5 benefits of meditation

5 benefits of meditation
Photo by Ian Stauffer / Unsplash

Meditation is by no means a new practice. Some records date it back to 5,000 BCE, which predates the invention of writing. While it might seem like meditation has been a buzzword in the West for only the last decade, the reality is that it’s been here since the 18th century. That being said, there has been a growing body of research around the psychological benefits of the practice over the last several years.

Much of this research has found its way into the media and popular science, prompting people to adopt the practice and creating a demand for apps, tools, and podcasts like Headspace and Calm that teach people how to meditate. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I’ve fallen asleep to Deepak Chopra’s delightfully soothing podcast on more than one occasion. What a guy.

If there’s one thing to take away from all of this so far, it’s that you don’t need to be an orange-robed monk or a stoner to enjoy the benefits of meditation. It’s, like, all groovy, man.

What I’m about to share should be taken with a grain of salt. I encourage you to read about other people’s experiences. Hell, I encourage you to try meditating for yourself to experience things first-hand. I’ll type up another article in the future with some misconceptions and myths surrounding meditation, but there are a few caveats that I’d like to highlight here and now.

Misconceptions about meditation

  1. You will not notice the benefits right away. Some people expect to feel calm and refreshed after one session, but the truth is that it can take up to weeks to actually notice anything. It’s important to go into each session with a clear and open mind-without any sort of expectation. Getting frustrated at yourself for not feeling calmer or having your mind wander off will not help you.
  2. It will take practice to get good at it. And even when you get into the swing of things, you will have days where it’s more difficult than others. Most people find it a lot easier to meditate when they make a routine out of it. This usually means doing it at the same time everyday and working yourself up to longer sessions. You don’t need to sit cross-legged for half an hour for your first session. Start with five or even two minutes.
  3. Meditation will not get rid of all of your problems. If you struggle with depression or anxiety, for example, meditation will not erase that. It will simply help you cope with it in a different way. On that note, it is not a replacement for therapy or medication. Meditation is a tool, not a solution.

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll assume that you’re either still considering meditating, or you’re daydreaming about Deepak’s silky-smooth voice. If it’s the latter, I can’t really help you, but here’s a link to a Spotify playlist. If it’s the former, I’ll share what I know.

Benefits of meditation

  1. Choosing to meditate is an act of self-love and self-care.
    Life is busy. We snooze our alarms, get out of bed at the last minute, and sometimes skip breakfast. We go to work. Answer a few emails. Mindlessly browse social media. Come home. Watch Netflix. Go to bed too late, and then wake up to do it all over again. Too often we go about our days without doing something we actually want to do. Time is our most valuable resource, but we often choose to spend it on empty distractions that compete for our attention. Choosing to spend time with a partner, friend, or family member is one of the easiest ways to show that we care for them, so why don’t we treat ourselves the same way? When you choose to sit down for a few minutes a day to focus on yourself without any distractions, you’re showing yourself that you’re worth your own time.
  2. Meditation helps with your emotional awareness and regulation.
    Has anger ever snuck up on you? Have you ever snapped at someone because you’ve reached your limit? Meditation doesn’t mean sitting still and having a blank mind; it’s about observation. When you meditate, you observe your breath, your thoughts, your emotions, and your feelings. You’ll still feel angry, sad, or anxious from time to time, but you’ll be better prepared for when those emotions hit. Emotional regulation isn’t about controlling or repressing your emotions. It’s about controlling your response to emotions. This has implications in every aspect of your life: work, friends, relationships, self-talk. Without emotional awareness and regulation, inner dialogue often goes like this:
    You hurt my feelings.
    I’m angry.
    You’re an asshole.
    I’m going to yell at you now to express that.
    With emotional awareness and regulation, that inner dialogue can become this:
    What you said to me hurt my feelings.
    I can feel myself getting angry.
    If I yell at you, this conversation will no longer be constructive.
    I will take a deep breath and think of a way to diplomatically resolve the issue.
  3. Meditation makes you more compassionate.
    A number of studies have shown that there is a strong link between mindfulness meditation and compassion. The nature of that link is still largely unknown, but it’s there. One explanation for this could be the effect meditation has on emotional regulation. Emotional regulation frees us from the control of our emotions so we’re better able to distance ourselves from certain selfish tendencies and more accurately respond to a situation. It becomes easier for us to think, “Even though I’m stressed with work right now, my best friend’s grandmother passed away, so it’s more important that I be there to support her.” Another explanation is offered by the roles attention and awareness play in meditation. When we meditate, we become more observant and perceptive of both our own internal state and the environment around us. This means that we’re better able to perceive the emotional states of others and act accordingly. One interesting implication of this is the power of mindfulness meditation in combatting the bystander effect, a phenomenon where observers of an emergency situation are less likely to help a victim the more people there are around. Evidence has shown that meditators are more likely to help those in need in public or social situations compared to non-meditators.
  4. Meditation improves your focus and concentration.
    Meditation allows us to better differentiate our attention and our awareness. Attention is what allows you to actively read and focus on this post, whereas awareness enables you to be passively conscious of both your neighbour’s awful guitar playing and the fact that you’re hungry while you read it. When we meditate, we learn to focus on our breath while simply being aware of thoughts and emotions rather than actively engaging with them. Doing this isn’t exactly easy. If you’ve ever just sat still for any length of time, you know how quickly thoughts start flooding your attention.
    What am I going to have for dinner?
    I should start learning Romanian.
    I can’t believe I didn’t have a comeback prepared when Harold dissed me back in high school.
    With practice, we become better at not ruminating on certain thoughts, and it gets easier to focus on just the breath. This same ability also translates to our day-to-day life; we’re better equipped to not linger on distracting thoughts and impulses and focus on the task at hand.
  5. Meditation helps with anxiety.
    I hope you’ve never experienced a panic attack, but if you have, you know that your breaths become very fast and shallow. You may feel like you’re going to pass out or like your chest is going to explode. In order to treat a panic attack, people may focus on the breath and try to breathe slowly and deeply. This often helps the light-headedness subside and the heart rate to slow. If you get nervous before giving a speech or presentation, what happens? Your mouth might go dry. Your throat gets tighter. You start to sweat. You want to be anywhere else but where you’re currently standing. When you take a few deep breaths, you take in more oxygen. The muscles that were making your throat feel tight can slowly start to relax. You also send a signal to your nervous system that you’re not in danger, allowing you to feel more calm and relaxed. You don’t need to be a meditator to know how to breathe deeply, but the cumulative effects of the practice help a lot. Your improved emotional awareness and regulation help you to identify when you’re starting to feel anxious or nervous, enabling you to prepare. Your improved ability to concentrate and focus helps you to stay with your breath rather than having your thoughts spiral.

These are just some of the benefits that you can receive from creating a meditation habit, but remember that it takes practice and commitment. In a future article, I’ll explain how I meditate and some strategies to stick to a routine.

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