Updated: Mar 17
Meditation has been practiced for many years in many religions. The Bible mentions meditate 23 times, and there are 31 verses in the Bible about meditation. For example, Psalm 4:4 "search your heart and be silent." However, as more scientific evidence emerges praising meditation's health and wellness benefits, it is becoming increasingly more popular.
With research, we can now do extensive studies to compare a group of people who meditate with a similar group who do not. We can even control the people enrolled in studies, so we do not compare people in New York with religious monks on a mountain top. We can further take a group of people who have had no prior experience with meditation, teach them the basic steps I will teach you, and then compare the outcome to the group of people who did not start the practice. Having all this information is great, because it does not only show the benefit people experience when they meditate while living as a monk (and the benefits are indeed great and well documented), but it also show benefits to you and me living a fast-paced ordinary life.
Benefits of meditation:
Here are some of the benefits of meditation backed by science and research:
1: Meditation promotes better sleep
2: Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
3: Reduce pain, especially in chronic pain syndromes, chronic illness, migraines, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.
4: Meditation boosts your memory, protects against cognitive decline (ageing of the brain), it sharpens focus and concentration, it improves creativity.
5: Improved cardiovascular health. One study showed that after meditating for only 5min a day, the participants showed an improvement in heart rate variability after only ten days. Other studies have shown meditation
decreases blood pressure and improves blood cholesterol levels.
Our minds race at 200km/hr during the day and often at night. It does make sense to teach your brain how to become calm and focus on one thing at a time. First, it helps to become aware of your thoughts. Take notice during the day of your thoughts and what you are thinking. We can use different things to help our minds to focus. This is often a mantra, bible verse, prayer, image, or focusing on your breathing. To explain why we do this: there is a folklore of this shopkeeper in Africa who owned a monkey. Unfortunately, her monkey was very disruptive and created complete havoc in her shop. The monkey would open food containers, take bites out of fruits supposed to be sold, sometimes even push shelves full of inventory over. The poor shopkeeper was at her wit's end and made a trek for three days up a mountain to ask for wisdom from their tribe leader. The leader patiently listened, performed a ritual, then said: "Hang a rope from the middle of the roof." The shopkeeper was disappointed that she has made such an arduous journey for such a strange one-sentence answer. However, when she got back to her store, she did hang the rope as the tribe leader recommended. She was utterly astonished to see her monkey happily climbing up and down that rope, leaving her store merchandise alone. The rope is the mantra/sentence/word/bible verse that helps us center and keeps our thoughts from running around between our to-do list, past events, and thoughts about the future.
I work as a Hospitalist doctor, caring for patients admitted to the hospital with a heart attack, stroke, cancer or covid. Hospital Medicine is generally a fast-paced environment. Over my more than 15-year career span, I have established small rituals to allow my mind to let go of all the thoughts running through my head and become clear to focus with 'presence' and empathy on the patient in front of me. One such practice is when I wash my hands, I imagine how I wash all the thoughts and dialogue in my mind away, and I linger a second or two longer when drying my hands until my mind is clear. A couple of times during the day, I will make myself a hot coffee/ tea. While holding the mug and inhaling the aroma, I would escape to my own little world in the middle of an often-bustling Physician Lounge. For these five minutes, I would focus on my breathing only and not allow any thoughts to run around. This practice, however, took practice and came easier with years of doing it. Initially, when you take your 5-minute breaks, you will start repeating your mantra to yourself. That rope that your mind can hold on to, to help it not to run around.
Our brains consist of billions of nerve cells called neurons. These neurons talk to each other. This communication is called electricity. When millions of neurons are communicating simultaneously, this generates a significant amount of electrical activity. In the hospital, we can measure this electricity with an EEG machine (electroencephalograph). This combined electrical activity in the brain is known as a brainwave pattern. It is called a brainwave because when we record it, it shows a wave-like pattern. Scientifically, we can sort brain waves into four categories based on wave frequency measured in cycles per second (Hz).
Beta waves: 15-40Hz
These waves occur when you are superconscious, awake, alert, active, engaged, talking with your boss, teaching your children Math.
Alpha waves: 9-14Hz
This is the frequency when you are awake and conscious but calm, lucid, reflective. For example, when you are staring into a fire, looking at the ocean's rolling waves, listening to soothing music.
Theta waves: 5-8Hz
This is the state we enter when we are deeply relaxed, in a deeper meditative state, almost semiconscious. These are the frequency during daydreaming and REM sleep.
Delta waves 1.5-4Hz
These brain waves are measured when we are in dreamless sleep, minimally aware, unconscious of our surroundings.
When I teach my patients meditation, my aim is not to make them experts in the field. I teach them this practice to help them slow their brain waves from Beta to Alpha and eventually to Theta frequency. When you start practicing this, you do not have to obtain a particular brain wave frequency to be successful. Just slowing from whichever usual frequency to a slower one already shows progress and has health benefits.
1: Decide you want to learn how to meditate. Having an open mind and a growth mindset is a great start!
2: Schedule a specific time, for example, when you get up before you have a coffee. Be consistent. Habits take at least 3weeks to take root.
3: Find a spot, for example, a quiet area in front of a window overlooking a tree. Being out in nature would be even better, and extra points if you can look out onto a body of water.
4: Find something to anchor your thoughts on—a word or phrase.
5: Initially, start by focusing on your breathing.
6: When thoughts run through your mind, notice them, and let them go. Do not judge thoughts, do not try to block thoughts or prevent them from popping up. Do not become frustrated with all the traffic in your mind. Notice and let it go, do not hold on to it. Then return to your breathing or mantra. Even emotions that we notice are neither good nor bad, we just notice it, acknowledge it, and let it go.
7: You will notice your heart rate slowing, your breathing will deepen.
Every day is a step closer to optimal health from within!