Over the past decade, it’s been well established that meditation has real effects for the mind and body (which are not really separate in the first place—for more on this subject, see my books Your Emotional Type and The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion, available at www. drmicozzi.com).
And indeed, one of my favorite approaches to meditation— something called mindfulness meditation—has been shown to produce positive effects on well- being that extend well beyond the actual time spent in meditation. With benefits for anxiety, depression, blood pressure, addictions, eating disorders, and even chronic pain.
Now, two new reputable studies may explain how these long-lasting benefits are achieved…
Researchers have shown that meditation does in fact affect the actual structure of the brain. It can shrink certain areas of the brain that generate “alarm” signals. And expand other areas that relate to “connectivity.”1
In fact, my colleague, Dr. Sara W. Lazar and her research team
at Harvard just demonstrated that practicing mindfulness techniques increases the density of actual gray matter in different regions of the brain.2 And one of the primary functions of gray matter is memory.
In other words, you can sharpen your memory and literally build a better brain simply by meditating.
Dozens of variations all offer the same benefits
My Harvard colleagues worked with the best mindfulness program in the country here at the University of Massachusetts. However, what I find interesting is that it doesn’t seem to matter which particular mindfulness meditation technique you use.
The real benefits of mindfulness meditation can be attained in many ways, among many traditions.
And there are dozens of variations including—Insight, Zen, Tibetan, Buddhist, Zazen, Vipassana, and Samatha, just to name a few. They all appear to be able to alter the brain’s actual structure, by increasing gray matter.
This observation fits with my long- held view that it’s not the particular technique or tradition of any one health practice that provides the most benefit. They have all discovered ways to help the body heal itself.
And getting started with mindfulness meditation can really be very simple. In fact, you can get started right this second.
Your step-by-step guide to becoming more “mindful”
When most people think of meditation, they picture the stereotypical cross-legged pose, eyes closed, repeating the word “Om” over and over again. But mindfulness meditation doesn’t have to include any of those things. In fact, you can practice it right now. And you don’t even have to get up out of your chair to do it.
Start simply by sitting still, trying not to move. Then, focus your attention on your breath. Be aware of the thoughts, emotions, and environmental changes (sounds, sensations, etc.) that arise from moment to moment. If your thoughts drift, try to bring your attention back to the present. Refocus on your breathing and what is occurring in the moment.
Really, that is the essence of mindfulness meditation—being “present.” Not thinking ahead to the future or back to the past. But just being fully aware of everything in the moment. It always reminds me of the old adage “The past is history. The future is mystery. But now is a gift. That’s why we call it the ‘present.’”
It’s a very simple concept. But one that, as you’ve read here, has some astonishing—and proven—benefits. (For more details consult my book, New World Mindfulness, available at www.drmicozzi.com.)
|For the record… Integrative Chinese Mindfulness? There’s no such thing!
Last month, I told you about a new study associated with a “new” technique that the researchers dubbed Integrative Body Mind Training. One of the primary objections I had with the study was the use of the word “integrative” as applied to a form of Chinese meditation.
To be honest, the term “Integrative BMT Chinese mindfulness meditation” seems more like a marketing slogan to me than a scientific concept.
So I got in touch with colleagues of my friend at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat- Zinn, a founder of mindfulness in America. And they agreed with my assessment.
Jon does say that much of mindfulness-based stress reduction originally comes from the Zen tradition of China. But the term “mindfulness” actually distinguishes this sort of meditation from yet other Asian traditions, such as Transcendental Meditation (TM).
And as for the new, mongrel term “integrative,” that’s a much bigger subject. One I’ll address in an upcoming issue of Insiders’ Cures.
1. “Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity.” Neuroimage 2011; 56(1): 290-298 2 “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Res 2011; 191(1): 36-43