Of all the so-called “spiritual practices,” meditation probably has the largest body of scientific research backing up its utility and power. In fact, meditation is so powerful that it can rewire our brain. Numerous studies using MRI and EEG have shown that a regular meditation practice can rewire the neural patterns in the brain and even increase grey matter.2,3
In a nutshell, meditation leads to:
- Reduced psychological distress
- Better emotional health
- Better cognitive abilities
- Better physical health
Let’s take each of these in turn.
1. Reduced Psychological Distress
All of us face varying degrees of psychological distress in our daily lives—from regular stresses and worries, to anxiety, depression, and addiction. Meditation and mindfulness interventions help us deal with all of it.4,5
Solid research backs up the common knowledge that mindfulness techniques reduce anxiety and stress.6 In fact, they have long been prescribed to patients who suffer anxiety disorders and panic attacks as a way to calm their nerves with relatively good success rates.7 Interestingly, research also shows that meditation retreats are more effective than traditional vacations in reducing daily stress and improving mood.8
Several studies also show that meditation can reduce depressive symptoms, maybe even more so than antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy in the long run.9 Clarity of thought and the ability to step back and get perspective reduce our tendency to ruminate, which often plunges the most vulnerable among us into depression.
On the addiction front, mindfulness can help people to stop smoking10 and reduce binge eating11 as well as drug and alcohol abuse.12 It makes sense that being more mindful would help us control our worst impulses, and the science backs it up.
2. Better Emotional Health
Meditation also leads to better emotional health in general. Being in a mindful state—even momentarily—is associated with a greater sense of well-being.13
You can also learn to regulate your emotions through meditation and mindfulness practice. Mindful individuals have more emotional awareness, are more understanding, more accepting, and can better cope with being in a shitty mood.14,15 People who are prone to outbursts of anger or sadness are better able to regulate and control their emotions with the aid of meditation.16
Psychologists have also noted that patients who practice meditation develop greater awareness of their actions and emotions. In fact, some therapists prescribe meditation to their patients to assist them in their therapy.17
Meditation also lowers the need for external validation. Meditating trains you to become more aware of what thoughts and emotions dictate your behavior, primarily where you’re trying to receive your love and validation that may not be working. It forces you to become more aware of your needy and neurotic behaviors and put an end to them.18
Not only will you rely less on external validation, you will also have healthier relationships all around. This is primarily because meditation increases your ability to empathize with others. Brain scans show that meditation activates the positive, happy, empathetic aspects of the brain. People who regularly practice meditation report an ability to empathize and care about the emotions of others, thereby bonding with them more easily.19
3. Better Cognitive Abilities
Quite simply, meditation trains you to remove all of the unnecessary garbage from your mind, which frees it up to retain what is useful and important more efficiently.20 In a nutshell, you’ll have better memory and be able to think more clearly.
Meditation also increases focus and discipline. Practitioners of meditation are able to retain focus on specific tasks and are less likely to deviate from those tasks.21
Interestingly, meditation also improves your intuition. Often referred to as your “gut reaction,” your “instinct,” or your “intuition,” meditating gets you in touch with your unconscious decision-making processes. Daniel Kahneman refers to it as your “first brain.” Malcolm Gladwell refers to it as “blink.” Whatever it is, that instant, gut reaction that you have about some things is often right. Meditation will increase that.
4. Better Physical Health
Not only does meditation help you psychologically, emotionally, and cognitively, it can also make you physically healthier. You get better sleep, better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, increased tolerance to pain, and better immune functioning.22
As the physical health benefits of meditation are less commonly known than its other benefits, I want to show you what exactly meditation does for your body. I present to you… the Meditation Nerd Box:
- Better sleep quality in normal adults23 and reduced wake time in those with chronic insomnia24
- Better heart function associated with better self-regulation25
- Significant reduction in blood pressure in adults with hypertension (which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and even death)26 as well as those with normal levels of blood pressure27
- Decreased perception of pain in patients undergoing treatment for chronic pain28 as well as increased tolerance to acute pain29
- Better immune functioning and lower mortality30
- Higher effectiveness of the flu vaccine31
Meditation is by no means a cure-all for your problems. But I believe that it’s a powerful tool. Meditation’s purpose is to give you perspective and clarity on your internal issues. It doesn’t fix them for you.
Years ago, one of the most upsetting parts of my involvement in meditation was the sheer number of long-time practitioners I met who convinced themselves that meditation fixed all of their psychological and emotional problems, when it didn’t. It helped them experience and become aware of those problems, but you still have to go out into the world and commit the actions to overcome them.
Sitting in a room staring at a wall all day is unlikely to do that.
The Benefits of Meditation and Spirituality
There is a spiritual aspect to a meditative practice, for those of you into that kind of thing.
I usually avoid spirituality on this blog on purpose. I believe it’s something that can only be experienced and lived. Spirituality, by its definition, cannot be discussed. Just the resulting experiences of spirituality can be described. Spirituality itself is transrational.
It’s like counting to infinity. Words can capture part of it but will never fill it up.
I’m no good at describing the spiritual experience with words. But if you’ve ever:
- Had a moment in your life where your sense of self—your sense of identity—completely dissolved and there was no longer differentiation between you, the sky, the water, the people around you, everything,
- Stared at the stars so long you started laughing at how beautiful the fact that we even exist is,
- Suddenly realized that your fears and worries were illusions created by your ego and mind, and that good and bad were simply separate expressions of the same grand unity of This, and that you never had to be afraid, ever, because you—your fears, your flaws, your failings, everything about you—was just another perfect expression of the same reality,
Then yeah, meditation can help get you back to that place.