You’ve probably heard about mindful meditation and how it can help your performance at work, as well as reduce stress. You may be tempted to think of meditation as a pseudoscientific treatment that doesn’t really deserve serious consideration on your part. Think again.
Time and time again, meditation has been shown to aid the body in a surprising variety of ways – from work productivity to resolving psioratic lesions. Here are a few mind-blowing statistics for you:
- 75 percent of insomniacs who started a daily meditation program were able to fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed.
- 60 percent of anxiety prone people showed marked improvements in anxiety levels after 6-9 months.
- Those who meditate reduce the likelihood of being hospitalized for coronary disease by 87 percent, and the possibility of getting cancer by 55 percent.
Sounds great, but what is mindful meditation, and why can’t I just take a supplement and call it a day?
Chronic stress is a killer
Of course, you could just rely on artificial stress reducers and hope they work. If they don’t, however, you are looking at stringing a lot of stressful days together, and living in a state of constant stress. Still, that’s not too bad, right? Chronic stress doesn’t sound life threatening.
It is. People who suffer from chronic stress have increased instances of anxiety, depression, and higher blood pressure, putting them at greater risk for stroke or heart attack. They have increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, digestive disorders, and reproductive hormonal issues. They also have greater susceptibility to viral illnesses.
Some of us might even avoid thinking about our stress levels because it makes us feel weak, as if we aren’t cut out for the job, and that idea in itself raises our stress levels. But truth be told, awareness is half the battle. The recognition that we are in a state of chronic stress and need to do something about it could make all the difference between good health and bad.
We’ve all read helpful tips on how to reduce stress levels. We hear that we should stay active, maintain a healthy diet, change our situation, not dwell on past mistakes, and spend time volunteering or helping people. All of these things are attainable goals given time and resources. And so is mindful meditation.
But what exactly is mindful meditation? What differentiates it from the act of thinking about any given topic?
Stripping away distractions
First you have to know a basic truth about how your mind works and how most people are living their lives each day. Essentially, humans spend most of their time lost in thought or giving attention to all manner of different stimuli around them.
For example, imagine you’re on your lunch break and you’re trying to study a document for work. Your mind is typically not wholly consumed in reading the document. Your surroundings are a draw on your attention. Other tasks you’re working on, such as eating, and other sensations, like thirst, all take up a piece of your attention. Our hypothalamus may even be taking over the rote actions requiring our attention (just like when you end up at work and have no distinct memory of driving there, even though you know you did.) Mindful meditation requires you to strip away all those other distractions and focus your mind on a single item, such as your breathing.
As one study states, “Mindfulness captures a quality of consciousness that is characterized by clarity and vividness of current experience and functioning and thus stands in contrast to the mindless, less “awake” states of habitual or automatic functioning that may be chronic for many individuals.”
If you think about it, how much of our lives are spent walking around with a sort of mental autopilot on? William James once claimed, “Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” What if we could be fully awake for longer periods of time? What sort of effects could that have?
A recent experiment by LeBel and Dube (2001) found that individuals whose attention was focused on the sensory experience of eating chocolate reported more pleasure than individuals engaged in a distraction task while eating chocolate.
So if you’re wanting to get more out your chocolate experience (and the consumption of chocolate is also a known stress reducer), make like the Romans and “age quod agis”: do what you are doing. Mindful meditation is exactly that; an immersive concentration in that moment, intense focus on whatever it is you are presently thinking on, no distractions. Whether it’s your breathing, a visualization of yourself in your new office, or the sensation of falling into that thing called sleep, as an exercise intended to improve brain function and reduce stress, mindful meditation works.
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