The benefits of meditation are being proven again and again by researchers around the world every day. Scientists have shown meditation can enhance your immune system, it can help you cope with chronic illness, and it can change your brain structure to help with anxiety, focus and attention. But in a world where we have bills to pay, bank balances to replenish and relationships to nurture, finding time can be tricky. Many of us struggle to carve out time to get even the daily recommended dose of 30 minutes of exercise a day let alone finding any amount of time for mental stillness. It’s also pretty confusing knowing what type of meditation is best. There are so many different ‘brands’ that if you’re new to the game, it’s hard to know where to start. So when it comes to meditation, what does the research tell us about which kind of meditation is best, for what duration and how often should we meditate?
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
Essentially meditation is a technique you use to train your mind. It can be used to enhance relaxation, prepare for a task, cultivate awareness, boost energy or develop your sense of things like compassion, love or forgiveness. Some techniques such as mantra, mindfulness and prayer involve focused thought like concentrating on an object, your breath, a word, a phrase, or simply paying attention to the present moment. It can be done anywhere, any time. It can be done with your eyes closed or open, sitting, standing, walking, lying down or moving in any way, and you can use aids to help focus your attention such as music or prayer beads.
WHAT TYPE OF MEDITATION IS BEST?
I’ve spent the past week delving into meditation studies to see if there is any clear evidence to suggest that one form of meditation is better than another and while there are thousands of studies looking at meditation, the jury is out. The scientific community seems to be favoring the health benefits of transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation at the moment. TM is a mantra style meditation taught to you individually by a TM teacher and is very popular with celebrities. Mindfulness meditation is currently gaining popularity in the corporate space. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is an 8-week course developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and combines mindfulness meditation with a simple style of yoga. That’s not to say that TM or MBSR are the best. They just seem to be the buzz right now and research shows they both have benefits.
Here is a short clip from my feature documentary, The Connection, where Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the reason he started studying meditation and the simple experiment that shocked him and his colleagues.
What is also becoming clear is that various forms of meditation may affect our brains in subtle, yet different ways. For instance this research paper shows that two kinds of meditation where the focus is either inwards or outwards have different effects on your ability to stay focused.
Research also tells us that the health benefits may come from the specific mental steps you take when you mediate. If you’ve seen my film The Connection you’re already familiar with the work of Dr. Herbert Benson. He initially studied TM and discovered the practice triggered a relaxation response in the body opposite to the stress response. He then went on to train Harvard Medical School students to illicit the relaxation response simply by following two mental steps:
1. Focus on something (a number, your breath, a word or a phrase etc)
2. When other thoughts come up, return to step 1
Benson went on to look at cultures around the world from Judaism to Taoism, from Christianity to Islam and realized there was a commonality between them all. Whether it was through different forms of prayer, contemplation or meditation, these different rituals, developed over thousands of years all included the two simple steps.
Here’s an extract from the film where Benson talks about the importance of his research and explains that the purpose of these two steps is to stop the train of everyday thinking – that chattering mind we all experience almost constantly. You can also download my extended interview with Benson from my web store for free.
So how you choose to get to the place where you can quiet down your mind and stop the every day chatter is entirely up to you. It doesn’t matter how you do it or where you do it but this does leads me nicely to the next question…
HOW LONG AND HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE MEDITATE?
The good news is that the research tells us we don’t need to live in a cave or a monastery to derive benefits from meditation. The key is consistency.
Dr. Sara Lazar from Harvard, who I interviewed for the film, showed that the more experienced the meditator, the bigger the change in brain structure. She looked at the brains of seasoned meditators who on average had meditated once a day for 40 minutes for about eight years. They did this while living typical western style lives in traditional careers such as healthcare and law. The main conclusion from the study was that meditating is like going to the gym. The more often you go, the stronger, fitter and younger your brain.
But 40 minutes a day can seem like a lot when we’re busy dancing the work-life two-step. Unfortunately as the researchers who performed this study point out, there is little coherence regarding the right ‘dosage’ of meditation practice.
There are studies showing 30 minutes per day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy. There are studies showing that only 20 minutes per day for four days improves cognitive skills and that only 20 minutes per day for three days results in a significant decrease in pain sensitivity.
The really good news is that this study found we just need to find just 10 minutes a day over 16 weeks for significant improvements in neural functioning associated with enhanced focused attention.
If you think that finding even 10 minutes a day is impossible, then you might like to consider the advice of Dr. Craig Hassed, one of the world’s leading experts in mind body medical research who is also the founding president of the Australian Teachers of Meditation Association. He says that two short five-minute meditations at the beginning of the day and early evening, can serve as full stops or moments of stillness to punctuate your day. He also suggests you could try a number of commas throughout the day as well. This might include a 30 second meditation before going into a meeting, or a one-minute session before lunch. I’ve found this to be particularly useful before public speaking. Taking 20 long, slow, focused breaths in the women’s bathroom can quickly put feelings of anxiousness or uncertainty back in their place.
Ultimately my conclusion is to start small. Don’t expect yourself to be able to meditate for 60 minutes or even 20 minutes straight away. Like with any kind of exercise, start easy and gradually build. The idea is to get into the habit. This is not a quick fix, but something to be viewed as a life long practice.
If all of that still leaves you confused, you could always adhere to the ancient Zen proverb - You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you're too busy, then you should sit for an hour.