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There are several different types of meditation, but I didn’t spend a lot of time deciding on one. Instead, I took advantage of a class offered by the Seattle Insight Mediation Society at a nearby location at a convenient time. Insight Meditation, or Vipassana mediation (as it’s traditionally known) strives to help you gain personal insight by training you to be mindful and concentrate. The idea is that with practice you can hone that skill and then use it to gain a clear and unfiltered perspective on your self and your life condition. Although Vipassana mediation is rooted in the Buddhist tradition, you don’t have to be Buddhist to make use of the practice.
After six months of meditating for about half an hour every day, I can attest to its effectiveness (although learning to meditate is a lifelong pursuit). In addition, I haven’t yet found a unified list of reasons to meditate that covers all of the recent research that I’ve come across, so if you’re thinking about starting to practice meditation you might find this list inspirational.
16 Reasons to Mediate Every Day: Part I, Science
If you’re a skeptic like me, then you’re probably not quick to accept claims made by those who practice ancient traditions. However, if you read about meditation you’ll soon discover a sprinkling of interesting and objective scientific research that has been conducted on meditation within the last few years. So to start out the list of 16 reasons to meditate, here are some no-nonsense reasons supported by recent scientific research:
- Reduce Your Stress Level: Research performed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and research conducted at Harvard Medical School show that mediation changes brain waves in the amygdala and the autonomic nervous system, which govern fear and stress respectively. These studies showed that those who meditate tend to be calmer and more relaxed than those who don’t.
- Increase Your Intelligence: Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have shown that people who meditate have thicker gray matter than those who don’t. Otherwise known as the cerebral cortex, gray matter is the part of the brain that you use for conscious thought, and thinning gray matter is associated with aging.
- Be Happier: MRI scans of long-term meditators show that they have increased activity in the left pre-frontal coretex, and suppressed activity in the right pre-fontal cortex, a state that has been shown to be associated with increased positive emotions. This backs up the subjective claims that people who meditate are happier as a result.
- Lower Your Blood Pressure: Several studies indicate that transcendental meditation can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke.
- Prevent or Reverse Heart Disease: An article published in the May 2005 issue of The American Journal of Cardiology concludes that meditation may significantly reduce the risk of death by heart disease.
- Reduce Pain: Multiple studies have shown that meditation can help control chronic pain. Many hospitals now routinely use meditation as part of a program to help patients suffering from long-term pain.
- Enhance Your Immune System: Researchers working with breast cancer patients have demonstrated a connection between mindfulness meditation and increased immune system function.
- Stay Warm: Although it sounds like fantasy fiction, a study done at Harvard University has shown that experienced Tibetan monks can actually increase their core body temperature just by meditating.
Part II, Benefits Touted by the Tradition
In every tradition there is at least a core grain of truth–some useful aspect that keeps the tradition alive. Therefore even though there is no scientific evidence yet to support many of the claims behind the tradition of meditation, it makes sense to take them seriously. Here are some additional reasons to meditate that long-time practitioners have touted over the last twenty-five hundred years:
- Gain Personal Insight: The traditional fundamental reason for practicing Insight meditation is to gain the ability to see one’s self and condition in life with unfiltered clarity. Although there is some debate as to whether some self-delusion is beneficial, most people are more effective when they have a clear self-image.
- Develop Greater Compassion: By gaining insight into one’s own condition in life, and through certain meditation techniques, people practicing insight meditation claim to develop a greater sense of compassion for life.
- Achieve Enlightenment: The ultimate goal of traditional Buddhist meditation is, of course, enlightenment.
Part III, Personal Experiences
Paradoxically, while this last set of reasons are the only ones that I can personally attest to, they are the ones that have the least amount of objective support, so you should take them with a pretty big grain of salt:
- Recover Lost Memories: When you are first learning to meditate it takes a while for your mind to calm down enough to actually enter a state of mindfulness and concentration when meditating. It is also easy to stray from that state, and apparently it can take a long time (years, even) for practitioners to learn to remain focused throughout a period of meditation. During that initial period when your mind has not yet settled down many interesting things can surface, including long-lost memories. Although incidental to the practice of meditation, this sort of insight is also usually quite welcome.
- Find Solutions to Problems: As the mind calms down at the beginning of a session of meditation, neophytes like me can’t help but think about daily concerns. Often as your mind relaxes and wanders you stumble on solutions to the complex problems that you face. Again, this is not the primary purpose of Insight meditation, but it’s a nice side-benefit.
- Experience Joy: I experienced this once myself before I read about it, but in David Lynch’s recent book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity he recounts one of his first experiences with transcendental meditation wherein he experienced a state of “pure bliss”.
- Daydream: Children have time to daydream; most adults don’t. Daydreaming is important to mental health, and when you begin to practice insight meditation, your mind wanders and you daydream.
- Take a Mini Vacation: Meditating produces a sensation of relaxation similar to that of being on a beach with nothing to do.
In the interest of providing a balanced picture of the practice, you may want to read up on the potential risks associated with meditation. However, I hope my list of reasons to meditate will give you the incentive to give it a try if you feel the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
If you’re concerned about having difficulty sticking with a daily program of meditation, you might benefit from reading this article that describes how you can maintain your daily goals.