Almost all cultures have practiced some form of meditation for thousands of years—well before scientists had the proper tools to measure its impact and pinpoint the many positive gains a regular practice can offer. Though practitioners may experience a wide variety of benefits, ranging from mental to physical to spiritual (usually, some combination of all three), staying up-to-date on the newest research supporting meditation can provide extra motivation to keep up with your established practice or inspire you to build a new one (here’s a 5-minute guided meditation to get started).
How Meditation Affects Your Overall Health
Perhaps one of the most impressive benefits of meditation that has been investigated by researchers is that it may have the ability to slow aging and help prevent disease. A review article published in Frontiers in Immunology this June explored what we know so far about how meditation can affect your genetic makeup. Yes, you read that right.
Researchers looked at a collection of past studies on how “mind body interventions” (activities like meditation or mindfulness, breath regulation, and Tai Chi) affected people’s stress response at a molecular level. What they found is that these practices tend to counter the effects of stress, meaning that they may help fight against the development of disease and aging. More research is needed to get to the bottom of exactly how it all works and how frequently you need to practice to reap the rewards, but the link has been established, and it’s undeniable that meditation affects your mind and body right down to your DNA.
On a spiritual level, shutting off your five senses during meditation can also help you disconnect from the outside world’s overwhelming information, including external stressors that can lead to physical manifestations. When you disconnect, you are entering a space where you are in touch with your pure mind. That is meditation—the process of bringing yourself closer to your inner self. When you stop receiving and internalizing negative information, your heart beat, blood pressure, and basically every part of your body starts to calm down. Because of this, there will be less imbalance in the mind, body, and breath, which can result in less disease overall.
How Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Pain
A review published this April in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine observed how mindfulness meditation may help people cope with chronic pain, arguably one of the biggest health issues affecting the world. In the U.S. alone, some 133 million Americans are battling a chronic condition (a disease lasting three months or more) and this number is expected to significantly increase by 2020, according to a study published in The Lancet. One way to fight against this growing epidemic is to introduce mindfulness meditation to those who are struggling with relentless physical pain.
Mindfulness meditation is a little different from traditional meditation in that it is usually practiced with eyes open. You’re still receiving information through your five senses, but it’s coming to you in a very controlled way, and therefore, you can purposefully heighten your awareness. For example, if you’re mindfully eating and noticing every single bite, then you’re so present and connected to your senses (taste, smell, sound, etc.) that the very action can bring tremendous fulfillment to that part of your being.
Related: Can Mindfulness Really Reduce Pain?
When you’re really present and aware, you have control over the usual information overload and your senses can be experienced to the fullest. The result is feeling aligned with your whole mechanism, body, mind, and soul. This is why mindfulness meditation can help with bodily pain. If you completely focus your mind and go to the center of the pain, you will begin to recognize it. The process of healing can start right there because you are connecting to the pain with full awareness.
How Meditation Can Make You Smarter
In more exciting news, the entire June issue of the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement was dedicated to the mental benefits of meditation and mindfulness this year. If you’re curious about how meditation can help your brain perform at its best, this research will blow your mind. Included in this issue are articles and studies about how meditation can help improve sequence learning, facilitate earlier development of emotional self-regulation in children, slow cognitive aging in adults, reduce sleepiness or fatigue, and improve focus. When you read about all of these wide-ranging benefits, it can seem pretty incredible and complex, but the reason meditation can accomplish so much for our cognitive functioning is simple.
The mind is receiving a tremendous amount of information every second. When it receives too much information, it’s difficult to process it all. Through meditation, the brain gets more connected with your senses because the outward awareness of your mind is present in a more gentle way—without over-processing things and getting confused by intel coming in from all angles. In a nutshell, meditation and mindfulness bring in harmony and balance between your breath, brain, mind, soul, and physical body. It makes sense, then, that when your brain is in a harmonious place, your day-to-day tasks, decisions-making skills, and ability to learn new things will become much easier.