Meditation conjures many images for people inexperienced with the practice. Hippy culture has co-opted meditative practices; meditating gurus are used as a cheap marketing ploy. The modern (western) view seems to think meditation is woo-woo (an “endorsement of quackery”)
While there is nothing wrong with today’s perception of meditation, that is not the practice I adhere to. Most recent scientific studies research Zen, Vipassana, or similar styles of meditation that have existed for thousands of years with little change.
The most recent scientific studies show tangible immune function, cortical thickness (associated with attention, introspection, and sensory processing), and even mood benefits. Yet, unlike intermittent fasting, habit timing, and cold showers, there is an intangible and almost unexplainable philosophical advantage to meditation.
Types of Meditation and Mindfulness
As with any other practice, many forms, advantages, and ideologies come with meditation and mindfulness. Some meditation includes focusing on a specific object, such as a deity or a religious symbol. Other meditative practices are useful for clearing the mind and focusing on a particular problem. Still others focus on a phrase or mantra in order to help calm the mind.*
Even physical practices, such as yoga or walking, is considered a form of meditation or mindfulness. All of these can be helpful, serve a particular purpose, and even alter your physiology, but I favor sensation-based Vipassana because of my own experiences.
Vipassana meditation requires self-observation at the subtlest level. Through introspection of physical sensations, one can enter the depth of the mind and eradicate mental impurities. Observing the sensations of pain and pleasure without reaction helps to prevent attachment and shed layers of ego.
The practice is extremely empowering. Through experience, rather than inferred knowledge, one can recognize the strength of the mind to overcome anything.
The morality and philosophical aspect of self-immolation aside, this picture clearly depicts how powerful this faculty can be developed. The experience of Vipassana practice is empowering because of the control one has over reactions to the external world.
I understood this at the deepest level during a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which consisted of 10 hours of meditation daily, no speech, eye, or physical contact. It was one of the hardest and most painful mental and physical experiences of my life, but was highly beneficial. The steady progression throughout the 10 days allowed me to experience subtler and subtler sensations and observe pain rather than react.
If all this sounds a little too woo-woo for you, not to worry. Understanding the philosophical or theoretical aspect can actually be detrimental to your practice. I went into my meditation retreat attached to an outcome. Because my friends Henno and Kyle had attained an experience, I too wanted the same. This actually hurt me during the retreat. You can skip this altogether and see for yourself what modern science is saying about meditative practice.
Scientific Benefits of Meditation
My philosophizing may have fallen on deaf ears; you’re too rational and logical – I get it. If that is the case, here are the benefits of meditation in purely scientific form. Some of these studies are just the beginning and require more follow-up, but they are relevant today.
One of the most comprehensive mindfulness / meditation studies done by Sara Lazar at Harvard University showed complete physical alterations of the brain. Utilizing MRI scans, the study indicated that “brain regions associated with attention, introspection, and sensory processing were thicker” in the subjects who meditated. The prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, regions also important for empathy, showed increased thickness as well.
The study also showed reduced cortical thinning in elderly patients suggesting that mindfulness / meditation can help prevent age-related cognitive decline. This study showed the growth potential of the human mind (plasticity) through meditation alone.
For the easier to understand version, here is Sara Lazar’s TED talk.
According to an oft-cited study, meditation and mindfulness can reduce cognitive stress and thereby reduce cellular aging. Human chromosomes have protective caps called telomeres. The length of telomeres has been linked to organismal longevity and correlates with chronic stress and depression.
The meditation also showed lower stress-induced interleukin-6 and decreased C-reactive protein (both markers of cellular stress and aging). Consistent practice of meditation and mindfulness can reduce cognitive stress, which improves cellular longevity and health.
Another tangible advantage of meditation may be enhanced immune function. An 8-week study of mindful meditation showed increased activation of the left-sided anterior part of the brain. This coincided with an increase in antibodies and researchers concluded that “meditation may change…immune function in positive ways.” Does this study make it absolute? No. Will your immune system function better when you are less stressed? It makes sense.
Time to Get Started
If you have stuck with me thus far, you are probably as interested in the benefits of meditation as a few tips to get started. There is not a single place to start and each individual is different, but here are a few of my suggestions.
Start with 5 minutes
Rather than starting with hours of meditation, go slowly. Taking 5 minutes break while you are at work or fulfilling other responsibilities will help you recharge, but it will not be too long where it actually becomes too difficult. Focus on your breath as it goes in the nostrils and as it exists.
Go for a walk or hike
What is dubbed “moving meditation” can be a great start for people that find it hard to sit still. Try to pay attention to the wind, the sensations of the ground on your feet, and anything else that you can physically feel.
One physical practice that goes hand-in-hand with meditation is yoga. Some practitioners even believe they are one and the same, but it depends on your principles and desires. Like moving meditation, yoga can help those who can’t sit still. Focus on your breath and yoga becomes a powerful tool.
Take a cold shower
I’m a proponent of cold showers, but for more advanced meditators, observe the cold sensations rather than reacting to them. Accept the reality as it is from moment to moment, but maintain normal breath while under the water.
After starting slowly and working my way up to 20 minutes of meditation, I went all out to a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. The retreat was completely free and offered me the opportunity to get far more established in the technique. Don’t try to find 10 days on your calendar to do a retreat as it will never happen. Just do it!
*Check out this study if you want to understand some of the differences / similarities between the types of meditation from a scientific perspective.
Hope you enjoyed this little tour of meditation from a biohacking perspective. If you have any questions or comments, please email or enter them below for everyone to see!