What are the benefits of meditation?
In the last episode, we took an honest look at the question. Can meditation be bad for us? And it turns out there’s many cases in which yes, meditation can actually be bad for us.
As I mentioned in the last episode, I love meditation and I meditate every day and I’m obviously doing it because I feel it’s good for me. So I thought it’s only fair to balance out the last episode out with the question, what are the benefits of meditation?
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Because you’re listening to this episode, I’m going to assume you’ve already heard about all the benefits of meditation and you’re intrigued. Maybe you might even be experiencing those benefits.
Let’s take a look at the most commonly promised and promoted benefits of meditation.
Four Promised Benefits of Meditation
I like to divide the promised benefits of meditation into four categories:
- Spiritual Benefits
- Physiological Benefits – Body Benfits
- Mental Benefits
- Emotional Benefits
The first and biggest category is the spiritual benefits. Meditation is touted for bringing enlightenment. For bringing a release from the grip of karma and reincarnation. For engendering, a complete absorption into the universal eternal immutable, divine energy of existence.
Here at meditation questions. We don’t believe in that sort of thing, but if someone else does well, sure you do you.
I’m going to say this benefit is not really a benefit. It’s more of a traditional religious promise, which works metaphorically, but it’s not something that I believe scientifically can be proven or is real. So that’s the first one, the spiritual.
This categorization of benefits into the mental, the emotional and the physiological is obviously for convenience reasons. Clearly what happens in our hearts, in our minds, in our body affects the whole us, the complete us. What happens in one of those is intimately and directly tied to what’s happening to the rest of us.
Number one, quite possibly the most famous benefit of all, meditation reduces stress. Looking at the latest research on meditation, it turns out yes, meditation actually does reduce stress.
The current explosive interest in meditation can be traced back to a particular form of mindful meditation called mindfulness based stress reduction. It’s acronym is MBSR.
And one of the main reasons meditation started to garner attention was because MBSR designed by Jon Kabat Zinn was one of the very first types of meditations used in a clinical hospital setting. And because of that, it was one of the first types of meditations that was shown to be effective medically and scientifically. This was decades ago and now there’s enough scientific literature that has shown yes, meditation does reduce stress.
The way it MBSR reduces stress is by reducing the levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. It makes sense a reduction in cortisol makes us more relaxed and being relaxed means being less stressful. It all fits together.
That’s not to say that. MBSR is the only way you can reduce stress.
We’ve talked about in past episodes that there are so many different kinds of meditations. There’s mantra meditation, there’s mala meditation, there’s movement meditation. There are even meditations that don’t begin with the letter m.
However, there aren’t as many studies showing the effects on stress of these other types of meditations. But most studies show that all of these can help improve stress.
We should also keep in mind that it’s not just meditation that can help reduce stress, it’s any activity you do that brings calmness or joy or relaxation into your life.
Another highly touted physical benefit of meditation is that it helps in controlling pain. This has also been shown to be mostly true.
However, we should be clear on what exactly meditation is doing. It’s not reducing pain, it’s reducing our experience and perception of pain. It’s not making the pain go away. It’s helping our minds detach from the pain.
Pain isn’t a completely understood process. But generally what we know is that nerve fibers send out signals to the brain saying, whoa, something bad is happening. Our interpretation of those signals is, Oh my goodness, I’m in pain. And those interpretations end up being the experience of pain.
What meditation is doing is it helps us look at those signals come in and say, Okay yes, it looks like something not so good as happening. I don’t like it, but if there’s nothing I can do about it, let me see if I can just observe this experience going on that normally I would interpret as pain and hopefully by observing it, it won’t feel so painful.
Meditation helps us develop this pain observation skill.
The one big thing to remember is that pain is a really important signal. We should not ignore it.
I know people with chronic pain issues who are on various medications. The medications help a lot but they don’t eliminate the experience of pain. That’s where medication can help out. Meditation can be a wonderful add-on to manage pain.
We just have to keep in mind it’s not always a good idea to ignore pain. Sometimes it’s a really good idea to listen to it and not try to diminish it. Sometimes we should pay attention to pain and find out what’s causing it.
We shouldn’t use meditation as a way of ignoring pain but it has been shown to be really useful for managing pain for those that haven’t been able to find another way to manage it.
Reduction of Blood Pressure
The next physiological benefit of meditation is that meditation helps reduce blood pressure. We intuitively know that getting upset or riled up builds up emotional pressure, but it also actually builds physical pressure in the body. It increases our blood pressure.
It makes sense that learning to relax, to calm down and as we said earlier to not be as stressed out would reduce blood pressure.
The important thing to note is that this benefit of reduction in blood pressure is primarily detected among older people who already had very high blood pressure to begin with.
If you’re already chillaxed and don’t have high blood pressure meditation is not going to significantly reduce your blood pressure.
The last physiological benefit of meditation we’re going to look at is that meditation improves sleep.
As many, many newcomers to meditation can testify, meditation might actually help you sleep while you’re meditating. This is a common experience for newcomers to meditation.
And again, it makes sense because during meditation our body is relaxing. Our mind is calming down. All of the biomarkers are telling our mind, Hey, I feel really relaxed right now. I think it might be time for sleep.
What normally happens when we have a difficulty in sleeping is all of those biomarkers are pushing the signals the other way. They’re telling us to be more alert or continue to be worried about something.
We might not be able to sleep because we’re looking at our screen riled up about something happening on social media.
Meditation can turn all of that experience in the other direction. It can help direct our mind towards slowing down time to put things away. It can train our mind to tell the body, all I’m here to do is just sit or lie down and relax. Which of course is going to lead to better sleep.
Let’s turn to the mental – emotional benefits of meditation. The first is a group of four that belong together. These are meditation helps control anxiety, meditation reduces depression, meditation increases focus and meditation lengthens attention span. The reason I like to group these together is because there’s a similar effect of meditation at work in all four of these.
Reduced Anxiety, Reduced Depression, Increased Focus, Increased Attention Span
What’s happening in all of these benefits is that meditation is helping train our mind to focus on the present. It’s encouraging our mind to let go of whatever is not in the present moment. To let go of thoughts that might be disturbing or anxiety producing or depressive.
That’s what’s at work in meditation helping reduce anxiety and depression. It’s allowing us to move on to healthier thoughts and feelings.
Meditation is allowing us to stay in the moment and to focus on what’s happening in the moment.
When we meditate, especially with mindfulness meditation, we are training ourselves to just be in this moment and not to be distracted by another moment, not to be distracted by another thought, not to be distracted by past memories that might be emotional. Our only attention is to what is happening to us right now in our heart, in our mind, and with body sensations.
Regular meditation helps us practice our focus and concentration skills. And because we have that practiced ability to remain in this moment without distraction, it makes sense that meditation helps us increase our attention span.
We’re not flittering from this thought to that thought. From this motion to that motion. We’re not craving some other experience. We’re focused on this experience right now, where we’re at in this moment with this thought with this feeling.
Help in Dealing with Addiction Issues
There’s lots of evidence coming out that meditation can help with addiction issues. Not just addiction issues with drugs and alcohol, but also a whole range of addictions, including addictive habits.
A great example of that is our addiction to social media. I have to be very, very conscious to put down my phone when I’m looking at social media. I give myself bits and bytes of social media when I feel like it’s an appropriate time.
I’m a regular meditator. I love meditating. I do it every day but when it comes to certain types of behaviors, I have to be very, very conscious and alert and have rules around habits and behaviours. And I really feel like my meditation helps me enforce those rules as I see fit best for myself.
The reason I put this addictive behaviours in the mental, emotional realm of benefits is because the thinking is that meditation helps us observe what’s happening with our thoughts and feelings when it comes to cravings.
We can sense the craving for the addictive behavior rising within us. We can take a look at it in a detached way and then better choose whether we’re going to act on it or not. Meditation gives that power, that skill to make the best choice for us.
Another mental, emotional benefit is that meditation can improve our relationships. This seems to be true for both the relationship with other people, but also, and maybe more importantly, the relationship with ourself.
We’re able to observe hurtful or sabotaging thoughts and feelings bubbling inside of us and then distance ourselves a little bit and decide, well, am I really this good for nothing horrible person or should consider another option?
Maybe I have some redeeming qualities and I’m just a fragile human being? Mabye that’s what’s really true.
If we can bring that sort of thought up whenever we become self-judgmental, it can really help to turn that arrow in a different direction towards self-reflection and self-compassion.
The same holds true of the second type of relationship. Our relastionships with other people.
When someone does something unpleasant, something that might be anything from one to maximum on the annoyance scale, we have an opportunity to observe ourselves. We can watch what’s happening with us at the physiological level, at the emotional level and the mental level.
Is our heart pounding more? Can we sense any sort of muscles tensing up? Are we having extremely aggressive thoughts against the person? Are we becoming defensive?
With meditation we can learn to notice these things about ourselves and by noticing them we can choose to distance ourselves from them and make an informed decision. We can decide if it’s the right thing to be aggressive towards the person or compassionate towards the person.
There are some specific meditations to encourage this sort of relationship development, both with ourselves and with others. The best known of these are the loving kindness meditation and the self-compassion meditation. These have shown to really work for people who practice these on a regular basis.
Meditation Makes You a Better Person?
Now we’re at the last and the least of the benefits of meditation. And notice I said the last and the least. And the reason I’m doing that is because this last benefit is the claim meditation will make you a better person.
We’ve discussed this in previous episodes but to recap meditation only makes you more of who you are.
If you are not a good person, meditation will amplify that. It will give you the focus and a laser-like ability to be more of an a-hole if that’s who you you are committed to being.
Meditation only makes you a better person, if you want to be a better person. We have to remember that being a better person can happen regardless of whether we meditate or not.
So I connect this benefit of meditation to where we started. And the very first benefit was meditation will release you from this physical form and let your divine energy merge with the divine energy of the universe, transcending space and time never having to experience birth again. Hmm. No, that’s a no for me.
I don’t see any reason in having to make this claim as a justification to meditate.
We’ve looked at the numerous proven studied benefits that improve the quality of our life in wonderful and amazing ways. Mental, emotional, physiological benefits of meditation. We don’t need to add anything else for a whole hearted endorsement of meditation.
Go out there and enjoy meditation and fall in love with it.
Just be aware that it is not the cure all for everything, but it’s an amazing, amazing add on to everything.