Close your eyes. Imagine that you are lying in the sand, on a quiet, peaceful beach. Hear the waves crash into the shore, and listen to the soft retreat as they are pulled back into the water. Feel the sand cushioning you, the sun shining gently down and making you feel warm, happy. Or maybe you’re walking through a forest, with tall pine trees surrounding you, making you feel small and in awe of nature around you. Feel the tangible peace that encircles you.
If this reminds you of a new age guided meditation tape from the 90’s, you’re not alone! Aside from being a throwback, it opens up a discussion that I think a lot of people should be having about how meditation affects the brain. In fact, there are findings that suggest that the brain can actually be restructured — which could potentially mean staving off Alzheimer's and dementia.
Meditation is, by definition, the practice of quiet mindfulness and thought in order to achieve a heightened state of consciousness. People do it for two main reasons: to relax, and to reach a higher level of thinking, often associated with religious practices. It involves deep focus and time— something that a lot of us Americans simply don’t have. In a world with social media, long hours, and little time to just relax by ourselves, it’s kind of an impossible dream. But carving out just ten or fifteen minutes a day with meditation could have a profound impact on your life. According to a recent article in Yoga Journal, the daily practice of meditation has been proven to restructure the brain. Because it is something that has to be practiced, like playing a sport, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or learning a new language, meditation actually changes the way your brain is shaped. Also, because meditation requires a lot of focus, it sharpens mental processes that are often lost with the onset of alzheimer’s. Focus and memory go hand in hand, and with the strengthening of mental focus comes a much higher chance that the parts of the brain associated with memory will remain intact.
As far as my personal journey with meditation goes, I became extremely psychically disturbed during the second semester of my freshman year of college. I had a lot of expectations placed upon me, or so I thought, and my anxiety was intense. I also was placed in an extremely traumatic situation involving someone who pushed my physical boundaries. I remember feeling completely estranged and very scared. After I finished the year, my mom and I took a road trip to New England to visit friends. The first step to my eventual recovery was being in the beautiful scenery of Acadia National Park, and reminding myself that I am so small compared to the extreme vastness of nature. After we got back, I really looked into meditation more seriously. I started to wonder, would I become more of a grounded person if I meditated? Since I am a musically-oriented learner, I found a Pandora Station which featured calm, relaxing music. After a few days of simple meditating, I noticed a change immediately. My reaction time was slower—I was much more rational in my decision making, and was less impulsive. I didn’t get waves of anxiety when I was in new situations— or if I did, it only lasted for a fraction of the time I was used to. I felt an overall sense of acceptance and relief when I would meditate. I also felt more in tune with my emotions, and felt them more deeply. The focus is something I practice every day with my classes, my cello (which requires an immense amount of mental focus and discipline) and French, which I speak fluently.
The benefits of meditation are so great that anyone—literally anyone— can practice it. For people in their forties and fifties, especially with Alzheimer’s/dementia history in their families, meditation could make the difference. The added mental exercise can supplement other activities that support brain health. All it takes is 10-15 minutes a day and a can-do attitude!
Here are some tips for meditation that work for beginners:
- Find a quiet place where you won’t get disturbed. This could be in bed, in the shower, on the couch or outside on your lunch break. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, where your back is supported and your muscles can relax.
- Put on some calming music. George Winston is a great pick for classical/new age piano music, because it is very slow and steady with a calming effect. Also, Pandora’s Calm Meditation Radio Station has some really nice selections. If music distracts you, just use the silence as a helper.
- Close your eyes. Visual distractions are usually very disturbing when trying to meditate, so remember that closing your eyes will get you to a better place faster.
- Once you have your setting in place, focus on your breathing— treating each individual inhale and exhale as a task. Breathe from your diaphragm, which is the dome-shaped muscle that lies right below your ribcage. Placing your hands on your stomach is a good way to check to see if your diaphragm is engaged. There are also lots of articles about how diaphragm breathing helps your overall health if you have never tried it!
- Once you have focused on your breathing to the point that you are in a good, steady rhythm, push away thoughts of every day life. Picture yourself pushing away negative energy in the form of distractions. Or, picture idle thoughts as clouds floating past you instead of entering your consciousness. This helps a lot with clearing your mind.
- If you feel comfortable, you can take mental journeys to beautiful settings, such as the beach or the woods. Always keep positive thoughts close to you in times of meditation, and remember never to let negative energy distract you.
- When you are finished being in this calm, clear space in your mind, bring yourself back gently. Focus on your breathing again, and slowly count backwards from ten. It is always better to gradually remove yourself from the meditative state rather than to jump back into your normal level of consciousness. You may feel slightly groggy when you open your eyes again, but until you are used to putting yourself out of your normal state of consciousness, the feeling of being in a meditative state may feel foreign to you. With any new mental activity, it may take some time for your body and brain to adjust.
If you have trouble meditating, or if you are very distracted, listening to music or focusing on something aesthetic for a long time before you begin your meditation practice is a good way to train your brain to stop thinking and start feeling. Let your left brain quiet down for a minute and stare at a piece of art, or trace a pattern with your finger on a hard surface, like a table. There are many different ways to begin to feel less distracted.
Once you make it part of your daily routine, I can guarantee you that meditation will change your life. Even a single session can make a difference for years, because if done deeply and properly, it really forces you to think positively and to push away negativity. As far as the brain goes, meditation could potentially be the next big break through— in Alzheimer’s prevention, in all kinds of cognitive therapies, in crisis counseling… who knows! Experiment with different methods of meditation, and find what works best for you individually. Encourage your friends and family to participate in meditation, and just maybe, we can create some positive change.