Meditation really works if practiced properly, its benefits are undeniable, but we need to stop and consider the possible side effects, since meditation encourages people to explore their inner depths, you never know what you’re going to encounter.
Although it’s universally recognized as a highly beneficial practice, its research is still incomplete, more studies are needed to fully comprehend all its potential effects on the brain.
Take a moment.
And think about a Bodhi tree in the middle of nowhere.
Take it a little further.
Picture a motionless Buddha, sitting cross-legged under the Bodhi tree, his orange robes shining as sunlight hits them.
Quiet engulfs him while he sits in nature with all its beauty and fullness as he practices meditation.
What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you picture this? I bet most of us associated it with calmness, peace, and serenity.
Below you can find examples of products to get you started, and what they normally cost.
Meditation Buddha Statue Figurine
Starting at $40
Zafu Meditation Cushion
Starting at $40
Chinese Marble Baoding Balls
Starting at $20
Tibetan Singing Bowl Set
Starting at $64
Foldable Meditation Cushion
Starting at $61
Laminate Wood Travel Meditation Bench
Starting at $100
Now think about your own life, this past year, or this past week or even your day. What sort of emotion does that image evoke?
Is it anywhere close to the thought that preceded it? For most of us, it is a mental picture that represents exhaustion, busyness, or a fleeting sense of life.
According to Buddhism, Buddha experienced awakening sat under a Bodhi tree while he meditated. Meditation has deep roots in many Eastern cultures, and it pre-dates the Buddha himself.
Thanks to the internet and increased connectivity, meditation is no longer limited to a specific part of the world.
It has slowly made its way to the West where it’s been regarded as life-changing, becoming mainstream in its popularity.
The reason for its soaring popularity could be attributed to the fact that we live in so much uncertainty now, we simply have never been this overworked, stressed, and anxious before.
People have claimed the act of meditation to have boosted their life, helped them achieve their goals, and improve their overall quality of life.
Billionaires and successful individuals swear by the benefits of meditation.
But is it really what it’s been made out to be? Does it change your life? Are all these purported benefits exaggerated just to fit a consumer market and make a quick buck?
Since meditation has deeply religious roots, to accurately test the validity of its benefits would mean that we’d need to separate it from its deep cultural implications and analyze it as a secular act.
We’ll start with how meditation affects our brains.
Effects of Meditation On The Brain
Our entire existence is experienced through our minds. The state of our minds can directly alter the state of our lives.
The widespread interest in meditation has led to several interesting studies in the field of psychology and neuroscience.
These studies attempt to answer fundamental questions like: Does meditation alter our brain structure? How significant are the differences, if any?
The most popular type of meditation is the technique of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a process in which you focus solely on the present moment and attempt to become completely immersed in your surrounding experiences.
The most common example of mindfulness is performing focused breathing exercises whereby your entire focus is on the process of inhaling and exhaling.
It is supposed to make you feel calmer, relaxed, and more balanced.
Mindfulness has garnered growing interest in psychological research. An increasing number of studies are beginning to acknowledge how the brain’s grey matter and white matter may be altered by meditation.
Grey matter and white matter serve different purposes. White matter plays the role of transporting information. Grey matter processes that information.
According to research, prolonged meditational training can be associated with the enlargement and thickening of areas of the brain responsible for improved concentration levels, increased activation, and longer attention span.
The thickening of these parts of the brain could also mean a reduction in behavioral deficits.
Additionally, our brains constantly emit specific wave patterns based on its activity. These brain waves can be tracked and recorded using an EEG test.
Studies have observed a difference in our brain wave patterns when we meditate. These changes in wave patterns are associated with differing stress and anxiety levels.
Meditation has also been shown to reduce activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN). That’s the part of the brain that activates when the mind is completely at rest.
Increased activation in this part of the brain is directly linked with reduced stress and anxiety levels.
The evidence suggested by recent neuroscientific studies seems promising. However, further research, using much more elaborate methods, needs to be done for us to fully understand meditation’s impact on our brains.
Benefits of Meditation
The science of meditation is fairly new, yet it looks promising.
According to a survey conducted over a period of 2 years, the meditation industry in the U.S. was estimated to be worth around 1.21 billion U.S. dollars and is predicted to grow to over 2 billion dollars by the year 2022.
It has been identified as the fastest-growing medical trend in the U.S. Brain scans have indicated increased activity in parts of the brain that are directly correlated with a decrease in depression, anxiety, and even pain tolerance.
In a randomized, controlled trial of 201 men and women with coronary heart disease, meditation was shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths by 48%.
Not just that, meditation has been linked with the following benefits:
- Less physiological pain
- Controlled emotions and reactions
- Reduction in amygdala proportions resulting in lower mental stress
- Improved immunity towards chronic illnesses
- Reduced blood pressure
- Elevated mood
- Better emotional health
- Lengthened attention span
- Improved sleep
Due to these supposed benefits, the usage of apps offering meditation has gone up from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017.
When you’re in the act of mindfulness, your attention shifts from the constant inner chatter in your brain to a much more controlled state.
It quietens your mind and reduces feelings of judgment, making you calmer in the process. With regular practice, it makes you more contained.
Instead of reacting aggressively, you respond in a collected manner. You stop and evaluate your options a lot more clearly and patiently than you normally would, helping you make better decisions.
The benefits of meditation might seem endless but we have to realize that it is not a magic fix-all. It does not replace medical treatments and pharmaceutical drugs.
It should be used as a complementary approach to other fundamentally healthy habits like mindful eating, staying active and so on.
As old as the practice of meditation is, the science of it is still in its early stages. We need to give it time to be able to effectively determine tangible benefits and whether those benefits are, indeed, a direct outcome of meditation.
When Is the Best Time to Meditate?
The best time to meditate is in the early morning, studies have proven that the benefits of meditation are heightened when your mind is clear, and daily stressors haven’t yet settled.
A day that starts well, more often than not, ends well.
Finding value in meditation is easy but what is the best time to meditate? Is it morning? Evening? Night? Is there even such a thing as the “best time?”
The general rule is to meditate in the morning.
Monks and yogis suggest waking up before sunrise and meditating first thing in the morning.
This is because early mornings have a unique stillness about them and your mind is well-rested and fresh from the night’s sleep.
Instead of looking at your phones as soon as you wake up, taking a refreshing shower, putting on clean clothes, and practicing meditation kick-starts your day in a calm manner that then stays with you throughout the day.
Meditating in the morning also makes it a lot easier to stay consistent with the habit as there are fewer chances of one getting tired or distracted.
Beginners might find it difficult to incorporate meditation as part of their morning routine but this problem could be solved by meditating for a short period and then building it up each day.
That said, just because it is recommended does not mean that morning is the ideal time for everyone to meditate.
Meditation at night is generally not recommended but for a lot of people, it can be a time when they unwind from all that happened during the day as nights are usually quieter.
Sticking to a nighttime ritual of meditating can be a little difficult for most people as they are tired or sleepy.
Contrarily, one might get so much energy from meditating that it then becomes hard for one to go to sleep after.
Nevertheless, meditating for a few short minutes before going to bed never hurt anyone.
We all are wired differently, we experience different energies at different points during the day.
Some people find it optimal to meditate right after an exercise session, some prefer meditating right after they come home from work to de-stress and relieve their tensions.
A lot of people divide their meditation into several chunks throughout the day according to their preferences.
The best time to meditate depends heavily on a person’s lifestyle, There’s no one else better equipped to choose the best time for you other than yourself.
Pick a time when you’d be the least interrupted and fit meditation in your day.
What Are The Side-effects of Meditation?
Side effects of meditation might include, delusional or paranormal thoughts, loss of energy, hallucinations, memories of past traumas, and flashbacks of negative experiences.
Not everything works for everyone.
Even if it’s something as widely appreciated as meditation.
The research on mindfulness meditation has overwhelmingly focused on its benefits rather than the side effects. In a 2017 study conducted by researchers from Brown University, nearly half of the 60 participants experienced delusional or paranormal thoughts after practicing meditation.
They also experienced a loss in energy and saw hallucinations or visions that were not there.
Many participants found themselves in a less than happy place. Meditation encourages people to explore their inner depths.
For some people, it brought up memories and past traumas in the form of flashbacks which was akin to re-living those negative experiences all over again.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that the research on the side effects of meditation is extremely limited and these findings should be taken with a grain of salt.
To accurately test out the benefits and dangers of meditation, we need many more carefully crafted studies that monitor people’s activity before and after starting meditation, stretched out over a longer period.
Moreover, the way meditation is marketed to the general public is problematic on its own. It’s presented as a one-stop fix for all of life’s problems. It is commodified, to sell it to the individual.
It points the finger at you and says that there is something wrong with you if you don’t benefit from it, and not the practice itself. This sort of a thought process can lead to opinions that may have a negative impact on some people.
We have to realize that if someone is struggling in other fundamental areas of their life, like their career or their relationships, the underlying issue may not be their failure to practice mindfulness.
In fact, their lack of mindfulness may stem from the very fact that they are suffering in those important aspects of their life. And a 10-minute meditation session is just not going to cut it for them.
It would be more helpful to a struggling individual if instead of saying-
‘You’re just not present in the moment and that is why you’re so stressed!’
‘You’re stressed and that might be why you’re finding it hard to be mindful.’
Meditation has been made into something intrinsic. Something that you do for yourself to make you feel better.
But the original idea of meditation lies in practicing compassion, empathy, and gratitude for the benefit of the people around you.
And so, instead of making it all about ourselves, meditation could be something that we do for others.
A lot of our stress originates from other people’s behaviors, imagine if we were to practice compassion towards one another, how much better off would the world be.
Compassion comes full circle.
The Bottom Line.
Our greatest commodity is our time, it is the most valuable thing we own, how we spend our time determines where we end up in life.
We’d be surprised at how time slows down when we slow down.
So, take a moment.
And this time, not for a Bodhi tree, but for you.
Sit back. Enjoy the sunset.
You can sit and do nothing and be present in the moment if you want to, feel the soft breeze on your face and all.
Or you can let your mind wander and explore its creative depths, maybe you speculate how Buddha would react if he were to eat an avocado toast.
Would he enjoy it? Is avocado toast something that would get the Buddha seal of approval? He’d probably practice compassion and pretend to enjoy it even if he didn’t like it.
Because just as is sometimes the case with meditation, avocado toasts could seem to be over-hyped, too.
Open yourself up to possibilities. If one thing does not work out for you, try another. Just make sure you do what you feel like doing. Or not doing.
In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to meditate.
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