you can see in all aspects of your life.
Treat your mind like your body: train it, stretch it and improve it. Start flexing your mind’s muscles. Get started today.
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