Updated: Oct 28, 2022
We are bombarded by info telling us how important it is for us to keep our brains active by learning a new language or instrument, doing word puzzles or any activity that forces our brain to work harder, but also taking the time to not think may be very beneficial for brain health.
Research now shows that people who meditate regularly may be preventing aging in certain areas of their brains.
Dr. Sara Lazar, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, has been researching the effects of meditation (and yoga) on our brains.
As we age, areas of our brains shrink. This begins in our ‘30s and shrinkage increases more rapidly when we reach our ‘60s. One of the main areas that are affected by shrinkage is our cerebral cortex which is the area that controls information processing in the brain. This is the reason that as we age, it can sometimes may be more difficult to problem solve or remember things.
Lazar’s research showed that people in their ‘50s who meditate regularly, have cerebral cortexes the same size as 25-year-olds. This suggests that meditation may slow down or prevent shrinkage of this important area of the brain.
To test if meditation was the main reason for their finding, Lazer’s team tested volunteers who never meditated and scanned their brains with an MRI. These volunteers then took part in an 8-week meditation program where they were taught to meditate every day for 30–40 minutes. After completion of the program, the volunteers’ brains were again scanned with an MRI.
The findings showed that the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is important for memory and learning, was larger after the volunteers meditated regularly. Imagine – in only 8 weeks - meditation increased the size of this important area of the brain. Lazer’s team also found that meditation also decreased stress as seen in the amygdala, the area of the brain that controls the fight or flight response to stress.
You can see Dr. Lazar’s publications here
Suddenly I Heard Birds
We now understand how important it is to clear our mind for our brain and mental health, but how do we learn to meditate?
I tried to meditate incorrectly for years. My mistake, that many beginners make, was to try very hard not to think. This is impossible and we spend all our meditation time thinking about how we can’t stop thinking. This ends up stressing us out – the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve!
Once I understood that when we meditate, we are conscious of everything around us and if thoughts come by, we take note of them and then send them on their way. I was able to relax and simply enjoy being in the moment with those thoughts that moved in and out of my brain. In time I had less thoughts, although it varies from meditation to meditation. Sometimes I go deeper when I meditate and have few thoughts and sometimes those thoughts lead to my writing one of my blogs! :-)
My first lesson in being present while meditating rather than trying to shut down the Monkey Chatter (the constant chatter of the mind) was surprisingly from a passage in a novel I was reading – which I highly recommend: A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel by Ruth Ozeki. Here is part of the passage:
“INSTRUCTIONS FOR ZAZEN First of all, you have to sit down, which you’re probably already doing. The traditional way is to sit on a zafu cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, but you can sit on a chair if you want to. The important thing is just to have good posture and not to slouch or lean on anything…
Next you just relax and hold really still and concentrate on your breathing. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. It’s not like you’re thinking about breathing, but you’re not not thinking about it either. It’s kind of like when you’re sitting on the beach and watching the waves lapping up on the sand or some little kids you don’t know playing in the distance. You’re just noticing everything that’s going on, both inside you and outside you, including your breathing and the kids and the waves and the sand. And that’s basically it…
Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel (p. 181). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The idea of hearing the waves and the children playing and being conscious of everything helped me understand the idea of being present in the moment.
Later I discovered the wonderful meditation app Insight Timer and found a few guided meditations that helped me learn to meditate. I also used the app’s timer to let myself meditate for a few minutes between my reflexology sessions and I was amazed that suddenly in those few minutes I would hear birds! Of course those birds were always there, but only when I took a few minutes to be present in the moment, I was aware of the beautiful sounds of these chirping birds. Now when I suddenly hear those birds, I know I have managed to put all my thoughts and worries aside for a few minutes and am present in the moment.
The Symphony of Now
Today I am lucky to have a wonderful meditation teacher, Stephanie Noble
In every guided mediation Stephanie offers another way to help me meditate. Sometimes a simple word like “soften” allows me to relax my facial muscles. Last week Stephanie used the beautiful phrase “The Symphony of Now” as a way to listen to all the sounds around us because they only exist right now at this particular moment. I have taken that phrase with me ever since and when I have a few moments, I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and listen to the Symphony of Now that will never be heard again. It may be the birds outside, the clock ticking or my dog breathing heavily. It may be a combination of all of those sounds including my own breath – but it is a very special symphony that I can only attend once in a lifetime.
In Validation (a way of communicating with people who have dementia,) we always begin with a technique called Centering. Before we approach a client, we need to clear our mind of our own thoughts so we can connect to the thoughts and feelings of our client.
We need to be honest with ourselves and realize that each of us carries our own emotions. To reach that old person we need to take our own emotions and put them aside. By Centering, we remove our own feelings and we become an empty vessel. Now we can take in the feelings of that old person we want to Validate.
Once we get accustomed to meditating, we can find a shortcut to Centering. There are many methods of doing this and Validation Workers find the way that works best for them. We always center before working with a client and sometimes during a Validation session, a Validation worker may need to re-center in order to keep their own mind from wandering so they can stay focused on their client. Centering helps us connect to our client and allows us to be more aware of what they are feeling. That is one of the ways we connect heart to heart with our client through Validation.
Learning to meditate can keep your brain healthy, reduce stress and it can also help you to Center in order to connect and understand an older person who has memory loss. Chose a way to meditate and start to enjoy those one time performances of your Symphony of Now.
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