Too many of my male friends, meditation sounds like airy-fairy alternative nonsense. Thus, they are either completely absorbed in it, including yoga mat, hipster beard and general air of enlightenment, or they shake a judgmental head while indulging in manlier-than-thou steaks and beer. So, what place can meditation have in our busy society?
The cognitive, emotional and physical benefits of regular meditative practice are well-documented. Meditating for just 20 minutes a day can enhance cognitive abilities, sleep quality, memory and decision-making, and reduce stress and depression. Moreover, studies have revealed that mindfulness meditation can strengthen your social relationships – including one or two of those troubled marriages – by increasing compassion and empathy while reducing isolation and loneliness. And we all know such loneliness, jogging on the hamster-wheel of work-life balance in our bustling cities.
Crucially, these benefits are accompanied by improvements in cardiovascular, immune- and respiratory health. In short, meditation makes you focused, calmer and healthier (Note: to become superhuman however, you have to mix in some new-age wheatgrass shots and chia seeds).
If these findings are still too wishy-washy for you, we can look at some neuroscience. In regular meditators, brain regions involved in attentional control, emotional regulation, and self-awareness grow larger and more efficient, while regions processing distress and negativity shrink. Given all this scientific evidence, why are so few people onboard?
Meditation has a bad reputation. Observe your own reactions, when I suggest you try some loving-kindness-meditation. What about replacing it with breathing exercise or visualization techniques? Small shifts in wording can evoke substantial shifts in attitude. Meditative practice of your mind seems intangible – you are not producing something of visible effect. Regulating thoughts that are incessantly flitting around in our heads for prolonged periods is tough. What does clear your mind even mean?
Meditation tends to fall into three categories: focus (maintain attention on a single point, e.g. breath), open-focus (allow attention to move freely, e.g. visualization of walking through a forest) and no-focus (empty mind and observe thoughts as a third-person). Choose what suits you. Closing your eyes and simply observing your breath for 20 minutes is enough to relax your nervous system and put you back in control.
The effect is not always immediate and may seem difficult at the start. Yet with practice, meditation trains us to seamlessly step outside of our hectic thought cycles and choose effective, calm responses in any given situation. And you can practice anytime, anywhere, even on your morning commute to work. Be aware of your surroundings – smells, sounds, sensations. Meditation gives you the focus to fight the bigger battles. Like confidently negotiating that crucial deal or peacefully settling a disagreement with your wife. Importantly, meditation counteracts the damage of long work days, bad diets and achievement pressure – so you may successfully avoid that heart attack!
So why not spend some time expanding horizon and mind?
Esslin Terrighena is a psychologist with the passion for guiding people towards stepping out of their struggles and hopping onto the path to greater well-being, using a holistic mix of cognitive-behavioural, emotion-focused and meditative strategies. She also enjoys a healthy bit of cynicism, backpacking adventures, smoky whiskey and helping men and women rise above their miscommunications.
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