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Meditation for youthfulness and anti-ageing success

What does the brain look like when we meditate? When US scientists from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to answer this question they went to the experts — Tibetan Buddhist monks — and arranged to scan their brains mid-meditation. The results were a revelation. As they expected, the pre-frontal lobes associated with concentration lit up, revealing that getting your brain to shift into meditation gear takes concerted focus.

They were also surprised to find that the parietal lobe, which governs spatial awareness, appeared to be on mute for the duration of the meditation. In short, while you meditate, you can lose all sense of yourself for a while — which may explain why some meditators say they feel “at one with the universe”. It may also be one of the keys to the many health benefits of this ancient practice, which can be traced back more than 6000 years in the East.

Though the word “meditation” conjures mystical images of sitting cross-legged, inhaling incense and chanting om, in reality the practice has grown beyond 1960s clichés to become mainstream. Throughout the world, meditation is now practised in organisations as diverse as law firms, prisons, health retreats, operating theatres, universities and schools. In Australia, meditation is the second most common therapy prescribed by doctors, with 80 per cent of GPs recommending it to patients.

The aim of meditation differs for each person. It might be goal-oriented (eg to reduce anxiety), spiritual (eg to celebrate Buddhist philosophy), contemplative (eg to attain deeper meaning of life) or insightful (to understand yourself better).

 

Entering the zone

Meditation is like a delicious state of conscious sleep, where the mind focuses on the present. When you are in the present moment, your mind cannot worry about the past or be caught up in anxiety about the future. The practice of meditation involves not just concentration but an altered focus. To attain this state you either turn your attention to externals, such as objects and sounds, to bring you back fully to yourself or you go deep within to get back in touch with a sense of true self. Both approaches promote an expanding consciousness and sense of oneness with the world.

“During meditation, you are in a state of calm awareness — both relaxed and alert,” says Eric Harrison, Director of the Perth Meditation Centre and an experienced instructor who has taught more than 20,000 people to meditate. “When you meditate, the mind is not actively thinking. You are ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’,” observes Harrison, who has authored numerous books about meditation, including The Art of Awareness (Brumby Books) and The 5-Minute Meditator (Brumby Books).

The discipline and joy of meditation can be found in many different spiritual paths and practices that provide different gateways to the meditative state. Meditation is encouraged as part of all yoga practice, whether utilised while you are in a particular pose or practised at the end of a yoga session. In Buddhist meditation, the samatha technique calms the mind and fosters positivity, while vipassana, where the body is held immobile and thoughts are controlled, aims to promote greater awareness of the self. Transcendental meditation relies on the use of a specific mantra or word as a key to achieving a meditative state. In Zen meditation, the focus is on correct posture and awareness of the breath and you return to these meditation tools every time your mind becomes distracted.

In essence, all these techniques aim to bring you into the present moment with clarity and calm. Some promote silent awareness or “mental silence” — a state of being fully awake and fully aware but not experiencing any unnecessary mental activity. Other methods aim at slowing or modifying mental activity without trying to stop it.

The relaxation response

When you meditate, your brain produces alpha waves (which promote calm and heightened awareness) and theta waves (which enhance wellbeing). To reach this neural nirvana, you don’t need specific equipment, clothing or religious beliefs. Whether your transition to a state of meditation involves a word, music, rhythmic breathing or walking doesn’t matter; the form of meditation that makes you feel the most focused and calm is the best one for you. “That’s the great thing about meditation — there are few rules. It can be practised anywhere by anyone at any age,” says Harrison.

Though a respected ancient practice in many cultures, meditation first attracted scientific attention in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, started to train heart patients in the technique and monitored the results, which were impressive. As these patients became more adept at meditation, their blood pressure and stress substantially reduced. Benson subsequently coined the term “the relaxation response” and wrote a book of the same name, which became a bestseller. He also started the Mind-Body Medical Institute in Boston.

The term “relaxation response” described a physiological phenomenon characterised by physical changes in the body, such as reduction in heart and respiratory rate, reduction in skin conductants, a lowering of stress hormones and an increase in skin temperature. However, the response of your body can be varied during meditation. Research of the sahaja yoga technique, a form of yogic meditation, has found that people often feel a cool sensation in their hands during and after meditation. This indicates the parasympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system is being calmed in some individuals.

 

The mind-body connection

Meditating regularly could be the best insurance policy you ever take out for a longer, better-quality life. The practice affects your limbic system, which brings down blood pressure, lowers oxygen intake and slows pulse and heart rates. Meditation also changes brain chemistry by reducing stress hormones called cortisol and noradrenaline.

In 2006, an Iowa study of transcendental meditation, published in the American Journal of Cardiology, reported that meditators not only enjoyed reduced stress levels but also, on average, lived 23 per cent longer than non-meditators. Over an eight-year period, those in the study who regularly meditated not only benefited from lower blood pressure but were 30 per cent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 49 per cent less likely to die of cancer.

“Medication and surgery are only band-aid measures for health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia and digestive disorders, which can all be improved and eradicated with the help of meditation,” agrees Eric Harrison. Meditation can help reduce health problems such as migraines, pre-menstrual syndrome, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, and the activity of viruses and inflammation. Recent findings also show this ancient practice is beneficial in addressing the following health issues:

  • High blood pressure: A wealth of studies indicates that regular meditation helps reduce blood pressure. This lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke, increasing longevity. It also means the side-effects caused by hypertension medications used to treat these conditions can be avoided.
  • Immune function: Meditation is like a booster shot for your immune system. Research shows it not only improves immune function, it enhances the activity of “natural killer cells”, which destroy bacteria and combat cancer cells. Meditation may also slow the growth of tumour cells in breast and prostate cancer.
  • Chronic pain: Countless studies show that teaching meditation techniques to people with chronic pain helps to reduce their discomfort, tension and stress. More recently, a 2009 study by Montreal University in Canada has shown that practitioners of Zen meditation are substantially less sensitive to pain and further reduce that pain response through slow, meditative breathing (roughly 12 breaths a minute compared with the average of 15 breaths for non-meditators). This research indicates that as well as altering the emotional response to pain, meditation lessens the pain sensation itself, leading to an almost 20 per cent reduction in pain intensity.
  • Asthma: Yogic meditation can help reduce the hypersensitivity of the lungs and airways so that triggers such as pollen, dust and exercise no longer cause asthma attacks, according to research from the Institute of Respiratory Medicine at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. Research found that over a period of four months, asthma sufferers who regularly practised meditation experienced a lowered incidence of attacks because their lungs and airways became less “twitchy” or easily triggered to constrict. This may be in part due to a lessening of tension and anxiety — emotional and bodily states that are increasingly being linked to asthma.
  • Brain function: American research conducted in 2005, involving people who practise Buddhist meditation, has found that they have more grey matter. The study, involving numerous institutions, including Yale and Harvard in the US, found that the more the subjects meditated, the more grey matter they had. In particular, the increased thickness of grey matter occurred in the parts of the brain related to sensory, auditory, visual and internal perception (eg breathing and heart rate). This means that meditation can help lessen the brain deterioration that often occurs with ageing and thereby reduce problems such as memory deficit while improving thought functions such as problem solving. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have also found that 30 minutes of meditation every day boosts concentration and mental performance — particularly the ability to stay on task and shift focus quickly from one task to another.
  • Work stress: After completing one of the world’s largest clinical trials examining the benefits of meditation in the workplace, research conducted at the University of Melbourne found that meditation is a potent antidote. Compared with a group of workers who only practised relaxation, the meditating group reported greater reduction in stress, improvement in psychological health and increased productivity.
  • Compassion: Meditation can foster greater empathy in individuals by affecting the regions of the brain that dictate compassion and kindness to others, according to 2007 research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. The brain scans showed that Tibetan monks who practise “compassion meditation” (thinking compassionate thoughts) demonstrated greater activity and stronger neural connections in the brain circuits involved in generous emotions and feelings. When non-meditators were also taught this technique, their brains became more active in the same areas. In the future, this evidence may lead to meditation being prescribed for adults with violent tendencies and children who bully. To practise compassion meditation, you focus on loved ones, those you may have issues with and those less fortunate than yourself and send them loving thoughts for wellbeing and freedom from suffering.

Learning to ‘be’

Meditation is a very simple discipline in essence, but it is a skill, so you need to practise it in order to improve. Mindfulness meditation, a very effective technique, is about watching or being aware of what you are doing in the moment. “Often people find it difficult to move straight into mindfulness, so it can help to focus on something,” says Harrison. “I get people to concentrate on very ordinary things — the breath and sensations in your body, a word or phrase (affirmation or mantra), the sounds around you or objects nearby. These become your anchors and when you can anchor the mind it slows down, so that then you are more able to observe what is happening without reacting to it.”

Harrison finds that people who have never meditated before experience good results if they can start off doing 15 minutes of meditation a day five days a week. Too busy? Try a five-minute meditation where you do a quick body scan for stress and slow your breath. When you are tense, you exaggerate the ‘in’ breath and, when you relax, you emphasises the ‘out’ breath, so consciously breathing out triggers the relaxation response. As you tune in to physical sensations and sounds, you are also moving from a state of high emotional charge to one of low emotional charge.

 

Peace of mind

When you feel constantly rushed and stressed, which many of us do, your brain and body are repeatedly exercising the fight-or-flight response, where adrenalin is released. Although this will provide you with energy to keep going and may leave you feeling exhausted enough to fall asleep, the mental worry is, in fact, what’s keeping you active. In this stressed state, you overtax most of the systems in your body. Your digestive system shuts down, your muscles tighten, your vascular and respiratory systems don’t function optimally and your immune system can be caught napping on the job. In the long term, all these physical responses lead to chronic health problems that compromise your longevity.

Meditation is helpful because it benefits the body while also providing rich soul-food. Research conducted by Professor Ross Menzies at the University of Sydney has shown that meditation reduces the frequency of negative intrusive thoughts, such as worrying and rumination. People who regularly engage in meditation report an increased sense of wellbeing, a more positive outlook, less depression and less worry.

This may be because meditation creates greater brain activity in the left frontal region of the brain, which is associated with a more positive outlook and lower anxiety levels. New findings from the University of Missouri also indicate that the feeling of “transcendence” that occurs when you meditate or engage in other spiritual activities causes a lessening of activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain, resulting in greater calm and happiness.

“Don’t expect every meditation to be perfect,” says Harrison. “It’s a little like learning to ride a bike — you have to fall off scores of times before you can get the skills and confidence to do it with ease and success.” Once you do, though, you will reap the benefits: a body in balance and a sense of calm and energy that sustains throughout the day. By turning your focus from living outward to nurturing a richer inward life, you will enjoy greater peace of mind and more satisfaction with yourself and the world around you.

 

Finding yourself

Meditation puts you in touch with yourself more deeply and intimately by encouraging you to:

  • Stop and notice how you are feeling.
  • Acknowledge and process your thoughts and inner world.
  • Seek out and explore the essence of your true self and the meaning of life.
  • Re-establish your identity outside your other roles such as work colleague, parent, partner, friend or family member.
  • Connect with your body more consciously, ie be in your own skin.
  • Seek and find your original nature.
  • Tune in, drop out

    “Meditation is an extremely simple practice at its core,” says Eric Harrison, a Perth based meditation teacher with more than 20 years’ experience. “It helps you move from a state of thinking into a state of sensing.” To give it a try, follow Harrison’s suggestions for slipping into a meditative state:

    • Find a quiet place where you can lie or sit (with crossed legs or in a chair) uninterrupted. Keep your spine straight but relaxed. Keep your eyes open or close them.
    • Scan your body and notice any areas that feel tense — tighten and release the muscles to relax them.
    • Practise “mindfulness meditation”, which involves awareness of what you’re doing in the moment. To get started, focus on something such as your breath, a word or phrase, a sound or a visualisation. These tools will help anchor your mind and slow it down. Then let thoughts come and go without reacting to them.
    • When your mind wanders, bring it back. Don’t get annoyed — let the distracting thought pass by. If you keep doing this, eventually the mind chatter fades and you will enjoy a deep and healing state of meditation.

     

    Altered states

    Many different techniques can be used to attain and maintain a meditative state:

    • Awareness/sensation: Focusing on sensory awakening and alertness to sounds around you, physical sensations (eg your body touching the chair) and feelings within.
    • Progressive relaxation: Starting from your toes, you tense and relax all the muscles in your body until you feel like a floppy rag doll.
    • Mantra: This involves one word or a short phrase of spiritual significance that is repeated silently or verbally over and over.
    • Reference point: You focus on something like a candle flame, flower or mandala to help you make the transition from thinking to being.
    • Breathing: Slow, deep breaths (eg in and out to the count of six) from the diaphragm assist the transition to a meditative state. While you breathe, you concentrate on your nostrils, diaphragm and breath.
    • Stream of thought: By allowing thoughts to come and go and trying to reduce mental alertness, you slow down the rush of thinking so that your mind becomes calmer and more able to maintain a single thought or be free of thought.
    • Moving/action: Whether you dance, whirl or walk, the aim is to channel the movement to help you enter meditation. Music may also be used. Moving meditation can be free-form and spontaneous or involve repeated patterns of movement.
    • Trance/vibration: This often involves chanting or humming to help induce an almost dream-like state of diminished and altered consciousness.
    • Visualisation/journey: Making a mental picture of something calming such as a sunset, garden, meadow, mountain landscape or crystal-clear pond can enhance a meditative state, particularly if you also imagine yourself there.

     

    Deep contemplation

    For some people, concentrating on nature or an object can greatly assist the transition to a meditative state. Soothing examples of focus include:

    • Rain
    • Candlelight
    • Flowers
    • Pebbles
    • A mandala
    • A pond
    • A painting
    • The sunset
    • The sky

 

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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