Quote: Happiness follows unhappiness. Unhappiness follows happiness. When you are happy, meditate. When you are unhappy, meditate. – Ajahn Chah
As physicians, we often encourage our patients to exercise, avoid tobacco, eat well, and get enough sleep. My thought today is to encourage another regular behavior: meditation.
There are many kinds of meditation: movement-based practices such as Tai Chi, Yoga, Qigong, or walking meditation. Various Buddhist practices, such as Vipassana, Zen Meditation (Zazen), and more western influenced meditative practices such as Transcendental Meditation– just to name a few.
This article focuses mostly on mindfulness meditation– a type of meditation that involves intentionally paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It is about being fully aware of your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and the environment around you in a non-reactive manner. Mindfulness meditation originates from Buddhist teachings but has been adapted and secularized for use in various contexts.
Meditation is a skill, and a training strategy for our minds. As Lama Jimpa says, ” Meditation is practice for life. You wouldn’t show up to Carnegie Hall, and then start to rehearse. You rehearse before the performance.” So it is with meditation, which is practice for the rest of life, skill building for managing our day-to-day. When I talk to patients about meditating, the usual response is often either, “I tried that, it didn’t work” or “I can’t calm my mind down.” This is like exercise or any skill– it takes repetitive practice over time to show benefits and is difficult at first. By definition, when we are learning a skill, we do not (yet) know how to do it.
The core of mindfulness meditation is to observe our experiences without getting attached to them or trying to change them. Instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, the focus is on being present in the here and now. The point is not really to still the mind (that’s often a side effect)– instead, it is to notice the activity in the mind, and then practice letting go of that, and bring the awareness back to the present.
Yes, but why?
Meditation is known to reduce the body’s stress response by decreasing the production of stress hormones like cortisol (the stress hormone). Regular meditation can help individuals better cope with daily stressors and experience a greater sense of calm and relaxation. Meditation can improve interpersonal relationships by promoting empathy, compassion, and non-reactivity. It can also reduce relationship conflicts by fostering better emotional regulation.
Meditation has shown promise in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can promote emotional regulation, increase positive emotions, and decrease rumination, which is often associated with these mental health conditions. Related, it seems to lead to enhanced emotional well-being, greater emotional stability, and greater resilience. It helps individuals become more aware of their emotions without getting overwhelmed by them, leading to better emotional control and understanding. Some studies have shown that meditation-based interventions can be effective in reducing the symptoms of PTSD and supporting trauma recovery.
Mindfulness meditation, in particular, fosters self-awareness by encouraging non-judgmental observation of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. This heightened self-awareness can lead to better self-understanding and personal growth.
Meditation practices seem to improve our ability to perform tasks that involve sustained attention focus, and cognitive performance. Regular seems to be able to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia by calming the mind and promoting relaxation. Meditation practices can train the mind to be more present and less prone to wandering thoughts. This can lead to greater productivity and a more focused mind.
Meditation has been used successfully as a complementary approach to manage chronic pain and enhance pain tolerance. It can help individuals change their relationship with pain and reduce the suffering associated with it.
Meditation has also been looked at as a strategy to help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health. There is some data that it leads to improved immune system function. It has been shown to help with insomnia. For some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) meditation can decrease symptoms. Meditation (and practices derived from it), can be helpful in managing weight– it can help increase awareness of hunger cues and promote healthier eating habits.
So, given all these benefits, how do you get started? There is not one right way– but the first, most important step is to just start. However, getting some help is often needed at the beginning. There are several organizations in Sacramento that offer instruction in meditation:
Lastly, I am excited to share we will be starting an 8-week meditation group in the office in our new community room in September. Please call the office at 916-668-7164 for details, or to sign up.