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What is Meditation?

Present Moment Awareness = Mindfulness

Meditation is a discipline of training the mind through the practice of present moment awareness. This present moment awareness is also called mindfulness. When you’re meditating, you’re practicing being mindful. Rather than getting caught up in thoughts about the past or the future, meditation is a practice of keeping your attention gently focused on the present moment.

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It’s Not About Stopping Thoughts

If youʼre asking the question “what is meditation?” you might be envisioning someone sitting in a quiet place and stopping all thoughts; however, thoughts donʼt stop completely during meditation. Just as it’s the nature of the heart to beat, it’s the nature of the mind to churn out content, or STUFF (Stories, Thoughts, Urges, Frustrations, Feelings.) Expect that thoughts and feelings will continue to arise.

Weave Mindful Moments Into Your Day

You donʼt have to sit in a quiet place for twenty minutes with your eyes closed to practice mindful meditation, although sitting quietly is a good way to practice. Consider weaving mindful moments into your day. Interrupt busy thoughts by gently placing attention on just one breath. When you walk from one point to another, gently place your attention on the bottom of your feet as they touch the ground. When you talk to co-workers or family members, see if you can focus your attention on what they’re saying, rather than getting caught up in what you’re going to say next. Practicing being mindful can be done most anywhere and anytime. All it takes is remembering.

Many Ways to Practice

There are countless numbers of ways to practice meditation. The types of meditation that people are drawn to vary; there is no right or wrong technique to use.

If youʼd like to see what meditation is like, hereʼs a short audio meditation that focuses on the breath. If you’d like to learn how to meditate, hereʼs a primer on meditation for beginners. And, if you would like to check out the Mindful-180 Podcast, you can listen here.

Studies show benefits of mindfulness at work

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  • There was a statistically significant benefit of mindfulness training for employee health and well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, September 2016
  • Mindfulness makes employees more resilient in the face of challenges and increases task performance. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, 30, 115-157
  • Mindfulness interventions at work decrease reactivity to stress and the risk of burnout. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 2015

The Mindful Workplace Study

Joy Rains worked with a program evaluation consultant to measure the effectiveness of workplace mindfulness programs. After they designed materials, Joy implemented programs in four companies from varying industries. Participants learned skills to reduce stress, focus, think positively, listen attentively, and gain awareness—through a combination of instruction, experiential practices, group discussion, and role-playing.  Read the results.

What are the scientific findings on the health benefits of meditation?

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Lower stress levels

Meditation promotes physiological changes that block the ability of stress hormones to influence the brain and body.1 Meditation can produce an effect on the body that resembles a class of drugs (beta-blockers) used to treat the symptoms of stress-related conditions. These changes invoke a natural relaxation response that is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response to stress.2

Enhanced positive emotion, learning, and memory

Many regions of the brain contain a substance composed of cell bodies known as gray matter, which assists in routing sensory stimuli to the central nervous system. An area with a higher concentration of gray matter suggests a stronger functional ability in processing and transporting information throughout the brain.3
Researchers have found that compared to non-meditating individuals, those who meditate have a higher density of gray matter in multiple brain regions, particularly the hippocampus. This suggests that over time, meditation has the ability to benefit the functionality of activities regulated by the hippocampus: learning, memory, and emotion.3,4

Health benefits of meditation were also shown through studies of practiced meditators who had shrinkage and lesser gray matter density in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that initiates the bodyʼs response to stress and plays a key role in emotional memory and reactivity. These findings suggest that meditation may help control unconscious emotional reactions.3-5

Studies also found that those who meditated had higher levels of brain function in the left frontal region of the brain, a pattern associated with positive, approach-oriented emotional states.6

Visit the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health for more information on studies related to the benefits of meditation.

Increased focus and awareness

During meditation, attention is often focused on a repeated sound, word, or phrase.2 This activates regions of the brain related to attention and focus. Research suggests that the amount of time spent meditating each day is positively correlated with performance on attentional tasks. 7

References

1. A. Mohan, R. Sharma, and R. Bijlani, “Effect of Meditation on Stress-Induced Changes in Cognitive Functions,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 17 (3) (2011): 207-212.
2. H. Benson, “The Relaxation Response,” in Mind-Body Medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health, ed. D. Goleman and J. Gurin (New York, NY: Consumer Reports Book, 1993).
3. B. K. Hölzel, J. Carmody, M. Vangel, C. Congleton, S. M. Yerramsetti, T. Gard, and S. W. Lazar, “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (2010): 36–43.
4. Y. Tang, Y. Ma, J. Wang, Y. Fan, S. Feng, Q. Lu, Q. Yu, D. Sui, M. Rothbart, M. Fan, and M. Posner, “Short-term Meditation Improves Attention and Self-Regulation,” Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(43) (2007); 17152-17156    
5. A. Lutz, H. A. Slagter, J. D. Dunne, R. J. Davidson, “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4) (2008): 163-169.
6. C. Moyer, M. Donnelly, J. Andersson, K. Valek, S. Huckaby, D. Wiederholt, R. Doty, A. Rehlinger, and B. Rice, “Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated with Positive Emotion is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training,” Psychological Science, 22 (10) (2011): 1277-1279.
7. D. Chan and M. Woollacott, “Effects of Level of Meditation Experience on Attentional Focus: Is the Efficiency of Executive or Orientation Networks Improved?” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(6) (2007): 651-657.

 

 

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