If you were to ask me the for the one thing I do when I entertain – or in my life for that matter, that has the greatest positive influence of anything I do, the answer might surprise you. It’s not something found online, in a book store, or at the local party supply store. It’s not a covert slamming back of a cocktail moments before the guests arrive nor a rapid dial 911 to my favorite caterer.
What then is the answer?: I meditate.
I have made time for a mediation practice almost every day since I was 14 years old – and there is good reason why they call it a ‘practice’ – the more you do it, the better you get – and it’s worth it.
This precious time helps keep me grounded, calm, positive, patient and most of all, present. It has taught me to listen and stay connected to the wisdom of my inner voice ensuring I do things, whether it be offering to help a friend, be there for a family member, volunteering at school, or extending myself in any way, in alignment with my true self and doing things for the right loving reasons.
Meditation is also my secret to being a relaxed host/ess, and that makes it easy to let go of anything that gets in the way of having a good time.
Here’s how it works:
1. Before my guests arrive I take five minutes to sit quietly.
2. 3 Minutes: I take ten long deep breathes envisioning positive energy coming in, stressed or negative energy going out, positive energy coming in, stressed or negative energy going out and so on.
3. 1 Minute: I then focus on relaxing my body from my feet, stomach, shoulders, neck and jaw, all the way up to my brain.
4. 1 Minute: Once my mind and body are relaxed I connect to my heart and what brings me joy about welcoming people into my home. Whether it’s simply because I enjoy making others feel good, or I’m celebrating a special occasion or look forward to deepening friendships, I let my heart and body marinate in the feelings of love and gratitude for having this opportunity.
When I open my eyes I not only feel more energized, peaceful and grounded, but I look better too. Never mind what it does to my frown lines – like an instant spa, my face relaxes and releases the edge that creeps in when that hectic dash-to-get-everything-ready anxiety takes over.
Here’s the best part – it’s free, and cheeper than botox. And you don’t have to travel to the mountains of Tibet to benefit from meditation – you can practice in your car, the grocery line, car pool even at work – just begin by focusing on your breathe, in and out, in and out. Start with five minutes and work up to twenty. I promise you will feel a difference in your life.
Sound good? Read on as Deepak Chopra explains the benefits and scientific breakthroughs of meditation:
During most of our waking life our minds are engaged in a continuous internal dialogue in which the meaning and emotional associations of one thought trigger the next. We hear a snippet of music and suddenly we’re thinking about the first time we heard that song with an old boyfriend or girlfriend and how that relationship ended. If we’re still holding emotional pain over that ending, those feelings may bubble up and then our mind may veer into criticism, self-pity, or worries about the future.
All day long our mind spins stories about our work, our health, our finances, our family, or that funny look the store clerk gave us. Often we’re not even conscious of the internal soundtrack unspooling in our mind and yet it is the greatest source of stress in our lives. Although the mind is capable of creating life-affirming stories, it has what neuroscientists refer to as a negativity bias, a tendency to pay more attention to negative experiences than to positive ones. The negativity bias evolved as a survival instinct millions of years ago, as our ancestors focused much more attention on avoiding potential threats than on rewards. Stopping to savor a delicious meal or admire a Paleolithic sunset would have used valuable attentional resources, leaving our ancient ancestors more vulnerable to attack by a predator. Those who survived to pass on their genes paid a lot of attention to danger. Their legacy is a brain that is primed to focus on negative experiences and has a tendency to get stuck in conditioned patterns of thinking, returning again and again to thoughts of anxiety, depression, and limitation.
The Healing Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is one of the best tools we have to counter the brain’s negativity bias, release accumulated stress, foster positive experiences and intentions, and enjoy the peace of present moment awareness. A large body of research has established that having a regular meditation practice produces tangible benefits for mental and physical health, including:
- Decreased blood pressure and hypertension
- Lowered cholesterol levels
- Reduced production of “stress hormones,” including cortisol and adrenaline
- More efficient oxygen use by the body
- Increased production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA
- improved immune function
- Decreased anxiety, depression, and insomnia
Let’s look in more detail at how meditation benefits the body, mind, and spirit.
Meditation Reduces Stress and Burnout
Chronic, unmanaged stress can make you sick and accelerate aging. As many scientific studies have found, prolonged stress can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, stomach ulcers, autoimmune diseases, anxiety, cancer, insomnia, chronic fatigue, obesity, depression, and accelerated aging.
In meditation, your body releases stress and reverses the effects of the flight-or-fight response – that ancient instinct we all have to either run from perceived danger or take it on in battle. Intended as a short-term protection mechanism, fight or flight causes our body to speed up our heart rate, increase our blood sugar, suppress our immune system, reduce insulin production, pump out stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and reduce the blood supply to our digestive organs. All of these reactions happen so that our body can focus on either running away as fast as it can – or staying to fight. Although few people reading this face daily threats to their bodily existence, many live in a prolonged state of fight or flight, generating stress in response to bad traffic, criticism from a spouse, or a disagreement.
Regular meditation dissipates accumulated stress and cultivates a state of restful alertness. There are many compelling studies showing the power of meditation to relieve stress and promote inner calm. For example, a 2011 study published in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal found that full-time workers who spent a few hours each week practicing mindfulness meditation reported a significant decrease in job stress, anxiety, and depressed mood.
Meditation Enhances Your Concentration, Memory, and Ability to Learn
As researchers have found, meditation can help you tap into your brain’s deepest potential to focus, learn and adapt. While scientists used to believe that beyond a certain age, the brain couldn’t change or grow, we now know that brain has a quality known as plasticity, enabling it to grow new neurons and transform throughout our lives. Meditation is a powerful tool for awakening new neural connections and even transforming regions of the brain. A recent study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that after only eight weeks of meditation, participants experienced beneficial growth in the brain areas associated with memory, learning, empathy, self-awareness, and stress regulation (the insula, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex). In addition, the meditators reported decreased feelings of anxiety and greater feelings of calm. This study adds to the expanding body of research about the brain’s amazing plasticity and ability to change habitual stress patterns.
Many other studies provide evidence for the value of meditation in improving the ability to stay focused in world filled with increasing distractions and demands on our attention. For example, research conducted by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Center showed that teenagers and adults with ADHD who practiced various forms of meditation for just eight weeks improved their ability to concentrate on tasks, even when attempts were made to distract them.
Meditation Helps You Create More Harmonious, Loving Relationships
When you’re feeling balanced and centered, it is much easier to respond with awareness rather than have react in a knee-jerk way or say something that creates toxicity in your relationships. Meditation cultivates equanimity and compassion, allowing you to be present with a loved one, client or co-worker and really listen to what they are saying and what they may need.
As you meditate on a regular basis, you develop what is known as “witnessing awareness” – the ability to calmly and objectively observe a situation, notice when you are being triggered, and consciously choose how you want to respond. The ability to be present and aware is extremely valuable in every relationship.
Meditation Improves Your Creativity and Problem-Solving Skills
We each have an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day – unfortunately, many of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday, last week, and last year. The mind tends to get stuck in repetitive thought loops that squeeze out the possibility for new ideas and inspiration. Meditation is a powerful practice for going beyond habitual, conditioned thought patterns into a state of expanded awareness. We connect to what is known as the field of infinite possibilities or pure potentiality, and we open to new insights, intuition, and ideas.
The world’s great innovators, athletes, and other high achievers have described this state as “being in the flow,” being in the right place at the right time, or a state of grace. Time seems to stand still and instead of struggling and trying to force things to happen, everything you need comes naturally to you. You do less and accomplish more. You aren’t burdened by the past or worried about the future; you’re flowing in the ever present eternal now. This higher state of consciousness is the birthplace of all creativity. The mind is in an open, receptive state and is able to receive flashes of insight and fresh perspectives. As Marcel Proust wrote, “The real journey of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Meditation Decreases Depression, Anxiety, and Insomnia
The emotional effects of sitting quietly and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals has been linked to different aspects of happiness:
- Dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure, feel rewarded, and maintain focus.
- Serotonin has a calming effect. It eases tension and helps us feel less stressed and more relaxed and focused. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been linked to migraines, anxiety, bipolar disorder, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and insomnia.
- Oxytocin (the same chemical whose levels rise during sexual arousal and breastfeeding), is a pleasure hormone. It creates feelings of calm, contentment, and security, while reducing fear and anxiety.
- Endorphins are most commonly known as the chemicals that create the exhilaration commonly labeled “the runner’s high.” These neurotransmitters play many roles related to wellbeing, including decreasing feelings of pain and reducing the side effects of stress.
Meditation choreographs the simultaneous release of these neurotransmitters, something that no single drug can do – and all without side effects. A growing body of medical research is providing scientific evidence that meditation and mindfulness alleviates depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mood-related disorders. A pivotal study (published in the April 2012 issue of Emotion) led by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, found that participants who underwent a short, intensive meditation program were less depressed, anxious, and stressed, while also experiencing greater compassion and awareness of others’ feelings.
Meditation also can benefit people suffering from chronic pain, potentially decreasing or eliminating the need for medication. A study conducted by Wake Forest University School of Medicine (published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience) found that participants who attended four 20-minute training sessions over the course of four days experienced a sharp reduction in their sensitivity to pain. In fact, the reduction in pain ratings was significantly greater than those found in similar studies involving placebo pills, morphine, and other painkilling drugs.
Meditation: The Birthplace of Happiness
Beyond the substantial benefits meditation creates for the mind-body physiology, the greatest gift of meditation is the sense of calm and inner peace it brings into your daily life. When you meditate, you go beyond the mind’s noisy chatter into an entirely different place: the silence of a mind that is not imprisoned by the past or the future. This is important because silence is the birthplace of happiness. Silence is where we get our bursts of inspiration, our tender feelings of compassion and empathy, and our sense of love. These are all delicate emotions, and the chaotic roar of the internal dialogue easily drowns them out. But when you discover the silence in your mind, you no longer have to pay undue attention to all the random images that trigger worry, anger, and pain. When you meditate on a regular basis, all of your thoughts, actions, and reactions are infused with a little more love and mindful attention. The result is a deeper appreciation and a profound awareness of the divine quality of existence.
7 Myths of Meditation
In the past forty years, meditation has entered the mainstream of modern Western culture, prescribed by physicians and practiced by everyone from business executives, artists, and scientists to students, teachers, military personnel, and – on a promising note – politicians. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan meditates every morning and has become a major advocate of mindfulness and meditation, as he describes in his book, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. Despite the growing popularity of meditation, prevailing misconceptions about the practice are a barrier that prevents many people from trying meditation and receiving its profound benefits for the body, mind, and spirit. Here are seven of the most common meditation myths dispelled.
Myth #1: Meditation is difficult.
Truth: This myth is rooted in the image of meditation as an esoteric practice reserved only for saints, holy men, and spiritual adepts. In reality, when you receive instruction from an experienced, knowledgeable teacher, meditation is easy and fun to learn. The techniques can be as simple as focusing on the breath or silently repeating a mantra. One reason why meditation may seem difficult is that we try too hard to concentrate, we’re overly attached to results, or we’re not sure we are doing it right. In our experience at the Chopra Center, learning meditation from a qualified teacher is the best way to ensure that the process is enjoyable and you get the most from your practice. A teacher will help you understand what you’re experiencing, move past common roadblocks, and create a nourishing daily practice.
Myth #2: You have to quiet your mind in order to have a successful meditation practice.
Truth: This may be the number one myth about meditation and is the cause of many people giving up in frustration. Meditation isn’t about stopping our thoughts or trying to empty our mind – both of these approaches only create stress and more noisy internal chatter. We can’t stop or control our thoughts, but we can decide how much attention to give them. Although we can’t impose quiet on our mind, through meditation we can find the quiet that already exists in the space between our thoughts. Sometimes referred to as “the gap,” this space between thoughts is pure consciousness, pure silence, and pure peace. When we meditate, we use an object of attention, such as our breath, an image, or a mantra, which allows our mind to relax into this silent stream of awareness. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably will, we don’t need to judge them or try to push them away. Instead, we gently return our attention to our object of attention.In every meditation, there are moments, even if only microseconds, when the mind dips into the gap and experiences the refreshment of pure awareness. As you meditate on a regular basis, you will spend more and more time in this state of expanded awareness and silence.
Be assured that even if it feels like you have been thinking throughout your entire meditation, you are still receiving the benefits of your practice. You haven’t failed or wasted your time. When Chopra Center co-founder Dr. David Simon taught meditation, he would often tell students, “The thought I’m having thoughts may be the most important thought you have ever thought, because before you had that thought, you may not have even known you were having thoughts. You probably thought you were your thoughts.” Simply noticing that you are having thoughts is a breakthrough because it begins to shift your internal reference point from ego mind to witnessing awareness. As you become less identified with your thoughts and stories, you experience greater peace and open to new possibilities.
Myth #3: It takes years of dedicated practice to receive any benefits from meditation.
Truth: The benefits of meditation are both immediate and long-term. You can begin to experience benefits the first time you sit down to meditate and in the first few days of daily practice. Many scientific studies provide evidence that meditation has profound effects on the mind-body physiology within just weeks of practice. For example, a landmark study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm; it also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation. At the Chopra Center, we commonly hear from new meditators who are able to sleep soundly for the first time in years after just a few days of daily meditation practice. Other common benefits of meditation include improved concentration, decreased blood pressure, and enhanced immune function. See the article Why Meditate? for more benefits of meditation.
Myth #4: Meditation is escapism.
Truth: The real purpose of meditation isn’t to tune out and get away from it all but to tune in and get in touch with your true Self – that eternal aspect of yourself that goes beyond all the ever-changing, external circumstances of your life. In meditation you dive below the mind’s churning surface, which tends to be filled with repetitive thoughts about the past and worries about the future, into the still point of pure consciousness. In this state of transcendent awareness, you let go of all the stories you’ve been telling yourself about who you are, what is limiting you, and where you fall short – and you experience the truth that your deepest Self is infinite and unbounded. As you practice on a regular basis, you cleanse the windows of perception and your clarity expands. While some people do try to use meditation as a form of escape – as a way to bypass unresolved emotional issues – this approach runs counter to all of the wisdom teachings about meditation and mindfulness. In fact, there are a variety of meditation techniques specifically developed to identify, mobilize and release stored emotional toxicity. If you are coping with emotional upset or trauma, we recommend that you work with a therapist who can help you safely explore and heal the pain of the past, allowing you to return to your natural state of wholeness and love.
Myth #5: I don’t have enough time to meditate.
Truth: There are busy, productive executives who have not missed a meditation in twenty-five years, and if you make meditation a priority, you will do it. If you feel like your schedule is too full, remember that even just a few minutes of meditation is better than none. We encourage you not to talk yourself out of meditating just because it’s a bit late or you feel too sleepy.
In life’s paradoxical way, when we spend time meditating on a regular basis, we actually have more time. When we meditate, we dip in and out of the timeless, spaceless realm of consciousness . . . the state of pure awareness that is the source of everything that manifests in the universe. Our breathing and heart rate slow down, our blood pressure lowers, and our body decreases the production of stress hormones and other chemicals that speed up the aging process and give us the subjective feeling that we are “running out of time.” In meditation, we are in a state of restful alertness that is extremely refreshing for the body and mind. As people stick with their meditation ritual, they notice that they are able to accomplish more while doing less. Instead of struggling so hard to achieve goals, they spend more and more time “in the flow” – aligned with universal intelligence that orchestrates everything.
Myth #6: Meditation is a spiritual or religious practice.
Truth: Meditation is a practice that takes us beyond the noisy chatter of the mind into a place of stillness and silence. It doesn’t require a specific spiritual belief, and many people of many different religions practice meditation without any conflict with their current religious beliefs. Some meditators have no particular religious beliefs or are atheist or agnostic. They meditate in order to experience inner quiet and the numerous physical and mental health benefits of the practice – including lowered blood pressure, stress reduction, and restful sleep. The original reason that Deepak Chopra began meditating was to help him stop smoking. Meditation helps us to enrich our lives. It enables us to enjoy whatever we do in our lives more fully and happily – whether that is playing sports, taking care of our children, or advancing in our career.
Myth #7: I’m supposed to have transcendent experiences in meditation.
Truth: Some people are disappointed when they don’t experience visions, see colors, levitate, hear a choir of angels, or glimpse enlightenment when they meditate. Although we can have a variety of wonderful experiences when we meditate, including feelings of bliss and oneness, these aren’t the purpose of the practice. The real benefits of meditation are what happens in the other hours of the day when we’re going about our daily lives. When we emerge from our meditation session, we carry some of the stillness and silence of our practice with us, allowing us to be more creative, compassionate, centered, and loving to ourselves and everyone we encounter.