I’ve got a quick task for you. Lift your hands off your keyboard, mouse or wherever else they may be and lay them lightly on your desk in front of you. Spread your fingers so each digit only makes contact with the desk. Now think about the weight of each fingertip as it presses against the hard surface of the desk. Think about the true feeling your fingers are making as they hang heavy on the desk. Think of nothing else.
What you just did was a brief introduction to mindful meditation. For years, people have tried meditating for it’s stress-reducing benefits, but recently, researches have concluded mindful meditation has a much larger effect on our bodies than previously thought. So powerful is the ancient technique, that it has the ability to physically change the nature of our being.
At it’s root, mindful meditation is about being acutely aware of our present surroundings and the moment around it. We are taught to notice our thoughts as the flow freely into, and out of, our minds. The goal is to not hold on to or fight these thoughts, but simply recognize them for what they are. This exercise in embracing the moment is what has traditionally precipitated a reduction in overall stress.
There are tens of millions of people around the world who practice this technique daily. Sports teams, corporations, and schools are some of the more recent adopters of this mind soothing practice. As popularity grows, researchers are looking at mindful meditation in a whole new way. By performing a series of MRI scans on the brains of individuals entrenched in mindful meditation courses, scientists are now better able to understand the physical effects of the technique once reserved for Buddhist monks.
Perhaps shockingly, the largest effect of mindful meditation takes places deep in the center of our brain. There is a little area in our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is our “fight or flight” center, which you’ve likely heard of before. This primal area of the brain is responsible for both fear and emotion.
As participants in an eight-week mindful meditation course were monitored, scientists noticed a shrinking of their amygdala. An actual physical change in the size of a region of their brain. Let that sink in for a moment. As the size of their emotional fear center decreased, another remarkable change took place. The pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with concentration, decision-making, and awareness – becomes larger.
Not only that, scientists examined how these two areas are connected with the rest of the brain. Perhaps as expected, the decreased amygdala had reduced connectivity with the rest of the brain while the pre-frontal cortex increased connectivity much more strongly.
In short, mindful meditation allows physical changes in the brain which shifts away from lower-order, more primal thought processes like fear, to higher-order pre-frontal cortex-driven mental processes, like reasoning. Or phrased another way, with mindful meditation we are able to eliminate our stress and fear levels and replace them with more thoughtful and intellectual responses.
It’s Not Just Size
The ability to enlarge the pre-frontal cortex isn’t exclusively reserved for mindful meditation. Playing video games, for example, also enlarges this region of the brain. The key in achieving the mind-changing benefits however, appears to come from the connectivity of these specific regions of the brain to their surroundings.
Particularly, by cutting some of the connection between the amygdala; center of stress, and the rest of our brains, we are able to realize the greatest physical benefits from mindful meditation.
We’ve long known that stress can cause real, physical damages to us. By cutting he cord to this stress center, the array of stress chemicals for which it drives release of, diminishes. Cortisol, certain proteins, and interleukin 6, all which are associated with disease, are reduced in the blood stream.
Not only is stress at the root of many disease processes, it’s also at the root of why so many Americans have trouble losing weight. Cortisol in particular, when floating around our bloodstreams, makes many of our fat stores impervious to even the most intense exercise regimens.
The stresses or our modern lives – angry bosses, bills to pay, long commutes from work – begin to add up. This chronic state of stress that so many of us live with, results in us walking around loaded up bodily hormones and chemicals that are actively working against us. Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you look at it) there is no quick-fix or pill to reduce these unhealthy levels of hormones. The change needs to come from within, and now more than ever, scientists believe mindful meditation is the answer.
Mindful Meditation and You
In truth, you don’t need to become an expert practitioner of the technique to feel its benefits. You don’t need to lock yourself away in a cliff-side monastery and forsake all pleasures in life to invite a little zen into your life. Studies show as little as 10-15 minutes of mindful meditation a day will bring about the positive changes I’ve been discussing.
Just like you spend time to brush your teeth, take a shower, and/or paint your face like a Tomahawk going into battle each morning, a little time spent mindfully meditating could go a long way. Mind expansion techniques and the belief that something so simple could change your entire outlook on life and health have often been scoffed at by the masses. But as more research rolls in on the subject, the scientists expect the current body of evidence to exponentially grow.
Get yourself ahead of the gain, and give mindful meditation a try – just 10 minutes a day to start. Over time, I believe you’ll start to enter a state of greater relaxation, experience less emotional responses to the stresses of life, and perhaps even start thinking and speaking like a more intellectually aware individual. Not to mention the improved response of your body to exercise.
Mindful meditation sounds like a win all around, so what are you waiting for? Drop those fingers back to the table and get in touch with your inner self.