Ready Player One

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


 

One of the things you hear regularly about mindfulness is how quickly it works. There are even scientific studies showing various benefits after just one 20 minute meditation session. From one perspective, this is great news – you can do this simple practice for just a few minutes and experience benefits almost immediately.

But from another perspective, surely nothing that’s really good for you is so quick and easy?! I wouldn’t be surprised if many people think mindfulness is snake oil simply due to an understandable distrust for anything that seems like a silver bullet.

So, what’s going on here? Is there really any benefit to be had from just a small amount of mindfulness meditation? And why do people fervently announce that they feel a night-and-day difference after only a few sessions?

Well, I like to think of the benefits of meditation as having levels. Level 1 benefits are felt quickly and are quite noticeable. There are also Level 2 benefits, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

I’ve already talked about rumination, and how it has both a psychological and a physiological impact. So it makes sense that, simply by interrupting the continuous cycle of negative thoughts and bringing your attention to the present moment, you’re going to feel the benefit of no longer reliving whatever it is you’re ruminating about. For one simple moment, the noise in your head disappears, the anger or worry or sadness in your stomach dissipates, your brow relaxes. You feel better. (And your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, decrease too.)

Also, not only are you not thinking about something distressing, the chances are that whatever you bring your attention back to in the present moment is actually quite pleasant. Remember how, as a child, everything was wondrous? But somewhere along the line it became, well, meh. Well, all that wondrous stuff is still wondrous. We’ve just acclimatised to it, and then stopped noticing it altogether. But if you take a moment to stop ruminating, and focus on something – even something you think you know really well – you can find details that delight.

Take that favourite scarf/pillowcase/towel/velvet jacket(!) of yours. Intellectually you know it’s soft to the touch. That’s one of the reasons it’s your favourite. But when was the last time you actually dedicated all of your attention to exactly how it feels under the skin of your fingertips? Or what about your favourite song? You play it regularly while you’re driving or catching up on emails on the subway into work, and sort of know that you like it, right? But when did you last really listen to it – the sound of the cymbals, the timbre of the singer’s voice, the insightfulness of the lyrics? And when was the last time you just stood and stared at that sunset/building/painting/object and really just take in how mesmerisingly beautiful the thing in front of your gaze is?

Interestingly, even when whatever’s going on in the present moment isn’t that pleasant, it turns out you’re still better off than if you allow yourself to continue ruminating. In a lovely simple experiment, Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at Harvard, found that even when people are sitting in traffic, they’re happier if they’re in the moment, than if they’re allowing their mind to wander (and therefore probably ruminate). Don’t believe me? Check out his TED talk

So when people who have recently started doing mindfulness enthusiasticly tell you how awsome it is, how much better they feel, it’s true! They’re suddenly feeling what it’s like to be able to interrupt their negative rumination. And because they’ve been letting their thoughts run away with them for so long, the difference when they start meditating feels huge.

And it doesn’t take a lot of meditation to start feeling the Level 1 benefits. In my experience, people who meditate for just 10 minutes a day, three or four times a week, will probably be feeling wonderful about it after as little as two weeks, which is a great motivator to continue!

Unfortunately, over time the Level 1 benefits start to feel a bit meh. Not because they’re getting any smaller, but just because they’re not so novel any more. And I think that’s often when novice meditators give up. Which is a shame, because if they stuck with it for a few months, they’d start to experience the Level 2 benefits, which is the topic of my next post…

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