The ancient art of meditation has been practiced since antiquity in multiple religions. Since the 19th century, it has expanded from religious practice to a secular one and become popular in countries around the world as a way to achieve a deeper connection with one’s own body and soul.
It permits practitioners to find a deep well of calm within their mind that helps still the thoughts of focus and focus energy.
While many people would like to start a meditation practice, they often fail to continue because they fail to find the time or to see the results they were hoping for. Meditation takes practice, but this practice can result in some incredible benefits in your life.
If you’re considering starting a meditation practice, but aren’t sure of what the results will be like, here are nine proven benefits of meditation that will help start you on the road to a successful meditation practice:
It reduces stress
In our fast-paced world, it isn’t uncommon for people to suffer from stress. Rarely do we respect weekends or take our full vacation allotment, which leaves us overworked and very stressed out. While stress is generally unpleasant, did you know it’s also quite dangerous?
Stress can contribute to illness by suppressing your immune system, trigger migraines and weight gain, and cause gastrointestinal issues.
To prevent this, you have to find methods to control your stress. With regular practice, meditation has been shown to help reduce stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation also helps reduce the adverse effects of stress, such as a headache, restlessness, brain fog, irritability and more.
It helps control anxiety
Anxiety is not just worrying. Worry is a natural and vital response that can help keep us safe. Anxiety is what happens when that worry becomes disproportionate and chronic and starts to affect your life negatively. Stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand, luckily, meditation has the same positive effects on anxiety that it does on stress.
Meditation has been found to reduce symptoms of social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and lessen the frequency of panic attacks. Meditation can also reduce job-related anxiety and can help you cope with worry-inducing events better.
It enhances your self-awareness
A clearer understanding of yourself can help you better harness negative thoughts and impulses and help you better control urges that may be self-destructive. Meditation can give you this control by helping you channel your mental power to combat feelings of negativity, loneliness, and low self-esteem.
It can help fight addiction
Negative urges can be a contributing factor as to why many addiction sufferers fall back into the patterns that lead them to substance abuse issues in the first place. Meditation helps people become masters of urge surfing.
These urges can feel like a kind of tunneling sensation that makes you feel like the only outcome is to seek out your addictive or destructive behaviors. Meditation helps give practitioners a “natural high,” which allows sufferers to find peace within themselves instead of seeking out endorphins or dopamine hits through addictive substances.
It helps with sleep disorders
For anyone that has ever crawled under the blankets, exhausted, but was unable to fall asleep, the idea of getting a long, uninterrupted night’s rest must sound like nirvana.
Insomnia is a relatively common sleep disorder that people can experience at brief intervals, or it can become a chronic condition. Insomnia affects your work performance, personal relationships, and overall well being and can make you more susceptible to illness.
Meditation–and specifically mindfulness meditation–has been shown to evoke the relaxation response in people who practice it regularly, which helps people fall asleep naturally and stay asleep longer.
It decreases high blood pressure
If you have high blood pressure, you know that you have one of the number one risk factors for heart disease. If you have high blood pressure, your heart has to work harder than usual to pump blood through your arteries.
When you’re looking to fix high blood pressure, you will most likely be required to take some medication, maybe lose weight, cut out salt, and exercise regularly, and you will also be required to lower your stress levels.
If you find your mind drifting and are unable to focus, meditation may help lengthen your attention span and encourage you to focus. Meditation can also help you remember details more clearly and retain information longer. Even short-term meditation can be beneficial so you will see results even after only a short period.
It can help control pain
Chronic pain can make living almost unbearable. Over time, chronic pain can significantly reduce one’s enjoyment of life and make people irritable, depressed, and withdrawn. The constant aching can make even the smallest task seem impossible, and painkiller use can become a dangerous habit.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to soothe and slow brain patterns, making the pain more bearable and less noticeable. Meditation has even been prescribed by medical professionals to help patients cope with pain from illnesses like cancer, fibromyalgia, and heart disease.
When you’re looking for pain relief, you may find a lot of sites that compare hypnosis vs. meditation. Both can give you pain relief, but hypnosis is triggered by another person, while meditation is self-directed.
It can help with depression
Meditation has been found to be incredibly successful in treating depression. The brooding that depression causes can be counteracted with meditation. Meditation helps quiet the “noise” of depression and slow the negative cycle of thoughts that contribute to depression.
During mindfulness meditation, you are encouraged to allow negative thoughts to pass over you and understand that these thoughts will pass and that you only have to give them time to do so.
By doing this, you will find that depressive thoughts will become less overwhelming and you will be able to focus more on your recovery and on calming your inner turmoil.
Mindfulness and meditation have become big business for tech-savvy entrepreneurs. But can you really unplug and reset while tied to an app on your phone? Companies like Headspace and Insight Timer say yes. But longtime practitioners, philosophers, and scientists aren’t so sure.
When I was 8 or 9, I became preoccupied with death. It wasn’t that I was afraid; I just like to be prepared. Would I know death was coming, like a knock at the door I got up to answer? Or would it be more like change—something I couldn’t perceive until it had already happened? And if it were like change, how would I be able to perceive it if I were already dead?
In other words, who was the “I” in the sentence “I died”?
The idea of death became like one of those Chinese finger traps: the harder I thought about it, the tighter it got on my mind. I went to our rabbi, then a priest, then some energy-healer types. I went to a Unitarian minister named Mitch, who looked for all the world like God, or at least the way God looks in paintings.
Eventually I went to a new-age bookstore in a shopping center a couple of towns over and bought some meditation tapes. (My mother was very supportive.) I’d load them into my boom box at night and close my eyes. I was a chubby kid, new in school, borderline friendless. For some reason, my lips were always chapped. Death was the least of my concerns.
It was during meditation—cross-legged on the carpet, watching my breath, listening to the voice of my guide—that I became aware of a second life humming under the one I was living. It was like electricity, or an aquifer: everywhere, but invisible, or at least easy to lose track of. It didn’t require effort, only attention. Then I had a realization that this—my breath, my body—was my first life, and everything else was just shadowboxing.
As for death, it wasn’t that I found my answer so much as that I became less concerned by the question. It was like sleight of hand: In turning toward the present, I lost sight of the future, which was good, because there wasn’t much I could do about the future until it came anyway.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Santa Monica, California, office of a popular meditation app called Headspace. Launched in 2010 by a former monk and a disaffected advertising executive, the app currently has about 35 million users in 190 countries, more than 1 million of whom pay to subscribe. It is highly visible and rigorously publicized: The ex-monk, Andy Puddicombe, has appeared alongside Ellen and Dr. Oz, and recently led a group meditation on The Tonight Show. (Jimmy Fallon, smiling gently and opening his eyes: “That was fantastic.”) In the course of researching this piece, I reached out to about 50 friends, family members, and friends of friends, many of whom were revealed to be closet meditators, nearly all of them using Headspace. It is hard to think of any monk current or former with better television coverage than Andy Puddicombe, outside maybe the Dalai Lama.
As we walk, my liaison asks if the office were what I expected. I said I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. The truth is that I’m trying to release myself from expectations, or at least remind myself that expectations are just another form of mental weather. The office were exactly what I expected: sleek but cheerful, with big, open spaces offset by brightly colored murals and furniture, like a factory decorated by a child. And in Santa Monica, no less.
Headspace positions itself as accessible and universal, meditation that meets you where you are. My first exposure to the company was about five years ago, when Puddicombe gave a TED Talk describing the benefits of “10 mindful minutes a day.” In avoiding the language of religion, many meditation apps—Headspace included—have instead embraced the language of marketing and self-improvement.
Though Buddhism is never mentioned, per se, the app’s teachings—designed and guided by Puddicombe—are essentially a mosaic of Buddhist ideas from a variety of schools of thought, given a cheerful spin: In a 2015 profile of the company, New Yorker writer Lizzie Widdicombe relayed an anecdote about Puddicombe translating a Buddhist tenet sometimes called “the truth of suffering” as “acceptance,” presumably because the truth of suffering would bum out most people.
Other concepts—the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind,” for example, popularized in the West by the monk Shunryu Suzuki, or the way mindfulness-based stress reduction describes the attendance to one’s physical state as “scanning” the body—are left untouched.
The app’s packs—available to subscribers for anywhere between 13 bucks a month to about $100 a year, or $400 for a “lifetime” subscription—are aimed at existential goals: One offers a guide for mindful eating, another for managing anger, another for college students coping with leaving home. On the app, Puddicombe’s delivery is clear and his language is elemental: One feels they can see the idea standing naked behind his words. And like a lot of good teachers, he has an unusual gift for framing his understandings as your epiphany: not so much a superior as a friend on the path.
Many of the sessions are introduced in the app by brief animations designed either to present a technique (body scanning, noting) or provide visual representations for emotional metaphors: anger as a storm, the calm mind like a blue sky. Simple, colorful, and inhabited by a series of anthropomorphic little creatures, the animations feel designed both to disperse the air of austerity surrounding meditation and, paradoxically, make it feel down to earth. In an email sent after my visit, Headspace’s editorial director for sleep, William Fowler, described the company’s broader visual identity—conceived of by designers Anna Charity and Chris Markland—as a reaction to images of “people sitting with their legs crossed, as though they were in perfect harmony with their minds.” The company made at least some attempts at an anthropocentric design: During my visit, I passed a framed drawing of what looked sort of like a person from a bathroom sign, sitting in a chair with things swirling inside their head—an early prototype. In essence, Headspace has provided meditation with a brand.
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.
Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.
The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.
In this rubric, science becomes a kind of cookie for the practice of meditation. “It’s too hard to ask someone who’s never taken the time to close their eyes and look inside themselves to do that,” Jones Bell says. Knowing meditation is good for them—in the way science circumscribes “good”—gets them to the table.
Headspace is particularly bullish on research. Since its inception, the company has conducted morethan60 studies in conjunction with partners in the medical and academic community, including the National Health Service. Jones Bell describes general findings—improved focus, decreased aggression, increased compassion—as “consistent with the general meditation research but specific to our product.” With Headspace, one always senses the bottom line looming somewhere.
More recently, the company has begun the daunting and implicative project of securing FDA approval of a Headspace prescription meditation app, such that it could be integrated into mainstream health care by, say, increasing quality of life for cancer patients—something that meditation generally has already been found to do. The notion isn’t just that meditation would be prescribed alongside conventional medicine, but that the meditation prescribed would be offered by Headspace.
Before leaving, I walk to the Lookout, an amphitheater near the coffee station where the company hosts group meditations. The meditations are twice daily, once around 10 a.m. and once mid-afternoon. Attendance is open but not mandatory. On the morning I visit, about 50 people are scattered across the risers, bathed in light from clerestory windows above. We take our seats and wait.
After a brief good-morning, the room falls quiet, and Puddicombe’s voice booms. (For group sessions, the company uses a rotating, stand-alone meditation called Everyday Headspace.) We focus and settle and breathe our deep, invocatory breaths. We turn toward our private country.
Listening to Puddicombe’s voice in that clean, bright room, it was hard not to feel that I was being addressed by my overlords. Benevolent overlords, but overlords nevertheless.
That meditation and mindfulness have entered the repertoire of global capitalism isn’t surprising: In the face of stagnant wages and an ever-deteriorating boundary between work and whatever we do outside it, why not shift the responsibility of finding peace to the individual? Put another way: Next time work makes you feel less than human, should you gently speak truth to power, or should you use mindfulness to self-regulate and maintain function in an oppressive system? And should you choose to self-regulate, are you tacitly thanking the oppressive system for giving you the tools of self-regulation to begin with? Furthermore, how much of this experience—this process of spelunking into my mind—should be comfortable and brightly colored? How much should feel good?
One of the sections of the Satipatthana Sutta, a foundational discourse of Theravada Buddhism, encourages the meditator to progress from an observation of the breath to considering the body as a butcher might consider a freshly slaughtered cow. We are dead. From here we see the bloat and the ooze, writhing worms and wild dogs. We are fleshless and smeared with blood, then a pile of bones, bleaching, rotting, crumbling—ashes to ashes. But even when Puddicombe talks about “difficult emotions” through the app, I am never far from the deathless animated cuties of Headspace’s HQ. I could use a cup of coffee, I think. I bet the coffee here is pretty good. I note the experience as thinking—“noting” being a meditative technique—and restore myself to the moment.
“And with the next breath,” Puddicombe says, “close your eyes.”
The supposition that people need science to explain the benefits of quiet contemplation has been following meditation around for about 50 years. In 1965, a molecular biology student at MIT named Jon Kabat-Zinn attended a lecture by the Zen priest Philip Kapleau. Kapleau, an American who worked as a court reporter before relinquishing his life to Zen (or maybe just reclaiming his life through it), had become an ambassador for Buddhism in the West; in 1966, he published The Three Pillars of Zen, a semi-fictional diary of an “American ex-businessman” named “P.K.” that more or less established our cultural archetype of the white-collar searcher. (Sample entry: “September 3, 1953: Quit business, sold apartment furniture and car. … Friends’ unanimous judgment: “You’re mad throwing up ten thousand a year for pie in the sky!” … Maybe. Or maybe they’re the mad ones, piling up possessions and ulcers and heart disease.”)
That P.K.—and Kapleau himself—had strong bourgeois credentials was essential: People reading TheNew York Times would sooner trust someone who had worked at the International Military Tribunal than Jack Kerouac or someone named Nancy who just thought India was really far-out. Or, you know, a monk from Southeast Asia.
Kabat-Zinn, the graduate student, went on to develop a program he called mindfulness-based stress reduction, which at first presented meditation as a pain-management strategy for hospital patients—another tool in a bin of many. Writing in his 2005 book Coming to Our Senses, he remembers lying on the floor of the faculty conference room conducting a group body scan, a technique in which participants shift their attention, part by part, through the body in order to jostle awareness both of our physical self and how that physical self connects to our emotional one—the literal pain in the neck that indicates the metaphorical one, for example. At some point, the chief of surgery opened the door, trailed by about 30 people in white lab coats. “Are these our patients?” the chief of surgery asked. “Yes,” Kabat-Zinn said. The surgeons went nextdoor.
Kabat-Zinn was careful to strip as much religion out of MBSR as possible so as to be able to navigate his ideas around cultural stereotypes and into the mainstream. “From the beginning of MBSR,” he wrote in 2011, “I bent over backward to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, ‘New Age,’ ‘Eastern Mysticism,’ or just plain ‘flakey.’”
Context may be helpful here. For most of history, the only people who practiced meditation were monks. Writing in the introduction to the anthology Meditation, Buddhism and Science, professors David L. McMahan and Erik Braun traced the inception of meditation as a popular practice to a single day in 1883, when Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw watched as his monastery—and all work contained therein—burned to the ground.
At the time, Sayadaw didn’t even really meditate; it was more of a theoretical crowbar used to pry into ideas—something he thought with, but didn’t actually practice. This was in Mandalay; the monks who did meditate were often in the country, already out of earshot of the city’s existential noise. Burma was in a period of massive unrest; within a couple of years, Thibaw, the final Burmese king, would abdicate the throne and take a steamer down the Irrawaddy River, ceding the country to British occupation.
Awakened to the possibility that the destruction of Buddhism itself might’ve been only a few fires away, Sayadaw went into the forest and started meditating in earnest. At the dawn of the 20th century, he refashioned himself as a public figure, an ambassador for Buddhism determined to spread the practice of meditation to the people, campaign as much about historical preservation as religious ethics. Sayadaw became revered; one British official observed that women would lay down and spread out their hair like carpets when he walked.
In other words, within the geologically brief span of about 80 years, meditation transitioned from an obscure pursuit of monks in the Burmese woods to something a guy named Jon might teach you on the floor of a Massachusetts hospital.
Given that Kabat-Zinn was on some level trying to Trojan-horse tenets of Buddhist introspection into a Christian culture passionately at war with silence, he did a solid job: As of 2015, the Journal of American Medicine noted that the proportion of medical schools offering some kind of mindfulness training was about 80 percent.
A research scientist and director of a lab at the Center of Mind and Brain at the University of California–Davis, neuroscientist Cliff Saron has been probing the intersection of meditation and clinical science for as long as such an intersection has existed. The image of people in lab coats fastening pasta strainers to monks’ heads to scan brain activity—that’s Saron in the early 1990s. And so on.
I want to volley with Saron a rhetorical question he first posed in a June roundtable for Mindful magazine: “Why do we need empirical validation for meditative experience, anyway? When it comes to the benefits of stopping and pausing, why can’t common sense prevail?”
Within two minutes of calling me, after I drop off my sons at school, Saron asks how close I’ve come to death. Not too close, I say. One of my best friends died when I was in high school, and I lost two grandparents in a fire, but everything else has been peripheral.
“Your parents are still alive,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“So you haven’t, in a sustained way, had to deal with incipient loss, or to ride the waves.”
“I guess not, no.”
“And you’ve been graced with the bend in the fabric of the universe that having a child is.”
“This is the level I care about with respect to meditation.”
Saron concedes that none of this makes for good bar conversation, which is where headlines like Bloomberg’s “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating” come in. Saron’s point isn’t that science is used to validate meditation as a secular pursuit, but that the science itself is often shaky and the media coverage of it even worse. (There seems to be a quiet correlation between the two: The more preliminary or insufficient the study, the more excitable the headlines.) Or, as Saron puts it, “We live in a culture that doesn’t treat the data as sacred, but often in convenient contexts bows down to the authority of the scientist.”
The conversation goes deeply into the weeds. We discuss the exhausting conditions of late capitalism and the movie Her (we are fans). We discuss apophatic theologies (those that define god through absences and negation) and cataphatic ones (religions that say what god is). We discuss the longevity and philosophy of the luxury pen company Montblanc. Saron apologizes for the digressions, then admits he is digressing on purpose. I tell him it’s fine because I’m usually wrong about what’s important anyway.
As for the meditation apps, Saron harbors a muted skepticism. “It’s a broadcast medium,” he says. “Things happen to people when they’re in relationships with other people, and those things can’t be simulated fully. Here the map and the territory may really diverge, because the information transfer is so much thicker in life.” (Fans may note that this is where we started talking about Her.)
One of Saron’s formative teachers, Joseph Goldstein, now teaches meditation through 10% Happier, an app launched in part by ABC anchor Dan Harris. “I kind of decried seeing Joseph on the app,” Saron says. Then Saron’s son asked him how he knew there wasn’t some 20-something sitting in front of their phone having as profound an experience with Goldstein’s teachings as Saron himself did four decades earlier.
Right, how would he? Still, I sense Saron acknowledges his son’s point primarily as an intellectual exercise. Practicing five, 10 minutes a day with your phone (what he calls “psychological Duolingo”), well—you get out what you put in. “They won’t stay at the table if they don’t find meaning,” he says.
He remembers Headspace approaching him at some point about making a video, but he declined. “What I have to say isn’t so much based on promoting meditation through scientific evidence,” he stresses. “I need to articulate in a nuanced way the limits of our work.”
The irony of seeking liberation through a device people are tethered to is too basic to dwell on, not to mention a little beside the point. (Just because you can kill someone with a brick doesn’t mean we should stop building brick houses.) The phones aren’t going away; the only thing we can control is our relationship to them.
Saron suggests I talk to a neuroscientist named Adam Gazzaley. A professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, Gazzaley is particularly interested in attention: how it works, how it developed, how it responds to the giant slot machine we’ve built around it.
In 2016, Gazzaley coauthored a book with psychologist Larry D. Rosen called The Distracted Mind. Part evolutionary history, part damage report, the book lays out in great detail what I suspect most people already fear: Attention is fragile; technology is making us anxious and bored; multitasking is a fiction we invented to insulate us from the truth that that isn’t how brains work. (Or, as the book puts it, “We convince ourselves that we can handle it.”)
Gazzaley isn’t a doomsayer, though he has been excitedly mistaken for one. He recently wrote an essay for Medium called “The Cognition Crisis”, for which he received a lot of feedback to the tune of “right on” by readers who appear to have missed his point that technology is a force for good.
For Gazzaley, a phone is just a tool and meditation a stay against the flood. “I see a lot of meditation practices, especially the traditional ancient Buddhist ones, as being exercises in attention,” he says. Neuroscientifically speaking, practicing focus in the way meditation does strengthens both selective attention (basically, your ability to keep your eye on the metaphorical ball) and metacognition (your ability to recognize when your eyes have left it).
One of the book’s foundational claims is that our drive to forage for food has evolved into a drive to forage for information. New information produces rewards, so we come to seek it habitually, even if it interferes with whatever goal we have at hand. What emerges is a kind of frictionless state, where you end up spending 12 minutes looking for keys that are already in your hand or typing “nytimes.com” into your URL bar only to discover you are already on the website for TheNew York Times. In other words, we are, on some level, evolutionarily geared against meditation.
I ask Gazzaley if sustained attention could ever produce its own reward. For example, maybe I’d enjoy making my sons’ lunches in the morning a little more if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to digest a podcast, answer emails, and figure out why the tree people haven’t come to take out the Rhus lancea stump in the yard, because that thing is already growing new chutes, and it’s making me nervous.
Gazzaley says that the data is minimal, but he harbors a similar hunch. He compares it to surfing and marathon running—the flow state. “The sustained activity of just running without any change in the information sphere around you—it’s pretty painful and unrewarding,” he says. “But this somehow shifts over time. There’s positive feedback in hormones.”
At the very least, attention brings us closer to the experience of the thing itself. Or, as Gazzaley and Rosen put it, “Those flowers you decide to pay attention to actually do look much redder to you and smell much sweeter than the ones you chose to ignore.”
If Headspace is uniform and top-down, the app Insight Timer is its opposite: a sort of clearinghouse for meditation of all stripes run by a network of about 1,500 teachers, most of them independent and unaffiliated with the app itself. (It can also function as a nice egg timer with skeuomorphic bells for those who like to ride alone.)
The design is simple and anonymous, with imagery—mountains, palm trees—borrowed from the paradises of desktop backgrounds and stock photography. The company doesn’t advertise or run clinical trials, and the balance of its meditations are free. Religion is featured but not mandatory, and not limited to Buddhism: Among the app’s 12,000 guided meditations are explorations of Sufism, Christianity, and Kabbalah. Using Headspace, one can easily feel that you and Andy Puddicombe are the only people in the universe. Using Insight Timer, which greets you with a large map charting everyone currently meditating on the app (as well as a tally of how many people have meditated today and a ticker of how many are meditating at that very moment), it can be impossible to feel alone. The first few times I use it, it reminds me of wandering into a good used bookstore: You’ll probably find what you want eventually, but you’re going to get lost in some weird stuff along the way.
The app was developed by a software developer named Brad Fullmer but is currently run by a man named Christopher Plowman. A software entrepreneur who made his nut developing a discount ticket-selling site called Tix, Plowman now lives in Bali, where, on a recent morning, he had just come in from seeing a cobra in his yard.
It is hard not to appreciate Plowman’s candor. On some widely trafficked social media platforms: “Let me choose my language carefully: I don’t like them.” (Later, he clarifies: “They peddle misery.”) On advertising, or lack thereof: “Stillness is the greatest magnet.” On his own company, which he seems to nurture with the loose hand of a parent consigned to the reality that one can give life but never control it: “It’s a very fragile idea, that you can give away meditation to everyone on earth while building a sustainable, profitable company.” Talking to him, I get the sense that he’s as curious about the future of Insight Timer as anyone.
Plowman sees his mission simply: “We’re trying to develop a platform to give meditation away for free to everyone on the planet.” Though Plowman says the company has always been lucky enough to depend on venture capital and recently raised enough to get them through the next couple of years, it has started offering optional courses for rental or purchase; you can also now “subscribe” to Insight Timer, making it easier to sync and use offline. The company has also made itself open to donations.
Plowman is proud of the company’s accomplishments, and unafraid to quantify them in a frankly competitive tone I find refreshing. “More time is spent meditating on Insight Timer than all other apps,” he says. When I speak to him at the end of August, he says that the app’s basic Learning to Meditate course had been rented or purchased by 200,000 people in the previous six weeks, and that the company still grows at a rate of 60,000 to 70,000 users a week. (As I write this, at 4:44 Pacific Time on Friday, September 14, 420,734 people are meditating.)
Plowman feels strongly about retaining the spiritual element of meditation, and, in an aside whose canniness I register only later, he notes that one good reason to excise spirituality is to better position your product for schools and institutions. In the course of charting user data and trying to discern exactly what Insight Timer actually is, Plowman has noticed that “People who come in with preferences set to secular and highly scientific teachings start to meander.”
Browsing the app’s most popular meditations, one gets a glimpse at the aggregate dreams and worries of people across the world. At the time of writing, six of the top 10 meditations on Insight Timer are designed to help people to go to sleep. Of those six, five are guided by women. The single most popular meditation, Jennifer Piercy’s Yoga Nidra for Sleep, has been played 4.4 million times. It is, in effect, the sound of someone quietly saying beautiful and encouraging things to you while you lay in bed. Many of the reviews for it note that the user didn’t make it to the end. In the period between drafting and editing this piece, I notice that both 10% Happier and Headspace have majorly stepped up their sleep-related offerings. This catches in my heart: How can we possibly handle the gift of being awake if we struggle so intensely just to get to bed?
Cliff Saron’s old teacher, Joseph Goldstein is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society and one of the pioneering ambassadors of vipassana meditation in the West. He’s also a prominent voice on 10% Happier.
Dan Harris adopted meditation around 2004 after having a panic attack while doing a segment on cholesterol medication for Good Morning America. (Looking back at the segment, you can sense something is wrong, but it’s no Boom Goes the Dynamite.)
The app is pitched as “meditation for fidgety skeptics,” with a zeal that can sometimes verge on self-loathing. Though 10% Happier is not the only app guilty of this, the constant refrain that meditation is totally normal and not weird only makes me wonder what these people are so ashamed of. But I also find it clear and easy, and I enjoy Goldstein’s lessons, many of which are delivered in conversation with Harris himself.
Goldstein wasn’t bothered by the app thing. “There were concerns that it wasn’t too Buddhist, or even Buddhist at all,” he says. “But from my perspective, the teachings are the same.”
This bears out: Reading Goldstein’s writing—2002’s One Dharma, for example—one encounters the same ideas you hear on the app, just with broader contexts and different names. And for those inspired to question whether such a rebrand constitutes unethical misuse, consider what Christians have done with Jesus. Would it help you to know, for example, that the Dalai Lama has his own app? Or that he wrote in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, that “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Buddhist of Buddhists, riding the wave.
Anyway, Goldstein meets a lot of people on meditation retreats who came because of the app, so it must be making some positive kind of wave. “I guess if I had a concern,” he says, “it would be that it would be unfortunate if people thought what was presented in a secular context expressed the full potential of mindfulness from the Buddhist perspective.” In other words, breadth wins.
Before leaving, I tell Goldstein I need him to help me resolve a question I’ve been chewing on. In his own teachings, he talks about “breathing and knowing one is breathing.” And I think I get that. But how do I square that with what Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn and others calls “the don’t-know mind”?
Part of it is just a linguistic glitch, he says—the word “knowing” already means dozens of things in English, let alone how many resonances similar words might have in Pali, or Korean, or Chinese. Plus, it’s just one of those things: Knowing something but also not-knowing it, not trapping it. I tell Goldstein I think I knew that. But talking about it has only made it weird. I think I can hear Goldstein laugh.
My own return to meditation started about six months ago. Over the past few years, I got married, bought a house, and became the father of two sons. But I quickly became barnacled. Life, or at least life as I had loved it—freedom, openness, and quiet connection—was suddenly subject to heavy planning, when available at all. Even my joys felt veiled by a heavy sheet of plastic: I saw the shapes, but they were abstract, hard to parse. Not only did I stay on top of my responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, tending, parenting), I became combustible for them. There were weeks when our marriage was basically a large chore wheel. I felt irritable and remote. Talking to a couple of friends on a much-needed break, I said the whole thing felt like being erased.
I think of a quote I like about the teaching style of the first woman sanctioned to teach Soto Zen in the West, Houn Jiyu-Kennett: “Not to lighten the load of a disciple, but to make the load so heavy that he or she would put it down.”
So, is it “working”? To invoke the refrain of Grecian skeptics, epokhe—I can’t say for sure what I should find convincing and what I shouldn’t. Music sounds better, and I think my timing has improved comedically, and I have come to see my wife and children as bulbs in a great chandelier: When one light dims, so dims the whole room.
But I’ve also shifted my exercise routine back to the Y, which I love (shout-out Lohse Family YMCA), and my younger son is finally sleeping through the night.
One thing I can say for sure is that when a stranger I met at a bar asked why I never played the viola anymore—an instrument I played passionately throughout my youth before quitting during my early 20s—I said “I don’t know,” then settled my tab, went home, and, for the first time in several years, played the viola.
There’s a good story recounted in the book One Bird, One Stone that goes like this: A Chinese monk moves to a small cabin in rural Tennessee. Next to the cabin, there’s a giant dead oak tree. One day, a neighbor comes by to warn the monk that the tree could fall on his roof if the monk doesn’t cut it down. The monk buys a hatchet and spends several hours each morning chopping away at the base of the tree. Neighbors come by offering chainsaws and power tools, but the monk declines. He becomes a kind of neighborhood spectacle: the old Chinese guy with the hatchet.
Eventually, the tree falls. So the cabin is spared, but the monk still has a giant dead tree in his yard. When the neighbors ask him what he’s going to do next, the monk turns to them as though the question doesn’t need answering and says, “make firewood.”
Later, the monk explains that this was how he’d taught meditation: You chop and chop and chop and “one day, an enormous tree falls.”
And while I appreciate the story’s climactic overtones and the zigzag way the monk lands the “firewood” punch line, I suspect the lesson—if one could frame it as such—would be to forget the tree and disappear quietly into the chopping.
There’s a blizzard outside and today we’re snowed in. In Rochester, NY where I grew up, we rarely had snow days. Being close to Canada and having snow for almost 8 months of the year meant the city was well equipped to meet extreme weather.
But here in New York state, it’s been snowing in snowballs. It’s been too cold to go outside, too cold to go anywhere and did I mention… it’s frigging cold out there! I am not sure what I was thinking leaving behind endless summers ,but it’s been quite a shock to my blood sugar levels. I really thought I had things down but I’ve realized that my diabetes management is still a work in progress.
In spite of the cold, I went into the city this week to meet with Craig Kasper the creator of the Bravest Podcast. Craig also lives with type 1 and created the podcast so he could learn and explore what it is that enables people to live extraordinary lives in spite of their diabetes.
In the interview, we talked about levels of bravery. As our discussion progressed I shared that acceptance continues to be a process. There was that moment of diagnosis, where I felt like I had to swallow a bitter pill, the long years of denial where I kept thinking that controlling my diet and walking up hills would cure me, the moment where I gave myself my first injection through a rain of tears, the day where I knew I needed to change my management strategy by splitting my basal dose and finally yesterday pulling up a ½ unit of bolus insulin into a syringe and taking the plunge.
Living with Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA) is no picnic. A friend recently commented that it’s easier to calculate your insulin to carb ratio when your beta cells don’t produce any insulin. Living with LADA is like playing roulette. Some days the ball lands on the money and other days I leave the table in despair.
The only way I get through each and every wonky moment is with the varied practices of yoga. I love working with the medium of sound in my practice because sound is so direct and immediately calms and centers me.
Working with sound in yoga is called mantra. The word mantra comes from two words, manas, meaning mind and trayati meaning freedom. A mantra is a sound, which frees the mind by giving the mind a focus so it’s naturally drawn out of its preoccupation with thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.
I know it’s natural to be obsessed with thoughts about the ins and outs of daily management. In working up to that first bolus injection I would sit down to meditate and replay worst case scenarios over and over.
That thought loop went on for days until I caught myself. It’s up to me to stop my need to identify with the thought by asking myself; what kind of investment do I have in that thought? Can a thought make me happy? How can a thought, which has no substance or dimension get the better of me?
It’s like trying to catch a snowflake. Impossible!
And it’s not about stopping the thought either. Try and banish any thought, another impossible task.
Mantra is such a profound way to bring the mind into a one-pointed focus, it can be chanted out loud or internally. Each nuance has a different effect on the mind and body. Chanting audibly affects the pituitary gland, the master gland in the body. It vibrates during chanting which tones and tunes all the other glands in the body. It also affects the vagus nerve which is responsible for increasing immunity
Chanting out loud increases the length of exhalation too. The longer the exhale the calmer the nervous system. Finally, mantra increases our ability to recognize that moment of getting lost in a thought. Thoughts come and go. It’s the thinker of the thoughts that matters.
For today’s practice join me in a simple chanting practice with the sound, om.
30 million women in the United States are suffering from chronic pelvic pain. Which means that 30 million women are suffering from debilitating and embarrassing symptoms such as urine leaking, painful sex, weak or non-existent orgasms and pelvic organ prolapse. (1-3) This is the silent female health epidemic that no one is talking about
I often wonder why is it that women are continuously relegated to the sidelines and many times ignored and mistreated by doctors. Is it gender bias stereotypes? Is it ignorance? Is it the “not in my back yard syndrome” or is it simply conditioning that needs to be shattered?
Regardless of the reasons, women who suffer from chronic pelvic pain find themselves isolated and depressed. A substantial number of these women report low quality of life and secondary symptoms such as depression, anxiety, low libido and difficulties in their sexual relationships. (4-6)
Who wouldn’t be depressed, if every time they coughed, sneezed, jumped or laughed they leaked urine, or if every attempt at love making made them cringe at the thought of the pain, or if little things like lifting your kids or carrying groceries increased pressure so much inside your privates that you held back from an active life and doing the things that bring you joy.
The medical community, pharmaceutical and the media have sold women a bill of goods. There’s a belief that the only way to fix our “lady parts” problems is through surgeries, medications or pills, and it’s not our fault that we have been conditioned to think this way. After 14,704 pelvic healings, I see women who’ve received experimental drugs, Botox injections to their vaginal walls, and mesh surgeries that failed. Frankly, the side effects of these drugs and surgeries are many times worse than the symptoms the women were originally feeling. (7)
In fact, most doctors don’t understand how to treat chronic pelvic pain naturally and are still putting a band-aide on women’s pain and pelvic health by recommending opioids, surgeries and vaginal Botox injections, all of which have vey little evidence as to their efficacy and carry high risk associated with them. (8) In my NYC healing center, women report to me that their doctors have downplayed their symptoms and some doctors have actually told them “your pain is in your head,” or “go home, relax and have a glass of wine.”
There’s confusion among doctors because typically the lady parts in women who suffer from chronic pelvic pain look normal. In actuality, 40% of all gynecologic laparoscopies surgeries are performed to determine the cause of chronic pelvic pain and up to 15% of women of all women go to their doctors because of chronic pelvic issues. So women are doing their best to find answers to their female problems, but the medical industry is falling short. Doctors are rarely taught about the pelvic floor in medical school, so they so often lack the education and expertise to help these women naturally. They resort to what they know, pills, surgeries and injections. (9) Most of the pelvic surgeries in my opinion are unnecessary. Even the most astute doctors overlook the real culprit of women’s pelvic pain, leaking, prolapse and abdominal pain… “the pelvic floor muscles.”
Our pelvic floor muscles or vaginal muscles are highly innervated, vascularized, and complex, and are susceptible to injuries. The pelvic floor muscles are involved in what I call the 5 functions of life. They support our organs, close off our urinary sphincters, enhance sexual function, stabilize our hips and spine and act as a sump pump for the pelvis. The pelvic floor muscles or the vaginal muscles are also the deep connectors to the upper and lower extremities and when there’s an issue with them, such as scaring from births, episiotomies, spasms, trigger points or they are too weak or too tight, they can contribute to symptoms such as urinary and fecal incontinence, sexual pain, pelvic organ prolapse and low to non-existent orgasms.(10)
Research has shown that very few doctors, during routine gynecological exams, perform a digital exam of the pelvic floor muscles, the area where the women are experiencing most of their pain and symptoms. (11)
Here’s the truth – your lady’s parts can be healed through integrative and holistic practices that include massages, exercises, yoga, and meditation and mindfulness training.(12,13)As a matter of fact, The Center For Disease Control and National Institutes of Health have recommended natural therapies such as pelvic floor muscle training as the fist line of defense in resolving symptoms related to leaking and pain.(14,15) As a woman who suffered from chronic pelvic pain and leaking after the birth of my daughter, and as a woman whom the medical community failed, I knew I had to change the conversation around pelvic healing. I scoured the earth, educated myself and read hundreds of research papers and books. I had to go deep into my own pelvic floor healing to find natural ways to heal and cure myself from my own debilitating condition. You might be thinking how did she do it? I did it through natural and integrative therapies such as pelvic massages, exercises, breath work, yoga, meditation, bodywork, and mindfulness. We all know the value of eastern medicine and also know that traditional physical therapy works for many ailments. These therapies such as yoga, mindfulness, massage and acupuncture can also be applied to lady parts with tremendous success.(16) The great news is that with the proper guidance you can learn how to do the massages, exercises and techniques on your own and conquer your pelvic condition naturally, and become the most vibrant and pain-free version of yourself.
A foray into the world of talking to trees helped me become not just more mindful, but more adventurous.
“Think of a question you have about your life. Now find a tree and place your hands on the bark. Feel the tree. Listen to the tree. Don’t leave until you have your answer.”
This was a literal thing that was said to me during my first “forest bath”—a mindfulness-based hike I was hoping wouldn’t be too hippie-dippy. Spoiler alert: it was. Rather than some profound pearl of wisdom from Mother Nature herself, all I could hear was the sound of my own voice inside my head saying, What the hell are you doing here? Do you think they’ll notice if you leave?
As a health and wellness journalist, I like cold, hard, clinical science. I abstain from any activity involving incense, I have absolutely zero desire to try Ayahuasca. But I’m also curious, and I’m a sucker for a good hike, which is how I ended up non-ironically hugging a tree with 10 strangers.
“Forest bathing” may sound like new age-y nonsense, but the core philosophy is really about how being outdoors can facilitate calming of the mind and body.
A forest bath, I’d learned after I’d RSVP’d to a friend’s event, involves no literal bathing. (Thank god, since the idea of stripping down like a wood nymph would have crossed way too many lines for me. To say nothing of the splinters!) Called shinrin-yoku in Japan where the practice was first created, forest bathing is simply the practice of mindfully walking through a natural space—touching the bark on the trees, inhaling the cool mossy scent of the dirt, feeling the splashes of sunlight peeking through the leaves and falling on your skin. It’s a literal manifestation of stopping to smell the roses.
“Mindfulness in nature, or forest bathing, provides an opportunity to calm the mind and body, while also being supported by nature,” Nina Smiley, Ph.D., director of mindfulness programing at the postcard-worthy Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York, and author of Mindfulness in Nature, told me much later.
In theory, it sounded lovely. In practice, it meant I was talking to trees. I was instructed to “place” all my anxieties on a leaf and then cast it away, a little ship of worries now owned by the breeze. I munched on vegan chocolate bark made with flowers foraged from the trail. I worried increasingly about my relationship to reality with every step.
After we’d sat in a circle in a meadow reflecting on Mother Nature’s messages and closed the experience mindfully, I high-tailed it to find the nearest Uber, pizza, and glass of wine. My dip into the world of forest bathing had brought me way the hell out of my comfort zone.
The transformation of my mood after forest bathing was not a single epiphany so much as a slow, natural healing process that enhanced my ability to be mindful in otherwise chaotic situations.
But in the days following, I started noticing some odd after-bath effects: a calmer response to emails that would have normally thrown me into a tailspin of anxiety, an awareness of the dozens of shades of green in the tree outside my window, a sense of how the air in San Francisco where I live always smells marine and deliciously briney, even in its more urban center.
Then there was a slowly awakening sense of curiosity in new things, even a desire for adventure. One of the main themes of the bath was focusing on the idea that nature is a powerful and pervasive force—no matter what’s going on in our busy, social media-saturated lives, Mama Nature will always have our backs. We meditated on being empowered by that—taking more risks and following our inner compasses. Coincidentally or not, I found myself doing more of that in the weeks after the forest bath, saying yes to more things out of my comfort zone and ditching some of the narrow-minded hang ups that had kept me from trying new things (like any restaurant that put flowers on the menu, the meditation class at my yoga studio, or the makeup counter at Whole Foods).
When I stopped to reflect several weeks later, I realized my new age-y encounter with the wood nymphs had actually made a pretty significant mark.
Though it freaked me out, I wanted more. So I scheduled a hike with Smiley—a true expert in forest bathing—on her turf at Mohonk just before peak foliage season (picture hiking trails with views so good you can almost see all the way to Manhattan and a crystal clear lake that looks like it was taken from a Wes Anderson film) to ask her about how a skeptic like me could be more open-minded about adopting some of the tenets of forest bathing.
“It has long been known that nature nurtures,” she told me. “The interest in forest bathing speaks to the desire for ways to calm, center, and strengthen the body, mind, and spirit. Minds are saturated with information overload, and many feel the need to be constantly multi-tasking and digitally connected, creating an addiction to busyness.” Guilty.
With an expert guide, I hit the trail with a different set of priorities (and a formal request to skip any hugging of and/or talking to trees), namely to slow down and use all of my senses to really take in each moment rather than focus on getting a workout or a view, like I normally would on a hike. “The vibe of forest bathing is very different,” Smiley says. “Once you’re outdoors, forest bathing is only a mindful breath away. Once you understand how to do this—and how it feels to calm the body and clear the mind—you can do this walking down a city street, appreciating nature in the middle of an urban setting.”
It turns out that forest bathing doesn’t actually require a forest at all, just an outdoor space where I can be fully present.
Three hours later, I was stepping off a bus in midtown Manhattan at rush hour—a place I’d usually hug a thousand trees to avoid. Normally, I’d grab a cab and get the f**k out, but in the spirit of a little mindful adventure, I decided to walk through the heart of the city and practice some of what Smiley was preaching. I was surprised to find there’s a shocking number of flowers in Times Square—on an early fall night, with the right mindset, it’s almost a lovely stroll.
At first, my hang up with forest bathing was the new age-y nature of the idea—and to be clear, I’m still skeptical about the whole getting answers from trees thing. But the surprising sense of being more open-minded and adventurous about integrating natural healing into my wellness routine and—at the risk of sounding too hippie-dippy—my life, made me a convert. “Bringing the principles of forest bathing into everyday life means understanding that being fully present in the moment is a powerful way to enhance well-being,” Smiley says. If that means opening my eyes and mind wide enough to find a moment of serenity even in the concrete jungle, I’m willing to at least try to see the forest for the trees.
At the end of a dark earthen trail in the Peruvian Amazon stands a round structure with a thatched roof that appears to glow from within.
In the Temple of the Way of Light, as it is known, indigenous healers called Onanya teach visitors about the therapeutic uses of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew that’s been used by locals for thousands of years.
Across the Atlantic, researchers in an ornate blue-tiled hospital in Barcelona, Spain are studying ayahuasca’s physical effects on the brain.
The teams in those two disparate locations approach the study of the psychedelic drug very differently, but researchers at each one are coming to similar conclusions about the way ayahuasca affects the mind.
Among volunteers who take ayahuasca for studies, scientists have documented a rise in certain key traits that mirror those of experienced meditators. These changes include increases in openness, optimism, and a particularly powerful ability known as decentering.
Amanda Feilding, the founder and director of the UK-based nonprofit Beckley Foundation, collaborates with scientists around the world to understand how psychedelic drugs affect the brain.
Feilding describes decentering as “the ability to objectively observe one’s thoughts and feelings without associating them with identity”.
In volunteers who’ve taken ayahuasca as part of Beckley’s research, decentering has been linked with higher scores on questionnaires designed to measure well-being and happiness and lower scores on measurements of depressive or anxious thoughts and symptoms of grief.
“It seems patients are finally able to liberate themselves from the emotional pain they have long been suffering from. To calmly observe one’s thoughts and feelings in an objective way in order to become less judgemental and more self-accepting.”
Since the findings out of Peru are based on surveys, they can’t prove that ayahuasca caused the reduction in symptoms of depression and grief – only that there’s a connection between the two.
But in Spain, as part of a collaboration between Beckley and Sant Pau hospital, neurologist Jordi Riba is looking at the brain activity in depressed volunteers who are given ayahuasca.
His findings indicate that in addition to people simply reporting that they feel more decentered and less depressed after taking ayahuasca, there is a corresponding neurological change in their brain activity.
One small study of 17 depressed volunteers who took ayahuasca saw a decrease in activity in areas of the brain that tend to be overactive in conditions like depression and anxiety.
And a new study of regular ayahuasca users suggests a physical shrinking in these parts of the brain, though that work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
These findings are bolstered by other research on the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics. Studies out of New York University and Johns Hopkins suggest that the psychedelic drug psilocybin – the ingredient in magic mushrooms – elicits similar effects among depressed people.
“With the psilocybin, you get an appreciation – it’s out of time – of well-being, of simply being alive and a witness to life and to everything and to the mystery itself,” Clark Martin, a patient who participated in one of the Johns Hopkins trials, previously told Business Insider of his experience.
David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London, has been working with Feilding, and says the brains of people with depression or addiction get locked into patterns of thinking driven by the brain’s control centre.
“Psychedelics disrupt that process so people can escape,” he says.
A physical link between deep breathing and a calm mind.
For centuries, people have slowed their breathing to calm their minds. For some of us, this takes the form of meditation or yoga; for others, it’s 10 deep breaths before a panic attack sets in.
Regardless of what you call it, scientific evidence has backed up the fact that our breath can induce a feeling of tranquillity – although no one has ever been able to figure out exactly how that happens. Now, researchers think they might have finally found the answer, pinpointing a small group of neurons in the brain stems of mice that connect the breath with feelings of calm.
To be clear, the research so far is limited to mice – scientists are yet to replicate the results in humans.
But the mouse brain has many similarities to the human brain, so it’s a good starting point that could begin to explain on a physical level how practices such as meditation and pranayama yoga can bring on feelings of calm and euphoria.
“This study is intriguing because it provides a cellular and molecular understanding of how that might work,” said lead researcher Mark Krasnow from Stanford University School of Medicine.
The group of cells in question belongs to the pre-Bötzinger complex, an area of neurons deep within the brain stem that are known to fire each time we breathe in or out – like a breathing pacemaker.
“The respiratory pacemaker has, in some respects, a tougher job than its counterpart in the heart,” said Krasnow.
“Unlike the heart’s one-dimensional, slow-to-fast continuum, there are many distinct types of breaths: regular, excited, sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing, sobbing.”
“We wondered if different subtypes of neurons within the respiratory control centre might be in charge of generating these different types of breath,” he added.
Last year, Krasnow and his team found evidence that a small group of neurons within this pre-Bötzinger complex were solely responsible for generating sighs – without them, mice never sighed, and when they were simulated, the animals couldn’t stop sighing.
In this latest paper, they found a separate group of neurons in the complex that have a more zen function – they appear to regulate states of calm and arousal in response to our breath.
To figure this out, the team identified two genetic markers called Cdh9 and Dbx1 that they noted were active in the pre-Bötzinger complex and appeared to be linked to breathing.
They then genetically engineered mice without any of the neurons that expressed these two genes – taking out a subpopulation of about 175 neurons in the brain stem.
Interestingly, the mice without these neurons still breathed normally, but with key one difference – they breathed more slowly than normal mice.
“I was initially disappointed,” said Kevin Yackle, one of the research team, now at the University of California, San Francisco.
But after a few days, the team noticed something else strange going on – the mice without the Cdh9 and Dbx1 neurons were extraordinarily calm compared to their control group peers. They still showed varieties of breathing, but they were all at a much slower pace.
“If you put them in a novel environment, which normally stimulates lots of sniffing and exploration,” said Yackle, “they would just sit around grooming themselves.” For mice, that’s taken as evidence of a zen state of mind.
Upon further investigation, the team found evidence that the neurons were forming connections with the locus coeruleus – a region of the brain stem that’s involved in modulating arousal and emotion, and is responsible for waking us up at night and triggering anxiety and distress.
The team concluded that rather than regulating breathing, this little group of neurons was responding to it and reporting their findings to the locus coeruleus so that it could regulate our mood in response.
“If something’s impairing or accelerating your breathing, you need to know right away,” said Krasnow. “These 175 neurons, which tell the rest of the brain what’s going on, are absolutely critical.”
You can see below the pathway (green) that directly connects the brain’s breathing centre to the arousal centre and the rest of the brain.
The work is definitely a promising step forward, but we need to keep in mind that there’s still a lot we have to learn about how the pre-Bötzinger complex works, particular in humans.
Still, the new paper raises the possibility that “any form of practice – from yoga, pranayama to meditation – that is actively manipulating respiration might be using this pathway to regulate some aspects of arousal,” neurobiologist Antoine Lutz from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, who wasn’t involved in the research, told Scientific American.
While other teams will now need to pursue this research further in mice and eventually humans, Krasnow and his team are now continuing to get a better understanding of what other secrets could be hiding in the pre-Bötzinger complex.
“The pre-Bötzinger complex now appears to play a key role in the effects of breathing on arousal and emotion, such as seen during meditation,” said Feldman.
“We’re hopeful that understanding this centre’s function will lead to therapies for stress, depression and other negative emotions.”
A West Virginia University research team, led by Kim Innes, PhD, conducted a randomized, controlled clinical trial in 60 adults with subjective cognitive decline (SCD), a condition that might be associated with preclinical-stage AD. They found that beginner meditation (Kirtan Kriya, or KK) or listening to music for 12 minutes a day for three months had significant benefits.
Participants were assigned to KK or a music listening (ML) program, and asked to practice 12 minutes per day for three months, then at their discretion for three months. Their memory and cognitive function were measured at baseline, three months and six months using the memory functioning questionnaire (MFQ), trail making test (TMT-A/B), and digit-symbol substitution test (DSST).
53 people (88%) completed the study.
Participants performed an average of 93% of sessions (91% in the KK group and 94% in ML) in the first three months, and 71% of sessions (68% in KK and 74% in ML) during the three-month follow-up period.
Both groups showed significant improvements at three months in memory and cognitive performance. At six months, overall gains were maintained or improved. The benefits did not differ by age, gender, baseline cognition scores, or any other factor.
The improvements were in cognitive functioning areas most likely to be affected in preclinical and early stages of dementia, such as attention, executive function, and subjective memory function. There were substantial gains in memory and cognition, and they were sustained or enhanced at the six-month mark.
In another paper, the team said both study groups showed improvements in sleep, mood, stress, well-being, and quality of life, particularly those in the mediation group. All the benefits were sustained or enhanced post-intervention, the researchers said.
“The findings of this trial suggest that two simple mind-body practices, Kirtan Kriya meditation and music listening, may not only improve mood, sleep, and quality of life, but also boost cognition and help reverse perceived memory loss in older adults with SCD,” the team wrote.
Buddhist and meditation teacher Tara Brach leads a Vipassana meditation group at the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:
Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?
Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.
The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.
I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.
At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.
Q: How did you do the research?
Lazar:The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.
We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.
It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.
We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program.
Q: What did you find?
Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:
1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?
Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.
In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.
Q: So, 40 minutes a day?
Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.
In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.
There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.
Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.
We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.
Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?
Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.
But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.
It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.
Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?
Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless
Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?
Lazar: Yes and yes.
Q: What difference has it made in your life?
Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.
Q: What’s your own practice?
Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.
Meditation is a very effective technique that can help you deal with anxiety, stress and illness, and aid you on your road of spiritual self-discovery. However, not many people know that you can actually give more power to your meditation experience using the element of your horoscope sign. So how can something that may seem so unrelated to meditation as astrology elements help you improve it?
Astrology hold a lot of insights, as well as other methods of analyzing and decoding the potential that was given to you on your date of birth, like numerology. The date of your birth is like a cosmic address that higher consciousness uses to send a certain potential for it to be realized. With your first breath, your being receives an imprint energy, and how to deal with certain energies. That imprint is influenced by the position of the planets.
One of the major aspects that influences the energy frequency of your birth date is the position of the Sun in respect to an astrology sign. That is why most people refer to the position of the Sun in their birth chart as their ‘horoscope sign’. However, for deeper knowledge of the potential that your date of birth brings, all the planets and their horoscope signs and positions within your birth chart have to be taken into account.
In Astrology, there are 12 horoscope signs. Each of the signs falls into a one of four groups of elements: Fire signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius), Earth signs (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn), Air signs (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius) and Water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces). Each astrology element can also describe personal qualities as well as archetypes. In fact, we often talk about people while describing their astrology element/archetypes without really noticing it. If she is “up in the clouds”, then she is most likely dominated by the air element, if he is “really deep”, then he probably has strong presentation of water in his astrology chart. If someone is always “on fire” and ready to motivate others, then he or she presumably is strongly connected with the fire element. Someone who is “down to earth” or grounded often has strong presence of Earth signs in their astrological chart.
During meditation, your brain raises the frequency of its activity to connect to the state of higher consciousness. The astrology elements, as well as symbols of their material form, represent certain energies of the higher consciousness. If you have a symbol of your leading astrology elements near you (or at least in your visualization) when you mediate, you can actively tap into its frequency and experience complete resonance and harmony of the energy field much quicker.
One of the best ways to meditate and enhance your meditation experience is by employing your leading astrology sign element. If your leading element is fire, burning beeswax candle can help you during your meditation. If you are more grounded and in touch with earth element, then you might find it more comfortable to meditate when your feet firmly touch the ground. If your element is air, then being outside and letting fresh air caress your body will enhance your meditation experience. Those who have water as their leading astrology element might reach meditative state much quicker if there is a body of water nearby, like a lake or an ocean.
Nevertheless, it is important to appreciate and know that you are influenced by all four elements — Fire, Earth, Air and Water — and each is represented in your birth chart in some way. It is just that some people have certain astrology elements in their charts that are more dominant than others.