“What colour do you see? I see blue”
This was a question someone asked me once when I was introduced at a party as someone who meditates.
And this is part of the problem with meditation and with encouraging more people to try it.
Meditation should not be synonymous with spirituality. It is a technique backed by science that can have profound benefits on a person’s well-being. The results can be so significant that it can feel spiritual in some ways – but there’s a multitude of studies that have demonstrated its physical, psychological, and emotional impact.
The scientific benefits of meditating
Here’s a list of some of the real benefits that meditating has been proven to offer with a few relevant references:
- Stress reduction: Meditation helps lower cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for stress, leading to a calmer, more relaxed state of mind. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that mindfulness meditation programs can have a small to moderate effect on reducing stress, anxiety, and depression (1). A 2013 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that a short program in mindfulness meditation produced demonstrable effects on the brain and immune function. The study found reduced cortisol levels, which is the primary hormone responsible for stress (2).
- Improved focus and concentration: Regular meditation can increase attention span and strengthen the ability to concentrate on tasks. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that an 8-week mindfulness meditation course led to significant improvements in participants’ ability to focus and ignore distractions (3). Also a 2013 study published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience found that meditation training improved attentional control and reduced the interference effect in the Stroop task, a classic test of cognitive control (4).
- Emotional well-being: Meditation can help cultivate positive emotions, increase self-awareness, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. A 2000 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program led to significant reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms in a sample of individuals with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder (5).
- Enhanced self-awareness: By focusing on the present moment and inner thoughts, meditation fosters a greater understanding of oneself, promoting personal growth and self-discovery. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the practice of mindfulness meditation led to increased self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation. The study suggests that mindfulness meditation promotes self-awareness by fostering metacognitive awareness and decreasing cognitive rigidity (6).
- Better sleep: Meditation can improve sleep quality by helping to regulate the sleep-wake cycle and reduce insomnia. A 2018 study published in Sleep Health found that a brief mindfulness-based intervention improved sleep quality among university students. The study involved 113 participants who underwent a 4-week mindfulness program (7).
- Pain management: Meditation can help in managing chronic pain and reduce the perception of pain by altering the way the brain processes pain signals. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Pain found that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness. The study included 15 participants who underwent brief mindfulness meditation training (8). And a 2016 study published in NeuroImage found that mindfulness meditation reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness by engaging different brain mechanisms than those engaged by placebo or sham meditation. The study involved 75 healthy, pain-free participants who underwent mindfulness meditation, placebo conditioning, or sham mindfulness meditation (9).
- Lower blood pressure: Studies have shown that meditation can contribute to a reduction in blood pressure, benefiting overall heart health. A 2008 study published in the journal Hypertension found that a transcendental meditation program led to a significant reduction in blood pressure and improved heart function among patients with high blood pressure (10).
- Improved immune system: Meditation has been linked to a stronger immune system, helping the body better defend itself against illness and disease. A 2003 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program led to significant increases in antibody titers to the influenza vaccine among participants, suggesting an enhanced immune response (11). A 2010 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that a 1-month meditation retreat led to significant increases in the expression of genes associated with immune system function and stress-related pathways (12).
- Slower aging: Some research suggests that meditation may help protect against age-related cognitive decline and promote healthy aging. A 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that long-term meditation practitioners showed better preserved cognitive functioning and smaller age-related reductions in cortical thickness compared to non-meditators (13).
Furthermore, there have been a number of studies that demonstrate significant changes in the brains of long-term meditators versus those who do not meditate. For example, a 2005 study published in NeuroReport found that participants with long-term meditation experience had increased cortical thickness in brain regions associated with attention, interoception, and sensory processing (14). A 2012 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that long-term meditation practitioners had increased gyrification (folding of the brain’s cortex) in brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing (15).
The goal of meditation isn’t to achieve a spiritual awakening, self-actualization, or to become Buddha. The “real” goal is to attain a state that Zen Buddhists call “no mind” or mushin—an ironic reference to a religion in a post that downplays the spiritual aspects of meditation. “No mind” is a mental state achieved when your mind is free of all internal dialogue and distractions. This is the objective of meditative practice: to train your brain to find this state and learn how to return to it when needed. It is incredibly powerful.
We have all experienced “no mind” in the past, albeit accidentally. Have you ever been awakened in the night by a strange sound? You focus intently on listening for it to happen again or to identify the source, blocking out everything else in your mind. You don’t speak. Your mind isn’t daydreaming about the next day. You are focused on one thing and, in doing so, have nothing else in your head — this is “no mind.”
This extreme focus on one thing, such as listening for that sound again, is the gateway to “no mind.” It is the reason that all forms of meditative practice employ this technique in one way or another. Consider this list of various types of meditation and notice that they are all just variations of this one central concept: extreme focus on one thing to block out all the noise and distractions in your head and achieve “no mind.”
- Mindfulness of Breath: This meditation technique involves focusing on the breath as it naturally flows in and out of the body. The person meditating simply observes the sensation of breathing without trying to control it, and whenever the mind wanders, they gently return their attention to the breath.
- Body Scan Meditation: Here, the meditator focuses on different parts of the body, paying attention to any sensations or tension they may experience. They progressively move their attention from one body part to another, cultivating mindfulness and relaxation.
- Mantra Meditation: This technique involves the repetition of a word or phrase, called a mantra, either silently or aloud. The person meditating focuses on the sound and vibration of the mantra, using it as an anchor for their attention.
- Chanting Meditation: Similar to mantra meditation, chanting meditation involves the repetition of specific words, phrases, or sounds. However, chanting usually involves a more melodic or rhythmic recitation and can be done individually or in a group setting.
- Prayer Meditation: A spiritual practice (yes, I know) where the meditator focuses on a prayer, either reciting it silently or aloud which is exactly the same as mantra or chanting meditation.
- Loving-Kindness (Metta) Meditation: This practice involves focusing on cultivating feelings of love, kindness, and compassion towards oneself and others. The meditator usually repeats a series of phrases, such as “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe,” and extends these wishes to other beings.
- Concentration Meditation: In this technique, the person meditating focuses on a single object, such as a candle flame, a specific body sensation, or a mental image. The goal is to cultivate deep concentration and a calm, focused mind.
- Walking Meditation: This involves focusing on the sensation of walking and the contact between the feet and the ground. The meditator remains fully present with each step, cultivating mindfulness and awareness of the body in motion. You can replace “walking” with a variety of activities – e.g. eating – to achieve the same result.
Practice makes awareness
Meditation is a practice—an activity that improves with repetition. The key is to learn to notice when your mind drifts away from your focus (such as your breath or an object) and gently bring it back.
The more you meditate, the quicker you’ll start to notice your mind drifting off. We’re all used to our mind wandering, so we often don’t even notice when it’s happening. It’s been going on like this our whole lives.
When you first start meditating, you may relax and your mind may continue its usual routine—thinking about the day, past mistakes, what to have for dinner, etc. When you finally notice that you’ve “wandered off,” several minutes may have passed. The key is not to get upset about it; it’s a natural part of the process. Simply notice it and return to your focus.
The more you practice, the easier it becomes, and the more aware you’ll be of what has happened.
This is how you build “mental strength,” just as you would in the gym. Meditation is not a passive activity; it can be active and quite challenging. Think of it as a workout for your mind, just as lifting weights is a workout for your muscles.
As you get stronger, you’ll start to experience benefits in your life outside of meditation. Since meditation cultivates self-awareness, you become more attuned to your emotional states and their triggers. This heightened awareness can help you manage and regulate your emotions more effectively—often preventing impulsive or reactive responses to situations at work and elsewhere.
No guided meditations
My advice is to stop using guided meditation practices as soon as you can.
Achieving a state of “no mind” while listening to guided meditations can be almost impossible compared to silent, unguided practice because the voice of the guide becomes a distraction. This distraction engages your noisy, thinking mind and draws attention away from your point of focus.
However, in the early stages of your meditation journey, guided practice can be useful for teaching various techniques. As you progress in your meditation practice and become more comfortable with these techniques, you should transition to silent, unguided meditation sessions, where achieving a state of “no mind” may be more attainable. Ultimately, the key is to experiment with different meditation styles and find the approach that works best for you and your goals.
Just as with any exercise, there is no set amount of time that you need to aim for with your meditation. But as with most things, quality is better than quantity and so it is better to build 5-10 minutes of focused practice into your day than to just sit and daydream for 30 minutes or more.
A 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that participants who practiced mindfulness meditation for an average of 27 minutes per day over eight weeks showed significant changes in brain structure related to learning, memory, and emotional regulation (16). And a 2013 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that participants who engaged in a brief, 10-minute meditation session experienced improvements in mood and reduced fatigue and anxiety compared to a control group (17).
There was another study (18) focussed on inexperienced meditators that found 8 weeks (but not 4 weeks) of 13-minute daily meditation decreased negative mood, enhanced attention, improved memory, and decreased anxiety. In other words, it was the number of daily sessions that made the impact and not necessarily the length of each session.
My goal for this post has been to showcase the extensive scientific research that undeniably proves that regular meditation can have profound effects on your mind, well-being, and body (as evidenced by brain scans). By incorporating meditation into your daily routine for as little as 5 minutes or as long as you prefer, you can actively train your brain to become more self-aware and mentally resilient. The objective is not to pursue spirituality or “see blue”, but rather to strive for achieving a state of “no mind”, which can indeed feel transcendent, but that ultimately depends on you.