It’s estimated that Meditation and Mindfulness practices have existed for more than 5,000 years. Most people think of meditation as a person sitting in a quiet place with legs crossed, arms out, and fingers pointed towards the sky, while either humming or sitting entirely in silence.
There is much more to meditation than a person’s location and body position, however.
From calming the mind to healing the body, meditation and mindfulness work together to change the brain and the body. If a person starts meditation in January and practices it daily, by June they may have a completely different brain – neurologically speaking, that is.
Meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand. Without one or the other, there is little to no chance that the brain will receive the full benefits of either one.
What is Meditation and What are the Different Types?
Meditation is an ancient practice of centering attention of the mind on an anchor point, which often includes the rhythm of breathing or other parts of the body, while maintaining focus and overcoming the wandering of the mind to other thoughts or distractions.
Some of the goals of meditation include calming the mind to increase mental and physical relaxation, clarity of thought, and improving mental and physical health.
It is easier to explain than it is to maintain for more than a short period of time for most beginners. The human brain is like a super computer performing thousands of calculations, instructions, and perceptions every minute. It never turns off and we are constantly bombarded with a flurry of conscious and unconscious thoughts.
By concentrating on an anchor point such as breathing, and keeping the focus on one thing, it calms the mind. If attention moves to someplace else, such as paying bills or any type of distraction, make a mental note that the mind has wandered, recognize it, and gently bring attention back to the anchor point.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, meditation increases physical relaxation and calmness. As a result, this practice may improve mental balance and help a person cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
There are many different types of ways to meditate, each with its own focus points.
Here are seven useful types of meditation that people practice:
- Loving-Kindness: Focusing on specific people or objects to promote feelings of love towards that person or thing
- Progressive Relaxation: Focusing on different parts of the body that need tension released
- Mindfulness: Focusing on, and being aware of the present
- Breath Awareness: Focusing on breathing and only breathing – a mental focus practice
- Kundalini Yoga: Physical meditation that incorporates movement
- Zen: A Buddhist practice that focuses on both breathing and mindfulness
- Transcendental: A person-centered practice that focuses on rising above problems in a spiritual manner
Each type of meditation has something in common with the others, usually in the form of a quiet location, set body positions, and positive thoughts. Out of these seven practices, mindfulness meditation may have the most benefits for both the body and brain.
What is Mindfulness?
A deeper dive into the characteristics of mindfulness uncovers profound physical and mental benefits that everyone should try to incorporate into their daily routine.
The American Psychological Association describes mindfulness as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.”
This can include focusing on thoughts that appear in the mind or people walking around – letting them all pass without judgment from the heart and mind.
Mindfulness can be practiced at any or all times of the day or night and for any type of activity. It can be done during a walk or run in the morning, while driving in a car to work, or while doing the dishes after dinner.
Like meditation, the intention is to focus all attention on the activity at hand, and being present in the current moment, without distraction.
Let’s examine practicing mindfulness at lunch. You reach into the refrigerator and pull out an apple to eat. Most people mindlessly take a bite and continue until they are finished and then throw the remaining core in the trash.
By eating an apple mindfully, we pay attention to all the details of the fruit and become completely absorbed by the act of eating it such as:
- What is the color of the apple?
- Does it have a stem?
- Is it warm or cold to touch?
- Does it have a sweet smell?
- Is the skin shiny? If not, take a minute to polish it.
Take that first bit and notice as many details as possible.
- Does it have a nice firm crunch or is it soft and mushy?
- Is it juicy or dry?
- Is it sweet or tart? Some apples will have a sweet flesh and tart skin.
- Do you eat the core, and if not, can you eat every possible bit of apple except the seeds and a tiny sliver of core?
Mindfully eating an apple and paying full attention to the process and nothing else can lead to more enjoyment of the apple and it gives the mind a break from all the other thought inputs we are routinely hounded by every minute of every day.
Getting a break during the day for even a few minutes and allowing the mind to rest, brings a feeling of calm and sense of peace that revitalizes concentration and creativity.
It might not be possible for most people to do this all day long without much practice. But by setting aside time each day to focus on being in tune with the present, and focusing all attention on the current task, the calming effect it can have will be worth it.
By practicing this for a few minutes each day, it will become easier to take note of more routine tasks where mindfulness can be incorporated. Over time, many people find they have begun to live a more mindful life and they are rewarded with many benefits.
What are the Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness?
The benefits of meditation and mindfulness are almost too numerous to count and will impact each person differently. We do know for sure that those who practice them regularly for an extended period of time tend to foster more compassion, empathy, and love for themselves and others, while boosting memory and focus.
These benefits are helpful throughout day-to-day life and help improve mood and relationships with others.
In addition, mediation and mindfulness also provide these important benefits:
- Lowered heart rate and blood pressure
- Decreased stress, anxiety and depression
- Improved work and school performance
- Reduction in work burnout
- Enhanced overall health and immunity
- Improvements related to various forms of recovery
Many of these benefits are due to the calm mental state and changes in the brain that meditation and mindfulness provide for those who practice it regularly.
How Do Meditation and Mindfulness Change the Brain?
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt and change over time, either positively or negatively.
When a person commits to a specific practice repeatedly, the neural pathways in the brain adapt to this repetition and accommodate for the new sensory input. Part of this is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient by creating a habit loop that automates repetitive tasks so the person doesn’t have to think about it.
The brain essentially wires new pathways to work in conjunction with one another. Neuroplasticity and changes in the brain are ongoing. If person wanted to reverse changes that have occurred, neuroplasticity can accommodate that too.
Meditation and mindfulness play an important role in increasing the thickness of the brain’s cortex, which is vital for cognitive function, attention, and sensory processing.
At the same time, long-term meditation has shown to increase the density of grey matter in the brain to improve cardiovascular function, learning, and memory.
Additionally, mindfulness can improve brain connections, awareness, and emotional regulation.
Both meditation and mindfulness provide many positive changes in the brain, and the more a person practices them, the more pronounced the changes will be over time.
Mindfulness and Meditation for Recovery
Meditation and mindfulness have shown great promise for those in recovery from physical and mental health issues such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, addiction, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Many of these health issues negatively change the brain’s wiring, and these changes override the brain’s normal functioning. But as mentioned earlier, the brain is neuroplastic, so whatever changes occur, can be changed through practice and perseverance.
In the sense of traumatic brain injury, these are usually physical changes that are detrimental to the brains circuitry.
For those with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the addictive substances change the function and structure of the brain, which after becoming addicted, relies on the drugs or alcohol to take the place of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Regular and extended mediation and mindfulness practice can help the brain return to normal functioning for those in many types of recovery.
And because they promote focus and help calm the mind, the brain becomes more efficient at handling routine tasks while improving mood, relationships, and a positive outlook on life.
Meditation and mindfulness are both so powerful at helping to heal the brain that we use them for our clients at Pure Recovery California.