James Jones, founder of Be Fit Be Able, shares the benefits of meditation for both people with or without disabilities.
I know you probably have preconceived ideas about what meditation is and the kind of people who practise it. Contrary to what some might believe, people who meditate are not weird, old hippies or airy-fairy New Age folk. Meditation is more common than you might think. The popularity of meditation is increasing as more people discover its benefits.
Meditation is a habitual process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts. Most meditative techniques started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions, but today many people use meditation outside of its traditional religious or cultural settings.
An extensive 2012 study conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health estimated that eight percent of the population or roughly 18 million people in the United States (US) have at least tried meditation. Of course, the number has grown since then.
In recent years, surveys have been conducted to estimate how many people meditate in the world. A rough estimation of people who meditate globally ranges between 200 and 500 million people. I bet that number shocked you!
Different groups of people meditate in different ways
According to Pew Research Center writer David Masci, a substantial number of Americans from nearly all religious groups and those who have no religious affiliation say they meditate at least once a week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Buddhists and substantial numbers of Hindus say they meditate regularly.
A 2014 Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center estimates that two-thirds of Buddhists and a third of Hindus in the study meditate at least once a week. At the same time, many Christians also say they meditate once a week or more. Among some smaller Christian groups, the share of self-described meditators is somewhat higher.
Some factions of Christianity even encourage meditation as a means to get closer to God. It might also act as a form of prayer for religious people. People who pray on a regular basis are also more likely to practise meditation. Eastern-style meditation generally involves clearing the mind.
Meditation can mean different things to different people, but no matter your approach, it holds some important benefits. Personally, I get up at 03h30 every morning to meditate while most of the world is sleeping. It’s peaceful and quiet, with no distractions. My mind can be quiet and I love being in this peaceful, calm place before I start my day.
Regular meditation gives me dedicated time to assess my life and my goals and dreams, and to listen for guidance from God and my higher self. It is my favourite part of the day. You can use meditation to increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings.
Many people think of it as a way to reduce stress and develop concentration. Some also use the practice to develop other beneficial habits and feelings, such as a positive mood and outlook, self-discipline, healthy sleep patterns and even increased pain tolerance.
You can meditate anywhere
People practise many different forms of meditation, most of which don’t require specialised equipment or space. You can begin with just a few minutes daily. If you want to start meditating, try choosing a form of meditation based on what you want to get out of it. There are two major styles of meditation:
Concentrate your attention on a single object, thought, sound or visualisation. As you focus on this single thing, rid your mind of distraction. Meditation may focus on breathing, a mantra or a calming sound.
This form of meditation encourages you to broadened awareness of all aspects of your environment, train of thought and sense of self. It may include becoming aware of thoughts, feelings or impulses you might normally try to suppress.
Proven benefits to meditating
Matthew Thorpe, in an article for Heathline, suggests the following benefits to meditation:
Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation. Normally, mental and physical stress causes increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines.
It can lead to sleep deprivation, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking. In an eight-week study, a meditation style called “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress. Research has shown that meditation may improve symptoms of stress-related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.
Less stress translates to less anxiety. Mindfulness meditation was also found to reduce anxiety and related disorders such as phobias, social anxiety, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviours and panic attacks. A study of 2 466 participants showed that a variety of different meditation strategies may reduce anxiety levels.
Promotes emotional health
Some forms of meditation can also lead to an improved self-image and more positive outlook on life. Two studies of mindfulness meditation found it decreased depression in more than 4 600 adults. One study followed 18 volunteers as they practised meditation over three years. The participants experienced long-term decreases in depression.
Some forms of meditation may help you develop a stronger understanding of yourself, helping you grow into your best self. For example, self-inquiry meditation explicitly aims to help you develop a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to those around you.
Other forms teach you to recognise thoughts that may be harmful or self-defeating. The idea is that, as you gain greater awareness of your thought habits, you can steer them toward more constructive patterns. In another study, 40 senior men and women who took a mindfulness meditation programme experienced reduced feelings of loneliness.
Lengthens attention span
Focused-attention meditation is like weightlifting for your attention span. It helps increase the strength and endurance of your attention. Workers also remembered details of their tasks better than their peers who did not practise meditation.
Can generate kindness
Some types of meditation may increase positive feelings and actions toward yourself and others. Metta, a type of meditation also known as loving-kindness meditation, begins with developing kind thoughts and feelings toward yourself. Metta increases positivity, empathy and compassionate behaviour toward others.
May help fight addiction
The mental discipline you can develop through meditation may help you break dependencies by increasing your self-control and awareness of triggers for addictive behaviours. Research has shown that meditation may help people learn to redirect their attention, control their emotions and impulses, increase their willpower and their understanding of the causes behind their addiction. Meditation may also help you control food cravings. A review of 14 studies found mindfulness meditation helped participants reduce emotional and binge eating.
Nearly half the population will struggle with insomnia at some point. One study compared two mindfulness-based meditation programmes by randomly assigning participants to one of two groups. One group practised meditation while the other didn’t. Participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer, compared with those who didn’t meditate. Becoming skilled in meditation may help you control or redirect the racing or “runaway” thoughts that often lead to insomnia. Additionally, it can help relax your body, releasing tension and placing you in a peaceful state that can help you fall asleep.
Helps control pain
Your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind and can be elevated in stressful conditions. For example, one study used functional MRI techniques to observe brain activity as participants experienced a painful stimulus. Some participants had gone through four days of mindfulness meditation training, while others had not. The meditating patients showed increased activity in the brain centres known to control pain. They also reported less sensitivity to pain. Another study looked at the effects of habitual meditation. It found that meditation was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain.
Can decrease blood pressure
Meditation can also improve physical health by reducing strain on the heart. Over time, high blood pressure makes the heart work harder to pump blood, which can lead to poor heart function. It also contributes to atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Meditation by concentrating on a “silent mantra” (a repeated, non-vocalised word) has been found to reduce blood pressure by about five points on average.
Even just five minutes a day for a month can already impact on your wellbeing. You’ll be hooked like I am. I look forward to this very important part of my day every morning.