The Benefits of Meditation

The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of meditation have been well documented for thousands of years. Scientists, philosophers, spiritualists, and religious leaders have heralded the power of witnessing awareness. They may refer to it as deep reflection, being present, mindfulness, contemplation, prayer, meditation, or simply relaxing, but it’s all the same thing—disconnecting from the activity and drifting to the space between our thoughts.

In the Yoga Sutras, written sometime between 200 b.c. and. 200 a.d., the sage Patanjali (who created a common thread that all schools of yoga follow) defined meditation in four Sanskrit words: yoga citta vritti nirodha, which means “one-ness is the progressive quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.”

1. Effects on the Mind, Body & Spirit

Over the first few days, weeks, and months of daily meditation, the quieting impact this simple practice has on your bodymind begins to express itself in each choice you make. Your shift may be so subtle that even you don’t see these meditation benefits at first. But your thoughts, selections, decisions, and daily actions become more conscious, leading to more intuitively conscious behaviors. Then one day you realize you have a broader perspective, a deeper sense of calm, and heightened clarity… yes, greater creativity, expanded grace, greater ease. You realize you are making more spontaneous right choices. You realize you are being more authentic. There is greater alignment between what you think, what you say, and what you do. These are the myriad effects and benefits of meditation. The world is still turning—and sometimes faster than ever—but to you, that swirl is in slower motion, like texts coming into your cell phone with a really faint hum rather than a blasting ringtone.

2. Stillness, Peace & Quieting the Mind

Over time, moving from activity to stillness during meditation translates into more conscious behaviors during non-meditation (the other 23 or so hours of your day). Your interactions with the world shift more effortlessly from reactivity to responding, from reflexiveness to reflectiveness, from defensiveness to openness, and from drama to calm.

There’s a big bonus regarding the effects of meditation on top of all these other nourishing aspects of having a practice. Over time, meditation benefits you by quieting you to a state where you experience life with a deeper understanding of your true Self, which can open the door to spiritual exploration, connection, discovery, and fulfillment—one of the many spiritual benefits of meditation. It is along the so-called “spiritual path” that you truly can experience your unbounded and unconditioned Self—the infinite you that rests at the core of who you are underneath your body and beneath this worldly garb of titles, roles, masks, ego, and the complexities of this life.

Regardless of the depth of your spiritual nature, simply by spending time in stillness and silence, you will experience the benefits of meditation and become more imbued with the ability to open to greater possibilities in each moment instead of the ones you were fixed on.

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This creates a more universal trajectory for the rest of your life with an expanded point of view. By seeing yourself as more universal and less personal, you’ll realize more options in each moment instead of seeing only the limited ones you thought you had before. Everything in your life becomes richer when you see there are lots of different ways things can play out and your previously constricted viewpoint only made you feel more helpless as life unfolded. But this tool called meditation and its benefits can give you the edge you need to feel strong each day, to gain clarity, and to finally regain your peace of mind.

3. Evolving our Brains: The Scientific Research

Different types of meditation styles take you to different places. Some calm you in the moment, others calm you after the moment, some open you, some inspire you, some relax you, some comfort you, others transport you, and some deliver you to a life of oneness and deeper fulfillment. This may sound like a huge leap from the clinical, scientific proof of the power and benefits of meditation, but its current trendiness, and 5,000 years of testimonials should give you the support you need right now to continue exploring.

Over the last several years, thousands of compelling scientific studies have found evidence that a regular, consistent meditation practice can offer a wide range of healing benefits and meditation-linked health benefits. The data include hundreds of clinical studies performed by science and medical departments at major universities, research reports in such venerable sources as The Journal of the American Medical Association(JAMA) and The New England Journal of Medicine, and special features in more popular publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Time magazine to The New York Times. There is now compelling evidence that meditation is a powerful tool in managing anxiety and stress, pain relief, restful sleep, cognitive function, and physical and emotional well-being.

Meditation Changes the Physical Structure of the Brain

In the January 30, 2011, issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Massachusetts General and University of Massachusetts Medical School reported results of a clinical study on meditation benefits that demonstrated that meditation can actually transform our brain. Using MRI brain scans at the beginning and end of the eight-week trial, scientists discovered that each of the 16 subjects who meditated for 30 minutes every day experienced visible changes to the physical structure of their brains. Within 56 days, each subject’s MRI displayed an increase in the gray matter in the hippocampus (the part of our brain responsible for learning, spatial orientation, and memory) and a reduction in the gray matter of their amygdala (the fear, stress, and anxiety center of the brain).

So if you were wondering whether meditation’s health benefits will show up in your life, the answer is a powerful yes! In less than two months, the brain can change its physical structure and the way it’s wired—all from a daily practice of 30 minutes.

Brain Wave Studies of Meditation

A recent brain-wave study by Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin tested meditating monks (whom I like to refer to as super meditators since each had 34,500 hours of meditation under their belts) and non-meditating volunteers on their responses to pain and the threat of pain to explore potential benefits of meditation on pain perception. Dr. Davidson monitored the brain’s pain centers as he applied a heated applicator to the arms of the test subjects. As the heat was directly applied to the skin, all the test subjects responded similarly. The monitors showed their pain centers activated as the hot instrument touched their flesh. Then he changed the procedure a bit. All the test subjects were told, “In ten seconds I will apply the heated applicator.” The non-meditators’ pain centers reacted instantly upon hearing the words—before they were even touched! The pain centers of the super meditators did not respond until the heat was actually applied 10 seconds later.

What’s the takeaway here? The non-meditating world reacts first to the hint or projection of pain in the future and reacts as if it were feeling the pain now. The meditators stayed in the present moment longer and did not actually feel pain when the threat of pain was announced.

I find this study to have the most profound insight that we can remove and lessen suffering in our lives if we don’t project ourselves into the future and manufacture potential suffering. Yet most of our life is played out in the future as our hopes, dreams, wishes, and needs, weave into expectations and we start reacting to scenarios yet unborn as if we were clairvoyant. The effects of meditation will help you immeasurably in this process because one of meditation’s benefits is to help you stay mindful of the present moment. So the evidence is in. And, these two studies demonstrate the transformational power that meditation can have on our physical body and on our emotional response to the world around us.

Finally, after thousands of years of eye-rolling by naysayers, the value and benefits of meditation are validated scientifically in a laboratory with the most advanced technology to monitor the brain. And the results of studies like these in medical centers and institutions of higher learning continue to be published for the world to access. Yet the most transformational results and effects of meditation can only truly be felt by the one having the experience. That can happen with your very first meditation. And you’re already there!

How Meditation Changes Our Physiology

During meditation, specific physiological shifts occur. These shifts are cumulative, and over time, they can transform the way our bodies and minds balance themselves and integrate with each other. The most powerful proof that meditation benefits the bodymind lies at the very core of our DNA, in a primal survival response we all have shared for millennia: the fight-or-flight response.

4. Reducing Fear and Anxiety: Quieting The Fight-or-Flight Response

As human beings evolved more than 20,000 years ago, we were hardwired with a self-preservation reflex—a powerful survival mechanism woven into our DNA—known as the fight-or-flight response. It was first described by American physiologist Walter Cannon in 1929 and explains what happens to our body’s most primal brain functions when we sense a threat to our physical body—essentially how we react when something crosses our perceived boundary of safety. When we perceive a life-threatening situation, we react in the moment and choose one of two basic paths of survival: to fight or to run. One of the benefits of meditation is that it gives us a choice in situations like these instead of reacting automatically.

Essentially, it works like this: Imagine you’re hunting and gathering in a jungle during prehistoric times, when you hear a sabertoothed tiger make a loud hiss. On perceiving this threat, your body’s limbic system (which can be positively affected through meditation and controls emotion, behavior, memory, and your sense of smell) immediately responds via your autonomic nervous system, a complex network of endocrine glands that automatically regulates your hormonal chemistry and metabolism.

The Body Reacts to a Threat

On hearing the saber-toothed tiger, your sympathetic nervous system (which is the part of the autonomic nervous system that regulates all our body’s functions) rapidly prepares you to deal with what is perceived as a threat to your safety. It essentially says, “There’s a good chance you will become this predator’s dinner, but if you fight or run away, you could live.” It then goes on a lightning quick mission to help you achieve that goal. First, you begin to perspire. Your limbic brain knows that if you do end up fighting or fleeing, you will most likely overheat, so the fastest way to bring your temperature down is by automatic sweating.

Next, your hormones initiate several metabolic processes that help you cope with sudden danger. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and other hormones that speed up your breathing, spike your heart rate, and elevate your blood pressure, quickly driving more oxygen-rich blood to your brain and to the muscles needed for fighting the saber-toothed tiger or for running away.

All of this happens before you’ve had an intellectual conversation with yourself about the impending danger. In fact, the threat could be real or imagined, but if the limbic brain perceives it, you will automatically respond in seconds as if the threat is real (however, regularly practicing meditation benefits this part of the brain by allowing it to stay calmer).  These self-preservation processes are all triggered by the same part of your brain that regulates hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, fear, and sleep. Your energy soars as the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol surge into your bloodstream. At the same time, your pancreas secretes a hormone called glucagon to immediately raise your blood sugar with the equivalent sugar kick of you eating several candy bars at once.

As these physiological changes take place, your senses become heightened, your heart starts racing, and all distractions, pain, thoughts, and internal conversations leave your awareness as your focus becomes concentrated on one single goal: survival.

Because of its enormous influence on emotions and memory, the limbic system is often referred to as the “emotional brain.” It’s also called the “old” or “early” mammalian brain, or paleomammalian brain because it emerged with the evolution of our warm-blooded relatives and marked the beginning of social cooperation among all animals. But fast-forward 20,000 years to the present-day reality, and there aren’t too many saber-toothed tigers out there. In fact, unless you’re defending your country in a war zone or in a life-threatening line of work such as firefighting or law enforcement, the daily need for the rest of us activating our fight-or-flight mode is a rarity. Practicing meditation regularly allows you to minimize this fight or flight response.

This is what happens to your body during the Fight-Flight response:

An increase in blood pressure, and stress on your heart
An increase in your stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol)
An increase in your blood sugar (glucagon tells the pancreas to slow insulin production)
A decrease in blood circulation especially to your digestive tract
A decrease in your growth and sex hormones
+ Suppression of your immune system, and
An increase in the thickness and stickiness of your blood.

We can look at these as the seeds of illness because they lead directly to the following diagnoses: coronary heart disease, anxiety, addictions, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, infections, cancer, strokes, and heart attacks. Modern science is slowly discovering that chronic stress impacts the brain as well. Clinical trials on mice have demonstrated that these stress hormones affect our dendrites—the signal receivers and senders on nerve cells—by shrinking them, which impedes the easy flow of the information they are transmitting. When this occurs in our hippocampus, it challenges our memory and learning ability. Thankfully, the effects and benefits of meditation help to turn off these reactions and turn on meditation’s health benefits.

5. Reducing Stress

The physiological and emotional responses to stress are well documented. And it’s pretty obvious that if we respond with an ego or fight or flight response to every fear and need that’s not met, we will certainly die sooner or live a more painful life. Fortunately, one of the benefits of meditation is a tool that helps reverse the impact that fight-or-flight and ego responses have on our minds and bodies. Meditation can unravel the cellular damage that stress has caused and alter our DNA hardwiring of the fight-or-flight response.

Just a few years ago, a group of scientists—Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak—discovered that our chromosomes are protected by long, threadlike DNA molecules called telomeres, which carry our genes from one cell to the next. Their research also revealed the existence of an enzyme called telomerase, which lubricates and lengthens our telomeres. They won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering that the length of each telomere and the amount of telomerase covering each one determines the very health of our cells as they are created. As lower levels of stress hormones are introduced into our system through a daily meditation practice, damaged telomeres mend, and our immune function rises. In addition to these direct meditation health benefits, emotionally we start to respond more intuitively and less reactively, releasing us from the prison of conditioned ego responses. In time as the effects and benefits of meditation add up, we will be moved from an existence of conditioned, limiting beliefs to a more unconditioned life of infinite possibilities.

6. The Restful Awareness Response

When we meditate, our body’s chemistry changes. In fact, we experience the opposite of the physiological effects produced by the fight-or-flight and ego responses as a benefit of meditation practice. We are less inclined to perspire, our breathing and heart rate slow, our body’s production of stress hormones decreases, our sex hormone production increases, our growth hormone levels are elevated, our immune system strengthens, and our platelets become less sticky as blood flows more easily throughout our entire body. As these physiological shifts to our physical body occur, our mind calms, anxiety lessens, stress seems to shed, and there is an emotional shift in how we respond to unmet needs. This state of restful awareness in which the health benefits of meditation are activated can last for a moment or through the entire meditation. But the beauty of this process is that restful awareness continues to benefit our bodies even after our meditation session.

As we meditate on a regular basis, we slowly and gently shift our automatic response mechanism to a more unconditioned one, experiencing meditation benefits more regularly. In restful awareness, we move through situations with greater grace and ease. We’re less impulsive and more intuitive. We’re making more conscious choices, because we intuitively know the highest choice in that moment—the one that honors our Self and the person we are interacting with. The one that elevates both of us to the highest plane of existence, the one that comes from a heart filled with compassion, forgiveness, and a desire for peace. Being in tune with this experience is another one of the profound effects and benefits of meditation.

The more time we spend in the state of restful awareness, the more we are open to multiple interpretations of a situation or scenario throughout the rest of our day. We become less attached to our previous interpretations, and our need to defend them feels less urgent. We see the bigger picture rather than the more narrow view we once had. Over the first few weeks of daily meditation, this expanded awareness weaves itself intermittently through all our interactions as a side effect of meditation. As we continue to regularly meditate and spend time in stillness and silence, each day becomes more comfortable, restful awareness becomes more and more our natural state, and greater clarity begins to unfold. It becomes less important to defend our point of view because we see greater possibilities. Then creative solutions start to emerge to once-daunting challenges, and constrictions magically open up. These are a few of the ways that meditation benefits our thinking.

7. Increased Creativity and Intuition

As the effects of meditation continue, we become more alert, more creative, more intuitive, and more relaxed. We start having anxiety-free days, and stress becomes more manageable. And, as a benefit of regular meditation, our first response to unmet needs is no longer the ego response. Our more common response to an unmet need starts to be one of restful awareness—of silent witnessing before we act out old, conditioned response patterns yet again.

This “new” state could also be called restful alertness because our senses are heightened and we begin to experience a new lightness of being. Little things don’t irritate us or knock us off course as easily. Experiencing greater peace of mind throughout the day is also a very common benefit of meditation, as is more restful sleep, better digestion, and an entire new level of vitality. We are slowly returning to equilibrium—to wholeness!

Many of my students tell me 30 minutes of meditation is more restorative to them than 30 minutes of sleep and several studies now seem to confirm that specific benefit from meditation. If you have an irregular or abnormal sleep pattern, it can normalize in just a few days after you have gotten comfortable with your new meditation routine. Of course, if the thing that keeps you awake is a deeper emotional constriction or pain, meditation will help to relieve the acuteness of the pain. However, only a commitment to deeper self-discovery, emotional release, and emotional healing work will relieve the emotional pain at the core of your insomnia.

8. Spiritual Benefits of Meditation

Beyond meditation’s health benefits, the spiritual aspect of meditation has long been misunderstood. And, this is one of the main reasons why mainstream culture has not been more open to embrace the practice and many benefits of meditation. Even the definition of spirituality differs from person to person. Each of us is seeking a reconnection to the whole, to our Source, to God, to our most divine version. We each choose the most resonating path to understand and express the bigger, more profound, universal concepts of life, death, pain, love, truth, bliss, and purpose. Some people don’t care about these things, because their awareness has not drifted into these concepts at this point in their lives. Ultimately, each of us will walk through these experiences and face these questions. So even if someone is not currently engaged in this conversation, simply having an awareness of these natural life principles invokes an understanding that there is something bigger, more expansive, more knowing, and more intelligent than we are. We could call that entity a universal being. Never born and never died. Existing in every moment and connected to all things simultaneously.

In Vedanta, the ancient Indian philosophy of self-realization, there is a school of thought known as Advaita (pronounced addveye-ta), a Sanskrit term for “non-duality.” According to Advaita, one-ness is the only reality. Everything else is an illusion, known in Sanskrit as maya. The philosophy states that our ignorance of our one-ness is the cause for all suffering in the world. Only through the direct knowledge of this one-ness (actually experiencing it) can true liberation occur. In Sanskrit, this liberation is called moksha (moke-sha). Understanding that all existence is nondual—not two things but one pure whole—is the path to moksha. Meditation benefits you by gently guiding you to that space.

9. Experiencing the Infinite

Most of us grew up in homes where we were introduced to an all-knowing, all-seeing, infinite being known as God. How else can finite flesh beings such as us, with limited tools and a limited understanding, ingest such a beyond-this-realm concept as oneness? There needs to be an almighty essence that embodies all the characteristics of one-ness so we can better understand them—a sort of guide between us and one-ness. And this is where the benefits of meditation come in. Most of us have a similar understanding regarding our own personal God’s nature. Essentially, this being created everything; is infinite, immortal, omnipresent, spans the existence of time and, therefore, is timeless; controls or influences everything; is everywhere at once or has demigods or avatars who can be anywhere; is capable of resurrection and rebirth; can be worshipped and appealed to; and has the ability to craft what we would consider miracles.

Even if you weren’t brought up in a formal religious or spiritual tradition (if you are an atheist you can still meditate and receive all the health benefits of meditation) it is still likely that you believe there is some form of intelligence beyond ours. So whether your orientation is toward the Divine, a god, multiple gods, or a higher power, we define our personal understanding of this universal nature as spirituality. Essentially, spirituality is the journey we take in each moment from our most individual Self to our most universal Self and then back again, integrating a bit of that divine magnificence back into our flesh-encased human form. From constriction to expansion!

10. Expanding Consciousness

When our mind analyzes this being or power, we see this omniscient, omnipotent, infinite God or spirit at once in everything and yet separate from us and the world. Vedanta would say this separation exists only on the surface, only in our mind. Deeper below the surface, our mind, body, and spirit are all the same things—pure, unbounded consciousness—one-ness wearing different disguises. One of the benefits of meditation is to experience this perceived sense of separation less and less. According to Vedanta, liberation lies in knowing the reality of this one-ness and experiencing spirit through varying aspects of study (gyan), devotion (bhakti), selfless service (karma), and practice (raj or the royal path).

Two of the practices of the royal path that most directly connect us to spirit are meditation (restful awareness) and yoga (body-centered restful awareness). The path to this understanding of spirit is a deeper understanding of who we are, what we really want in life, and why we are here. This has been referred to as the expansion of consciousness—moving from a constricted, conditioned space where we define ourselves as the roles we play in life and the things we own (essentially, our positions and our possessions) to the more expansive perspective of who we are, how we are connected to everything, and what we came here to do. Essentially, you are not in the universe, the universe is in you!