Researchers have amassed quite a bit of data on what mantra meditation does, and when you add it all up it's pretty impressive. Meditation is so good for you in so many ways, I almost called this article, Why You're an Idiot if You Don't Meditate.
During mantra meditation, the amount of adrenaline being released into your blood goes down. While meditating, your cortisol level drops and stays low for hours afterward. Cortisol is known as "the stress hormone" although there are several stress hormones, including adrenaline. But cortisol is one of the most important. It is present in your blood in small amounts all the time, but when you experience stress, your body produces quite a bit of it, and in high amounts, it has unhealthy and unpleasant effects. Getting it out of your blood stream, in contrast, has healthy and pleasant effects.
An interesting side note: A high level of cortisol makes your body store extra fat in your abdomen and makes you crave fattening foods with extra intensity. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that stress in general is a "primary predictor of relapse and overeating." And they concluded that meditation is an effective method for managing the kind of stress that causes weight gain.
Another ingredient of your bloodstream that changes during meditation is lactate. Lactate drops nearly four times as fast while meditating as it does when you just lie down and rest quietly. And the lactate stays lower afterwards. Lactate is a byproduct of burning blood sugar, and when there is a lot of it in the blood stream, it tends to produce feelings of anxiety.
After meditating, your reaction to stressful events changes. Events that would normally make you feel stressed don't make you feel as stressed, and your feelings of stress don't last as long. In one study, for example, the researchers showed a film to people. This is a gruesome film that normally makes people feel stressed and increases their heart rate.
The researchers measured meditators and nonmeditators. Here's what they found: the meditators' heart rates didn't climb as high and returned to normal faster than the nonmeditators. Some of the meditators in this study were new to meditation. They also experienced less stress than nonmeditators, showing that meditation doesn't require a long time before it starts having an effect.
In another experiment, researchers blasted people with loud, annoying sounds. The meditators' bodies reacted with significantly less stress than the nonmeditators.
Think about this simple effect. If you meditate, your body will react less intensely to stressful events. Think about what would happen as this effect accumulates day after day. It could explain most of the health effects of meditation. Stress hormones can be destructive. In occasional doses, they aren't very harmful. In fact, in small amounts, they are necessary. But when your body produces a lot of stress hormones often, it's bad for your heart and bad for your immune system. And those are two things you do not want to undermine! The two diseases that kill the most people are heart disease and cancer. Here is a "medicine" for these two deadly diseases, but nobody has a patent on it.
We may each be motivated by different things. I might be most interested in feeling more calm. You might be most motivated by a fear of dying of heart disease. Another might look at it from a purely financial standpoint: Meditation is a good investment because health problems are expensive.
Meditation not only mellows your body, it mellows your mind. Herbert Benson, one of the most influential meditation researchers, wrote:
[During meditation], the individual's mental patterns change so that he breaks free of what I call "worry cycles." These are unproductive grooves or circuits that cause the mind to "play" over and over again, almost involuntarily, the same anxieties or uncreative, health-impairing thoughts.
It not only mellows your mind, it increases your alertness. During mantra meditation, blood-flow to the brain increases while the body relaxes. Aginine-vasopressin (AVP) increases four hundred percent during meditation. AVP is sometimes given in synthetic form to people to reverse the mental dullness of old age because AVP increases alertness.
This might be surprising to you. I mean, here is an activity that everyone knows is relaxing. And yet it increases alertness. It increases blood flow to the brain. It is unusual in that way. It is a unique state, unlike other states we are used to. In a sleeping state, you are relaxed and less alert. In a very alert waking state, you are less relaxed. But meditation is a state that produces alertness and deep relaxation at the same time.
When you meditate, you become more effective in the world. This is also news to many people. It makes you more relaxed and less reactive to stressful events, but it also makes you more alert and observant, so it makes you better at dealing with people and better at handling conflict. It also improves your health, and you know that you are more effective in the world when you're healthy.
The owner of a Detroit manufacturing company started a meditation experiment at his firm and enrolled fifty-two out of his one hundred employees to meditate twenty minutes before work and twenty minutes at work on company time. The owner, R.W. Montgomery, says, "Over the next three years, absenteeism fell by 85%, productivity rose 120%, quality control rose 240%, injuries dropped 70%, sick days fell by 16%, and profit soared 520%."
What Happens During Meditation
In many of the studies on meditation, researchers have one group meditate for twenty minutes while another group simply sits quietly for same amount of time. The physical effects are dramatically different. Sitting quietly hardly changes a thing. Meditating causes all kinds of changes in the body. The question is: Why?
As you'll find out in a minute, during meditation you rest your mind on a single thought. Sitting quietly, on the other hand, allows your thoughts to roam. David Barlow, the director of the Center for Stress and Anxiety Disorders at the State University of New York-Albany, says, "If we were somehow able to build a thought recorder, what we would record would be just about every kind of thought imaginable…but for the most part, fleeting."
What happens, according to the researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that your thoughts bounce around randomly until something catches your attention, and what often catches your attention is something that bothers you. Your mind stops roaming and sticks on the disturbing thought. That's one reason why it can be so unrelaxing to just sit quietly.
If you would like to know more about what happens during meditation, an excellent resource is Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan's book, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research With a Comprehensive Bibliography.
How to Meditate
Probably the easiest way to learn to meditate is to listen to an instructional audio program. Turn it on, close your eyes, and follow instructions. Five Classic Meditations by Shinzen Young is good. Also check out The Art of Meditation by the researcher Daniel Goleman.
A good book on the subject is the classic: The Relaxation Response by the researcher, Herbert Benson. You not only get meditation instructions, but a lot more information on the benefits of meditation. Another good book is the classic How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan.
You can start right away by using the following instructions. This is really all you need to know to meditate successfully:
1. Sit in a comfortable position, but not one that you can fall asleep in (not reclining in an easy chair, for instance, or lying down).
2. Close your eyes and relax for a few seconds.
3. Now begin to gently repeat a word or a phrase to yourself, over and over at whatever pace or speed you like. The word or phrase is your "mantra." Think the mantra. And keep thinking the mantra for twenty minutes.
4. When you notice you have stopped thinking your mantra, gently start up again.
5. When twenty minutes have passed, stop thinking your mantra and sit quietly for a minute or so. Open your eyes and go on about your day.
Go into the meditation slowly; sit for a half a minute or so and just relax; then begin thinking the mantra. When your time is up, sit quietly and relax, not thinking the mantra. Open your eyes. Be there for a minute. Get up slowly. Looking at a clock is better than setting an alarm because that way you won't be startled out of your calm state.
Keep it limited to fifteen to twenty minutes once or twice a day. Doing it more than that doesn't appear to increase the benefits.
You don't have to hold still. If you've got an itch, scratch it. If you need to adjust your position, go right ahead. If you think your time is up, open your eyes and look at the clock. If your time isn't up, close your eyes and keep meditating.
Meditation is not difficult or frustrating. In fact, that's a good way to tell if you're doing it wrong. When you're doing it right, it is effortless and pleasant. Researchers have found the same thing in biofeedback experiments: The only participants who can't lower their blood pressure are the ones who try too hard.
While you're meditating, it doesn't matter if you spend a lot of time lost in thought or not. When you notice you are no longer thinking the mantra, start thinking it again. Use very light intention. No forcing. No great effort. Don't try to concentrate. Don't try to control your thoughts. Don't try to control your feelings. Just notice when you're not thinking your mantra and then begin gently to think it again. Don't try to force yourself to think your mantra to the exclusion of all other thoughts. Do not furrow your brow or expend effort. Let the mantra come, as any other thoughts come, and if that isn't enough, then encourage your mind to think it with a very small, very gentle effort — just enough to think the mantra.
Remember this, please: You're not trying to concentrate or control your mind.
The individual meditation session may be peaceful or it may be full of obsessive thought. Regardless, daily meditation will have a positive effect on your health and produce a general feeling of calm.
When you first begin, you might be amazed at how often you're lost in thought. Equally amazing is that you've never noticed how lost in thought you are. You've been too lost in thought to notice!
What Will Happen
Here's what you can expect: You'll say the mantra to yourself for awhile and then your mind will drift. After a little while, you'll notice you're not thinking your mantra any more. That is what the human mind does. Do not try to get better at this. You're not trying to increase your concentration. You're not trying to make it the whole twenty minutes without drifting off. The process that will give you the benefits is to think the mantra until you notice you're not thinking the mantra, and then start thinking the mantra again. Simple, easy. No strain, no pain. It can get boring, but that's actually part of the benefit. Boredom is on the opposite end of the spectrum from anxiety or stress. Deep boredom is a deep non-anxiety. The only difference between boredom and inner peace is how much you welcome or appreciate the state.
Sometimes after you meditate, you'll feel very calm and very good. Sometimes you won't feel much different. It doesn't matter either way. Do not seek a certain feeling, either during meditation or afterward. Meditation works in the long haul regardless of the outcome of any particular twenty-minute period. When you don't feel great afterwards, it doesn't mean you're doing something wrong. Remember that. Return to your day just as you return to your mantra in meditation. Just return to it without anything else added.
In my diary many years ago, I wrote the following: "I've been meditating twice a day for two weeks now and today I had a frustrating time meditating and realized I was trying to feel blissful. I gave that up when it occurred to me it doesn't matter if it feels good or not, that all I need to do is keep bringing my attention back to the mantra. At that point, the meditation became blissful. But I kept meditating anyway."
It doesn't matter if it feels good at the moment. Keep doing it, and you will reap the rewards, whether it felt good or not. Meditation works. The key is not trying to do it well.
You aren't trying to force thoughts out or force yourself to think the mantra. It is very gentle. Every now and then you'll realize you're not thinking the mantra and you'll have a choice: Either go on thinking about whatever you were thinking (which is tempting), or go back to the mantra.
While meditating, when you have a choice, always choose the mantra, no matter how tempting it is to keep thinking about something else. You'll have ten to fifty of these choice points in a twenty-minute period. Always choose the mantra. The process of gently returning to the mantra calms an agitated mind and trains you in non-grasping non-greediness, which is very good for your life, which I'll get to in a moment.
The reason you sit up rather than lie down is to keep you from falling asleep. You'll be so bored sometimes you'll start to fall asleep, but as your body starts to fall over, it wakes you up. So you ride that edge between being awake and asleep, and somehow resting in that place causes good things to happen in your body.
If you usually have a very hard time staying awake during your meditation, it means you aren't getting enough sleep at night. Or you're trying to meditate during "slump time" — most of us feel sleepy around three in the afternoon.
Keep in mind that not getting enough sleep is itself a source of excess stress hormones. And according to those who study the subject, a large percentage of us are chronically sleep-deprived. If you're one of them, it may be that all you have to do to feel less stressed in your life is get enough sleep.
The Word or Phrase
I have experimented with lots of mantras. The one I like most is an instruction: "Gently bring attention back." All you're trying to do in meditation is to keep bringing your attention back to thinking the mantra. This instruction helps me remember. The instruction is also good for just about every other task in your life, so it is an excellent thing to practice thinking.
I've noticed that when I stretch a little before I meditate, I sit still more comfortably. I read somewhere that hatha yoga was originally invented by meditating monks to help them meditate. Whether it was or not, it does make meditation easier. It is easier to sit the whole time in comfort and without fidgeting after some gentle stretching.
The downside of meditation is that it takes time. But it doesn't take as much time as you'd think because the meditative state is deeply restful and you will probably need less sleep. You can also justify the time you spend meditating by thinking about how much time you will save that you now waste on disagreements or upsets — those become less frequent and less intense when you meditate. And if you waste time obsessively worrying, much of that time will be saved also. With a calmer body, you have less anxious mental activity.
Since meditation is time-consuming and often boring, you need to keep yourself motivated to keep yourself doing it. Remind yourself of the costs of anxiety and the rewards of keeping your stress hormone level low (re-read the first part of this article now and then).
Transcendental Meditation, otherwise known as "TM" is the McDonald's of the meditation business. They have training centers all over the world and probably in your town, and their training is very standardized and consistent. Their particular form of meditation has had more scientific research performed on it than any other meditation method and the comparative studies show TM to be superior to other forms of meditation. One of the reasons, I believe, is the education you get before they teach you to meditate. You learn about the benefits you will derive from meditation — the scientifically validated, practical benefits — so when it gets boring or tedious or you don't feel you can afford the time, you do it anyway because you're motivated.
TM emphasizes the scientific research on long-term physical health benefits. This is usually more motivating to Westerners than a possible state of enlightenment maybe occurring some day, or the motivations of someone in India a thousand years ago who believed they would be reincarnated as a higher being.
There are lots of books and articles explaining the physical, scientifically-validated benefits of meditation. If your motivation starts to lag, simply read about the benefits. Boost your motivation.
Another reason TM might work better than other forms of meditation is because they emphasize not trying, not forcing, not using effort. A truly meditative, calm, concentrated state is effortless. Effort will prevent that state from occurring. Some meditation teachers emphasize effort and will, which may be useful for other purposes, but doesn't help to lower stress.
Dealing With People
The principles of good human relations come more naturally when you're calm and relaxed. The authors of the book, Stress, Sanity and Survival, make a very good point: In conflicts with other people, our general physical arousal tends to make the conflict more destructive. When we have extra stress hormones in our system, our conflicts tend to be less productive and more upsetting than otherwise. And as they put it, "When we are excessively emotional we become preoccupied with our own personal positions and less able to understand the other's point of view. We also become more defensive and less able to think clearly."
One of the most important things you can do in a conflict is try to understand the other's point of view. Having too many stress chemicals in your bloodstream makes this much more difficult. Your inability to listen, your inability to think outside your own point of view, and your tendency toward defensiveness all intensify the conflict and prevent resolution. Being upset makes you more self-righteous and stuck in your own point of view. Being relaxed makes you less pigheaded and more empathic.
Once you're relaxed, arguments turn into discussions. What would have been an upset gets resolved more peaceably. That itself has a positive effect on health. Studies show arguments with a spouse can have a deleterious effect on your health.
Adrenaline narrows attention, and that makes it harder to apply people skills, among other things. A strict focus of attention is very useful for many things, but it can be disastrous for other things. I remember hearing about a graphic example of this. A true story. A group was making a parachute jump. One of experienced jumpers was given a left-handed chute because they didn't have enough regular, right-handed chutes to go around. It worked exactly like the right-handed one except the ripcord was on the left side instead of the right side.
They all made the jump. Then they watched in horror as one of their men fell straight to his death. The chute never opened. When they were back on the ground, they discovered it was the man with the left-handed chute. His jacket on the right side was torn and shredded, down to his skin which was severely lacerated. Apparently the tunnel-vision his adrenaline produced caused him to focus on pulling that ripcord where the ripcord had always been, and made him forget it was on the left side.
Consider it Training
"Animal experiments on the hypothalamus suggest that motivation is to some extent nonspecific," wrote Melvin Konner, PhD, MD, professor of anthropology and associate professor of psychiatry. This means that basically, as he put it, "the organism's chronic internal state will be a mixture of anxiety and desire, best described by the phrase 'I want…'"
That is exactly what Buddha taught.
The human brain is not equipped to deal with as much diversion as we have in Western society. It isn't equipped to handle so many options and so much stimulation. Yet it is also not very good at resisting the options and stimulation. The practice of meditation functions as a kind of training — it develops the skill of serenely resisting temptations. Perhaps resisting isn't the right word. It trains you in the skill of recognizing temptations for what they are and thus not being as tempted by them.
Meditation is really training in letting go of distractions. It is a way of breaking the grasping habit. Of course this would have universal effects on all aspects of your life, making you generally happier and more relaxed.
Meditation is also a flow activity in itself and could reasonably be considered a kind of flow training, allowing more daily activities to produce flow for you as you learn to let go of distractions.
In Julian Simon's excellent book, Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression, he talks about an important ability in overcoming depression — the ability to change the subject of the content of your mind. This ability is also important in managing anxiety. Some people don't think they can do this, but they can. "Of course," Simon says, "this means that you must be willing at times to turn away from subjects of interest to you when they cause you pain." The examples he uses are switching the content of your mind away from your failures at work and toward your family, or away from war in Africa and toward some technical question. Anxious thoughts are every bit as compelling as depressed thoughts, but with the right ability — a skill meditation can strengthen in you — you can learn to give up your attachment to those compelling thoughts and turn your attention to other things when it is in your best interests to do so.
Simon says sometimes people think that changing their thoughts is somehow dishonest. But he makes an important distinction. Yes, it can be dishonest to deny the truth of something, and it isn't very smart to ignore unpleasant thoughts, especially if it will cause you trouble down the road to ignore them. "But for those facts which you cannot alter," he says, "a chronic ailment perhaps, or a low pay level in one's chosen occupation — then there seems neither practical nor moral virtue in keeping oneself constantly aware of the fact…to do so is simply foolhardy and counterproductive."
Question: Will meditation make you less motivated? Will the increased contentment take away your drive and ambition?
Answer: Motivation can be broken down into two categories: sufficiency and deficiency. Sufficiency motivation is satisfied or contented motivation. For example, doing something because it feels good, or because you want something good to happen, or to make something beautiful. Deficiency motivation is agitated or needy motivation. For example, doing something in an effort to prove something to someone, or striving out of agitation, or because you think you aren't good enough, or out of the perpetual dissatisfaction we are genetically designed to have. Meditation enhances sufficiency motivation but diminishes deficiency motivation.
The Promise of Enlightenment
In a cultural anthropology class in college I learned that some seemingly strange customs around the world actually have practical value. For example, the "sacred cow" of India. For thousands of years, the majority of Indians were farmers and the cow was their only work animal and often their only source of fuel for cooking. Had they eaten their cows, their livelihood would have been ruined.
Perhaps the practical rule "don't eat cows" over the centuries developed into a religious creed full of significance because those who didn't have that kind of belief ate their cows and perished, leaving behind only those with a reverence for the cow.
Maybe the idea of enlightenment is like that. It is possible that "enlightenment" is a religious reason — a carrot — to get people to meditate. The meditation is really what's valuable. It keeps you cool on hot days, keeps you out of trouble, makes you require less food, keeps you calm and relaxed and so a more benign member of society, and it's good for your health. And you'll feel good more often.
Meditation is of great practical value, but maybe that wasn't enough to get people to do it. That was then; this is now — in a different time with a new understanding of how things work. Luckily, a knowledge of the scientific-proven benefits of meditation is enough to keep many modern people meditating.
Stress hormones keep you from feeling good. The mind is naturally agitated and motivated in many directions at once — wanting or avoiding thoughts and circumstances.
Meditation is a method to cultivate a calm, relaxed, alert state of mind. It is a great state to be in. It feels good. It improves many important skills — communicating, interacting with people, focusing on a task without getting distracted, being patient when impatience is counterproductive.
Herbert Benson described the experience of meditation like this:
1. Peace of mind.
2. Feeling at ease with the world.
3. A sense of well-being.
One of the things meditation does is relax you. Then thoughts intrude — sometimes stressful thoughts — but then you go back to your mantra. You are then continually associating those stressful thoughts with a state of deep relaxation. This is exactly what therapists do in a form of therapy called Systematic Desensitization, which has proven very effective for many psychological problems such as phobias.
One of the benefits of meditation is that you enjoy your life more. This benefit partly stems from the sensory-deprivation effect combined with the contrast effect. When you deprive yourself of normal sensory input for awhile, your brain adjusts. Then when you get ordinary input again, it seems dramatically bright, sensuous and clear.
In the book, Papillon, the author, Henri Charriere, talks about his time in a Columbian prison. He violated a prison rule and was sent to a dungeon — a dark place, built so every day when the tide came in, the cell filled up to waist-level with water, causing all the rats living down there to start swimming around. If you just stood there in the water, the rats would climb all over you, seeking escape from the water. So the prisoners had to climb up on the bars and hang there while the tide was high, twice a day. The cell was slimy and smelly afterwards.
Papillion was down there for twenty-eight days. When he came back to a regular prison cell, he said it was like being in a palace, and this was a cell that was already what anyone would consider very bad! But the contrast between the two made this terrible cell a wonderful place to be.
Meditation is dark and quiet without much sensory input, and it often feels boring, so it's possible that meditation makes the rest of your life seem wonderful just from the contrast. It is easier to appreciate the simple joys of everyday life. And really, that's where you'll find happiness. Big successes and dramatic events are all well and good, but whether or not you feel contentment and happiness in your life depends on your ability to appreciate the small everyday pleasures. Meditation helps you do that.
In still another way, meditation makes life more enjoyable: It directly lowers cortisol and lactate, hormones that produce unpleasant sensations as they circulate in your body.
Adjust Your Anxiety Settings
It is very likely that your nervous system tends toward tension and anxiety when you just let it drift — with no significant events happening, no anxious thoughts — your system drifts toward tension and anxiety.
The anxiety triggers your mind to start looking for the cause of your anxiety. That's natural. It's just what the mind does. You start to wonder what's bugging you. And no matter who your are, it is always possible to find something to worry about if you look. So you look, and you find something to worry about. And then you worry about it, which prolongs or intensifies your already-existing state of anxiety.
So whenever you feel anxious, before you start looking around for the cause, meditate. Lower your level of stress hormones first, and if you no longer feel anxious, you can go on about your day. Meditation resets your idle to a lower level of stress hormones. It is only temporary, but you can do it again the next day.
Return to Simplicity
When your desk is piled high with things to do and the phone is ringing off the hook, you would probably feel tense and agitated. If you were to clear your desk except for a single task, you'd relax and you'd be able to concentrate. Concentration and calm go together. Tension and scattered attention go together.
Complexity produces tension. Simplicity produces relaxation. Complexity stirs agitation. Simplicity elicits serenity.
Think of going back to the mantra as returning to simplicity. As thoughts start coming, you'll feel your body tense, especially around your eyes. Then as you return to the simple mantra, you'll feel the tension relax.
What the World Needs Now
Practiced once or twice a day, meditation can make the world a better place. That might sound overly dramatic or even fanatical, but think about it — meditation makes people more peaceful and kind, better able to solve problems, and it ameliorates heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related health problems. Best of all, meditation can cure our main problem, which is being caught in the whirlwind of wanting-wanting-wanting. It's an ideal cure. Good for yourself. Good for the world.
More calmness, more patience and empathy, and less greediness — these things are worth the effort to bring into the world. Since moods are contagious, you can help others feel less anxiety, anger, and frustration by lowering your own stress hormone level. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that meditation produces calmness and gets rid of agitation. Many virtues arise spontaneously out of a calm state:
1. Problem-solving is easier when you aren't agitated.
2. You're a better listener with greater empathy. This leads to closer relationships. Closer relationships are associated with better health.
3. Patience: agitation tends to make people impatient.
4. Impulse control: Having the calm and contentment to think before you act, and to act in constructive ways.
5. It is easier to delay gratification when you have a feeling of contentment.
Meditation is a good medicine for what ails us. And it has built-in self-serving rewards that justify the practice, including good health benefits. One person doing this one simple thing can have a ripple effect out into the world, absorbing the tensions of others without passing them on, helping to calm others by one's mere presence, and allowing conflicts to be resolved fairly and peacefully. Will you be one of these people?
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.