“Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing”, said famously by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, USA. It’s a great irony that we humans are, most of the time during the waking hours, are not fully conscious, aware and mindful about what’s happening inside and outside of us. Our body is always present where we are but not the mind. Lord Buddha often asked his disciple to “Be where you are, otherwise you will miss your life’.
Our mind keeps on moving forward and backward in thoughts while missing the present moments, which is what we need to experience. Our mind oscillates from pure awareness to complete mindlessness or absent minded. We experience the highest state of awareness, when we focus on the moments at hand. This state is known as mindfulness. During the day, we keep on missing, in reality, present moments. This has a cost. We often become mindless, impulsive, and reactive, when we are not mindful. We become prone to miss valuable experiences because we are, in a sense, not awake during those times. As a result, we are not able to exercise complete control over our inner world i.e. mind.
Surprisingly, there is an extremely easy exercise through which we can learn and cultivate mindfulness. That mental exercise is meditation. It’s currently one of the most powerful wellness trends in the world. It’s growing exponentially across many nations, including the USA and India. Since the benefits of meditation have been validated by scientific studies across the globe, very large numbers of people are turning to it in droves.
Meditation along with yoga, two ancient practices, is now officially the most popular alternative health practice in the United States. According to the survey conducted in 2017, nearly 14.2% people practiced meditation as contrast to just 4% in 2012. The corresponding figures of Indians practicing various forms of meditation are not available. Meditation is thriving, and has become a billion-dollar industry in US.
People are now realizing that mindfulness-based meditation is the best tool to train their minds. Meditation studios, brands, and apps are popping up worldwide. Along with a healthy diet and exercise, meditation is being recognised as one of the three pillars of wellbeing. As the way the mindfulness meditation grows ever more popular, a solid backing of research studies conducted worldwide keeps pace. Otherwise, this practice would not have spread so rapidly. Today there are more than 4,000 research studies, according to US National Library of Medicine, pubmed.com, on the subject. In fact, many studies of meta-analysis are coming up corroborating the results of various research projects.
A listing of meditation’s benefits on both physical and mental health, validated by research studies, would become voluminous. Therefore, only certain critical areas are being touched upon here. When we meditate, we practice moment-to-moment awareness while observing whatever happens around us. It’s like any other physical exercise. The result is that our mind gradually becomes more focused and attentive. As we become more aware, our meta-awareness (awareness of awareness) increases.
We become non-reactive, responding appropriately to situations as the need arises. We then start observing ourselves from a distance. It’s a big positive change that happens when we meditate. We begin to make more conscious choices and decisions because of increased self-awareness and attention to the present moment. Once we begin to live mindfully and are attentive to whatever is happening around us, many pleasant changes in our mind and body start manifesting.
When we are not attentive and focused, our mind is wandering in many directions. Nearly half of the time, we are not concentrating or focusing on the task at hand; it means we are on default mode. During this time, the brain’s default mode network (DMN) is active. It’s a network of interacting brain regions. These areas can be detected easily through functional MRI, due to higher activity in the network. When the brain is at rest, DMN is active. This is in fact the thinking brain.
When we practice meditation, our DMN becomes quieter and less active. In other words, our thinking mind is under check. We gradually inculcate the habit of becoming more and more non-reactive and non-judgmental. This can truly be called “becoming awakened” or, in the words of philosopher Gurdjieff, “waking up.” We can experience inner peace and serenity in a stressful world.
Whatever may be our core purpose in life, we all want to live a healthy and happy one for the longest possible time. No one wants to die prematurely. What is happening now is that more people are dying from lifestyle diseases. Research has shown that through regular practice of mindfulness meditation, we can slow down our aging process.
According to one estimate, a person of 30 years of age who does regular meditation for the next five years can expect a biological age of 23 at the age of 35; his non-meditating counterpart will show, on average, a biological age of 36 years. Such difference in biological age can be observed in real life situations. So, for a longer and much healthier life, meditation can be the best and easiest option available. The reason behind slow aging is primarily taking care of mental stress, which most of us experience.
The relationship between the slowing down of aging and reduction in psychological stress has been established by researchers. Stress leads to the shortening of telomeres (the protective caps at the tip of chromosomes), which is considered the main marker for aging. In a trailblazing study conducted by scientists Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, it was found that stressed mothers of seriously ill children had shorter telomeres. Both scientists later got a Nobel Prize for this study. In this way, a direct connection between chronic stress and aging was established. The relationship between mindfulness meditation and mental stress and anxiety has also been confirmed through numerous studies.
With meditation, we have far greater control over our emotions. Meditation prompts changes in the emotion-processing part of the brain, the amygdala. Through this practice, depressing, distressing, and other negative thoughts are under check. We will not be overwhelmed by those thoughts because they will not be able to stay in the brain for very long. Their “stickiness” has gone. When the metaphorical thief finds nothing of value in a house, he will exit that house at his earliest opportunity. Likewise, negative thoughts that are not entertained in mind have no incentive to stay. The resulting sense of peace and well-being pervades in every area of life. Under stressful and unpleasant conditions, regular practitioners can lead a peaceful life. Even when disturbed by upsetting events, they recover very fast, and with greater self-control.
As we have seen, meditation can transform one’s life with far more self-awareness, focused attention and clarity. Through these attributes, we can live mindfully. With better control over our inner life, we certainly can live life on our own terms. Clarity and control are also the conditions in which a strong sense of compassion and empathy take root, which can give meaning to our life. Studies have established that through meditation, we can become more compassionate and empathetic toward others. We understand their feelings and point of view with greater clarity and understanding. Living mindfully, with warm feelings of love and compassion, also improves our immune system.
Overall mental and physical health improves significantly with self-awareness. When our self-awareness is low, we don’t pay much attention to our bodily sensations. As a result, we may overlook early signs of various illnesses. If we pay timely attention to such vital signs, many illnesses can be detected at initial stage. Likewise, mental illnesses can come to our attention with increased self-awareness in our mind. Otherwise, complete identification with our mind make it very difficult for us to know when something wrong is going on inside the mind.
In my personal life, I have witnessed numerous transformative changes since the time I started practicing meditation. Not only I have seen noticeable improvement in my physical and mental health but I have become compassionate and empathetic towards others. Better control over emotions is another area where I find positive changes. Unless one practices mental exercise of meditation to cultivate meta skill, it’s difficult to fully appreciate its impact on our life. It’s a must learn skill for all.