The mind is a powerful force that most of us consider too complicated to harness, unless you happen to be a lifelong yogi on a Tibetan mountaintop. But both Western science and Eastern tradition tell us that anyone can focus his or her immense mental power and even improve brain performance with just a few minutes of meditation each day.
When we meditate, our brain undergoes incredible changes that science is just beginning to document. A 2011 study from Massachusetts General Hospital showed that about 30 minutes of daily meditation plus weekly group meetings for just eight weeks caused structural changes in the brain.
Meditation increased gray matter (the substance that holds neuronal cell bodies to power the brain) concentration in areas associated with learning, memory and emotion regulation, and reduced gray matter in the region of the brain associated with stress. Another Massachusetts General Hospital study found that areas of the brain associated with attention and sensory processing, including the prefrontal cortex that thins with age, was thicker in the brains of seasoned meditators.
So why aren’t all of us meditating? The step that presents the biggest hurdle is opening our minds to the practice. Forget the associations with Buddhist monks, spiritual devotions or attempts at enlightenment. “You don’t have to be an ace at sitting still; you don’t have to wait until you’re uncrazed and decaffeinated. Meditation doesn’t require special skills or background. If you can breathe, you can meditate,” says Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher and author of “Real Happiness, the Power of Meditation.”
Create a space where you can sit upright and strong, while remaining comfortable and at ease, suggest Ed and Deb Shapiro, meditation experts and authors of “Be the Change.” “The most important thing is that you feel comfortable meditating. Because if it becomes a struggle you are going to want to stop,” says Deb Shapiro.
Don’t overlook unexpected opportunities to meditate during the day: in the ladies room, in your office with the door closed, in line at the grocery store. Significantly more important than the location or duration of practice is your commitment. “Establishing a regular practice, whatever the length of the session, is more important than striving to devote hours to it each day,” says Salzberg. Find a form of meditation that gives you comfort, be it alone, with a group, guided by an audio recording or your own breath, and return to it every day.
Ready to make meditation work for you? Design your practice based on your individual goals, so whether your goal is mental focus, restful sleep, reduced stress, energy or happiness, the transformative powers of meditation are yours for the taking in only a few minutes a day.