Meditation and mindfulness practices have become more popular recently, but I still encounter plenty of people who look at me like I’m talking about witchcraft when I mention it.
(I’m not judging if you are into witchcraft, but that’s not the point.)
The point is that a good number of people whom I know to be intelligent and open-minded don’t seem to care much about meditation/mindfulness, despite the fact that the practices have become more popular and mainstream—and despite the fact that there is more and more research to support the benefits of the practices.
Many people I know don’t seem to believe that the practices have real physical and mental impacts.
—Click here for more research and reading from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
—Click here for an article called "Study Says Meditation Could Protect the Brain from the Signs of Aging."
—Click here to watch a trailer for a documentary called "Free the Mind: Can You Rewire the Brain Just by Taking a Breath?"
—Click here for a scientific article called "Forever Young(er): Potential Age-Defying Effects of Long-Term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy"
—Click here to read "Want to Be Happy? Slow Down."
—Click here for a list of classes at the Center for Mindful Living.
Maybe it’s because when I talk about it I am a bit too enthusiastic or hippie-dippie in my descriptions, and that’s off-putting.
Maybe it sounds a little too good to be true.
Maybe it sounds boring and uninteresting or it’s just fun to tease me about.
I was once listening to Eckhart Tolle’s book "A New Earth," and a friend said, "I can hear your cult leader talking through those headphones."
It was clearly a joke, and I thought it was a funny one. But like with most jokes, there seems to be some element of truth there. The friend in question isn’t interested in meditation or mindfulness.
And my question is why not?
Although I’m still a novice in these subjects, I feel so compelled by what I’ve learned and experienced already that I don’t fully understand why more people don’t at least give meditation/mindfulness a second look or—better yet—a try.
It hasn’t taken an overwhelming amount of effort for me to practice and feel the positive impacts.
The scientific research on this is still in its relative infancy and the theories are still unproven, but meditation/mindfulness aren’t fleeting fads.
I don’t expect you to take my word for it. So I interviewed two experts in the field.
From a neuroscientist
Postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University Nicole Baganz is a neuroscientist who practices yoga regularly and educates the public through an outreach program about how yoga—which can involve meditation—affects the brain.
As a scientist, she’s a skeptic. But she has felt the benefits of yoga and meditation. And she said there is a lot of emerging science to support what she’s experienced.
"As a neuroscientist, there is evidence that is intriguing for my skeptical brain that would support my continuing the practice and also support my observations about how it has affected my body and brain," she said.
There was a tiny part of me that wanted Baganz to say that there's indisputable evidence that supports the practices, but that's irrational. But it's fascinating to know that we are only at the beginning of discovering all the possibilities.
Baganz also pointed me to the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which was founded by world-renowned neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson. He has worked with the Dalai Lama, who personally challenged Davidson to investigate what neuroscience could tell us about well-being.
The center studies everything from kindness curriculums in schools to the effects of breathing exercises in minimizing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans.
"He’s convinced that the brain can be trained to deal with stress the same way that a muscle can be conditioned to lift a heavy weight," Baganz said about Davidson.
From a mindful entrepreneur/teacher
Claudio Barrientos is an independent contractor who teaches at Chattanooga’s Center for Mindful Living and at the Mindful Center in Knoxville. He teaches a nonreligious, evidence-based curriculum. He was a philosophy and theology major in college, and has been most influenced by American pragmatism—which is all to say that he is coming at these topics with a practical approach.
"I see firsthand what the benefit of this practice is on a person’s mind and body," he said.
Barrientos also referenced Davidson’s work, and he said that scientists have realized in the past 10 years that the brain is trainable. Through meditation, you can rewire your brain.
All this really clicks with me on intuitive and experiential levels.
When I meditate, the effects on my mind and body are tangible. I feel more calm and more connected to my body.
And the great thing about meditation and practicing mindfulness is that you can do it almost anytime and anywhere. Even taking a minute to take three deep breaths helps me when I’ve let the daily stressors of life wear on me.
I think of myself as a pretty happy person, but surely I’m not alone in letting the daily grind affect me sometimes.
The scary thing is that most people are probably so used to the grind that they don't even fully notice the negative effects. We are on autopilot, constantly moving from one appointment to another with a steady stream of unconscious thoughts—many of which are more negative than we realize.
Try to observe your thoughts, even if it's over a short period of time. When I started doing this, I was shocked and saddened by how many of my thoughts were negative.
All thoughts are positive, negative or neutral. And our thoughts have physical effects on our health and brains, he said.
Just the acts of slowing down, focusing on breath and quieting the mind are powerful. But until you actually force yourself to do it, it won’t make sense. You won’t realize what you’re missing.
Barrientos echoed the idea that actually trying meditation/mindfulness is the best way to start understanding all these topics.
"There is a conceptual understanding, an intellectual understanding and an experiential understanding," he said. "And it’s the experiential understanding of the practice where most of the benefits lie."
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