The other night I woke up at 3 a.m., worrying about my grandkids. That’s not so unreasonable, right? Except here’s the thing: I don’t have grandkids. But that didn’t stop my brain from creating imaginary fiascos that might befall people who don’t yet exist, in a future that may never happen.
These brain shenanigans are typical for me, which is why a year ago I decided to start meditating. Using an app called Headspace, I began with 10 minutes a day. The first week was novel and fun, and the wind-up toys and squirrels in my brain actually stood still for a nanosecond, so it was pretty relaxing. Then a really irritating incident happened in my life: My thoughts dove into an endless loop of ticked-off mind chatter, when suddenly a voice interrupted and said, “Breathe.”
The crappy situation didn’t go away, but over the next week, when I remembered to breathe, I relaxed. When I relaxed, I was aware. And there it was: a tiny moment of peace.
I’ve been meditating with Headspace ever since, joining the 18 million Americans who, in one form or another, practice meditation on a regular basis. The operational word here is “practice,” because meditation — for all that it requires just sitting and focusing on your breath — actually takes practice. What it doesn’t take is special clothing, fancy equipment, or a cool crystal collection.
“Meditation is about going easy on ourselves and others,” Matthew Goddard, meditation facilitator at For Goodness Sake in Truckee, says. “You can wear comfortable clothes and sit in a chair.” No need to sit on the floor, or assume the lotus position.
Nor do you have to suddenly become Buddhist, or abandon your own faith. In fact, many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, place value in quieting the mind. “The words meditate or meditation appear 20 times in the King James Bible,” Andy Hill, director of For Goodness Sake, explains.
Though meditation styles vary, most involve relaxing and focusing on either the breath, a phrase, or a word. The goal is to achieve a state of relaxed alertness. After a year of meditating, I’m still abysmal at it, but I catch enough of those tiny moments of peace that I’m hooked. Besides, the science says there are plenty of reasons I should stick with it.
Meditation elicits something called the relaxation response, which counteracts the fight-or-flight syndrome we experience when we’re stressed — the racing heart, rising blood pressure, and flooding of hormones like cortisol into the bloodstream.
During the relaxation response blood pressure drops, and areas of the brain that control positive emotion and mood are activated. Anxiety decreases, along with depression and hostility. In short, meditation allows you to better handle stress.
These responses, along with meditation’s possible benefit of lowering cholesterol, translate to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
But perhaps nowhere in the body are the effects of meditation more evident than in the brain itself. During meditation, activity in the prefrontal cortex — that part of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, and reasoning — goes quiet. The parietal lobe, which processes sensory information about your surroundings, slows down. Meditators who say they feel a “oneness with the universe” aren’t kidding — they’re quite literally losing their orientation in space and time, blurring the boundaries between themselves and the physical world.
Even more remarkable is that meditation actually changes the brain’s structure, thickening areas associated with sensory processes and attention, and slowing (and possibly reversing) age-related loss of brain tissue in the grey and white matter.
Meditation can benefit children and teens too, allowing them to be less reactive in stressful and challenging situations. They learn to pause and think about the possible outcome of their actions. Such foresight is not usually the strong suit of developing teenage brains. Just ask any parent.
So if meditation can bring about such positive changes, why aren’t more people doing it?
Common obstacles and excuses, Hill says, include, “I don’t have time,” “It’s not that important,” and, “I’m not achieving anything.” As for the latter, brain scans show that even one 20-minute session by beginners can calm beta wave activity — a sign that the cortex is dialing back its rapid-fire processing of information.
“Don’t try to do too much too soon,” advises Goddard. “Go easy, just a little each day.”
For those of you looking for some guidance and comradery, try one of the many drop-in classes at For Goodness Sake. “Most meditations last 20 minutes,” says Hill, “and you’re free to readjust position or even get up and stretch your legs if you need to.”
I attended Matthew’s Tuesday lunchtime meditation and found it delightful and rejuvenating. For my daily practice, though, I’ll continue with the Headspace app. It has just enough structure to keep me on task, and having it there on my phone feels like an appointment.
Plus, I think it’s helping me to not worry too much about those grandkids.
For a schedule of classes at For Goodness Sake, call (530) 550-8981, or go to goodnesssake.org.