Scientific and secular supporters of meditation are using the ancient practice as an aid for modern afflictions such as high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and anxiety.
“Thirty million Americans have tried meditation. It’s in the mainstream and it’s good for your mental health,” said Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC, who helped launch Mindful USC two years ago to integrate practices such as meditation into campus activities.
The initiative has been an overwhelming success and may become a model for other institutions. Though meditation may seem commonplace, misperceptions remain.
Here are six things you probably didn’t know about meditation:
1. There are many, many ways to meditate.
Most techniques aim to calm the rushing, wandering thoughts and refocus them on the present moment. Though physical practices such as tai chi are called moving meditations, others just ask that you sit comfortably and engage in a type of reflection.
“The most commonly found sitting meditations are having a point of focus on your breath, an area of your body or a mantra,” said Megan Monahan, a Los Angeles meditation teacher. Mantras are Sanskrit words or phrases repeated silently that aid concentration.
2. Meditation can retrain your brain.
Meditation can produce measurable changes in the brain that are associated with improved sense of self, empathy and reactions to stress, according to a 2011 study by Harvard-affiliated researchers. Subjects spent eight weeks in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and learned to focus on nonjudgmental awareness of feelings, sensations and state of mind. The study was the first to document meditation-produced changes in the learning and memory centers of the hippocampus, and in other brain areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
3. You’re never going to stop your thoughts completely.
Many meditate to slow their racing minds and in the process, assume that they are truly meditating only when their thoughts stop. “As long as you have a pulse, you’re going to have thoughts,” Monahan said. “As you meditate, you begin to watch the thoughts and practice navigating away from your stream of consciousness back to that point of focus. You practice the ability to rein in and redirect your mind when you want to.”
4. Meditation helps teach you that you are not your thoughts and we don’t have to believe them.
Meditation teacher and corporate coach Scott Schwenk illustrates the benefits of refocusing your thoughts and becoming the observer of them. “Make your inner voice say, ‘I’m a zebra,’ over and over. Can you notice that you have the experience of a voice in your head saying ‘I’m a zebra?’ You’re the listener, not the voice. You’re not that voice, but we listen to that voice all day long.” The idea, of course, is that when you say something as ridiculous as "I'm a zebra," you instantly see how ridiculous that statement is. Substitute any of the other equally ridiculous things that are on our endlessly repeating playlist of self-defeating thoughts, and maybe you'll see that you're not a failure, or unable to meet whatever challenge you have.
5. Group meditation can aid learning the technique.
When beginners ask why they should trek to a meditation class, just to sit in silence with other people, Schwenk explains that classes can “shorten the learning curve for recognizing the experience of meditation. If I’m sitting in a group of people who can access deep meditation, the mirror neurons in my brain are going to pick that up. Depending on how relaxed I am, I will get pulled into a meditative state. That internal experience is more valuable than anything a person can say or put in a book.”
6. You don’t have to feel anything particular while you’re meditating.
“The test of your meditation is not any phenomena that do or do not happen while you’re sitting,” said Schwenk. “Those could all be interesting. The real test of the practice is when you get up and out of the seat and is your state shifted. It’s to widen perspective and live from the wider perspective.”