It is my humble opinion that meditation should become, is becoming, or perhaps has already become the next public health wave. Depression and anxiety have worldwide impact to the tune of afflicting 1 out of every 20-25 people globally1. And it turns out pills are not necessarily the best answer. Studies have shown that women taking antidepressants had an increased risk of stroke or death compared to similar women who were not taking the medications2,3.
The good news is that there is a method that is scientifically proving itself as a viable contender for managing mental health issues, and improving mental performance in general, even without an “issue” to address4. It has no side effects, and can be used on the regular for free. It is known as “mindfulness” and it is worth checking out.
Aside from empirical evidence in the form of research and the universal applicability of the practice, there is yet one more reason that I recommend meditation: personal experience. After a few years of skepticism towards the idea, I finally gave in and started trying to meditate around December 2016, with the help of what turned out to be high-quality resources for guidance and teaching, which I list below. I was very fortunate to start out with viable, respectable, practical inroads to the practice. The truth is that there is a ton of fluff out there, with many trying to make money as the concept gains in popularity. On the same vein, there is also no shortage of worthwhile teachers that are becoming increasingly accessible due to the explosive nature of the internet. So please understand that my resources are not exhaustive by any means. But I wouldn’t want to send anyone out there blind.
The best feature of modern mainstream meditation and mindfulness, currently, is its universality – meaning that it is a reasonable approach for almost anyone, much like walking regularly is understood to be of benefit to just about anyone (unless, say, you are missing one or both legs!). Meditating, which is simply the act of paying focused attention to a single object, action or idea, is at the hub of nearly all major religions, and typically accompanies prayer (which is a communicative engagement of a higher, generally unseen force or being). Although it could be argued that prayer cannot be performed properly without meditation, it is well understood that meditation can occur without prayer. That is to say, while good communication requires focus, focus does not require communication. Meanwhile, learning to “focus” in the form of meditation is showing impressive health benefits, so why not go for it in whatever spiritual format is most familiar or makes the most sense to you? When prayer seems appropriate, by all means, pray. But if not, at the very least take time to focus peacefully.
One of the keys to having a good result is realizing that this is NOT an instant-gratification sort of solution. Just as exercise needs to be diligently and regularly pursued in order to result in a healthy body, meditation must be regularly practiced in order to result in a clearer, less chaotic, more peaceful mind. I can vouch for the verity of this point as well: after reaping benefits from regular meditation for a few months, I completely fell off the wagon and could identifiably perceive my thoughts and emotions drifting back into the state of barely-organized chaos that I have lived in for decades… which somehow managed to carry me through two graduate degrees, two medical board certifications, two young children (apparently I do things in twos), so it is not exactly dysfunctional, but it certainly comes with problems, mostly along the anxiety spectrum (I like to call it “detail-orientation”, but can we say “OCD”?). My point is that it ‘worked’, but it was not peaceful. And one of the many things I have learned in the process of pursuing this practice is that a peaceful mind is a productive mind, which is important for a person of high ambition like myself. However, life lessons have also taught me that being peaceful is far more important than being productive, when taken in perspective of the relationships that matter most.
So here is a quick synopsis of the resources I tend to trust and recommend when it comes to introducing patients to mindfulness and meditation:
- 10% Happier: Dan Harris is an ABC news anchor who covers the weekend edition of Good Morning America, and occasionally their evening news program which I believe is called Nightline. He is a very talented communicator and a regular citizen of western civilization (rather than a yogi or guru who had an epiphany under a tree leading to years of monastic training in the Far East, for example) which makes his experience with discovering meditation quite relateable. He wrote a book called “10% Happier” to tell his own story of finding mindfulness which he claims is good for “fidgety skeptics,” and happened to be perfect for me in particular! He has since developed the website, as well as an iPhone app both of which supply a handful of guided meditations for free, led by a variety of the longest-established, best-known, and highest-quality teachers in Western society. He also has an iTunes Podcast, referenced below.
- Headspace: Headspace is now a very popular phone app that I like to consider “meditation for dummies” along the lines of the previously explosive “For Dummies” book series that made once-complex tasks and ideas accessible to the general public. Interestingly, these meditations were developed by a man who left the Western world to train as a Buddhist monk in Tibet! But it is still very user-friendly and basically effortless, the guided meditations are almost all in the range of 10 minutes long, and above all it is effective. Headspace was my personal introduction to meditation, and I still use it from time to time, but I often prefer the depth that is available with 10% Happier, which is very much an individual choice. I still think Headspace is an excellent and high-quality resource for both the novice and intermediate meditator (the levels wherein I and probably most people will tend to hover – nothing advanced about my practice!).
- Center for Mindfulness: One of the true pioneers of the modern mindfulness movement is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who began the Center for Mindfulness connected with the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA a couple decades ago. His development of the program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has made the training and practice of meditation amenable to scientific study, leading to the knowledge that this clean and practical approach has demonstrable health benefits. As a physician, I avoid giving recommendations without evidence, so this resource is of tremendous value to me professionally.
I would like to conclude by offering you access to a guided meditation that I have personally found most useful and instructive in my “path to peace,” and have returned to time and again. It was published in the 10% Happier free Podcast on 9/9/2016, delivered by Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and author of several books on meditation and mindfulness. I also include it for the sake of my own review, because in launching this new effort of a groundbreaking style of medical practice in the climate of controversy in U.S. Health Care… it only behooves me to pause and pay attention to every step as I take it. Here is a link to the iTunes Podcast file, followed by a transcript of its text. See you again soon.
I think of what we do in meditation as really the training ground for how we live. It’s those same skills. And one of the things I’ve loved about meditation practice is that these really enormous, life-changing skills are happening in these itty-bitty little moments.
So if you did a meditation and you ran into friend and they said, “Well, what did you do?” and you said, “I felt a few breaths, my mind wandered and I brought it back”, it would be like, “Illlgghhh, really? You spent an afternoon doing that? How weird; that’s nothing.” But it’s not nothing: it’s actually huge, because so many instances in our [lives], in any ordinary day, we are called upon to begin again: we’ve made a mistake, or something’s not happened the way we anticipated it happening, and we have to start over.
The tendency, of course is to be very self-critical and to not be able to start over that readily. So we can spend endless periods of time lamenting the fact that we blew it, or things didn’t go so well; whereas actually the most effective, efficient way to get something done, or make progress, or succeed at something is to know how to begin again. When we practice, even in that ordinary way – we get the breath, our mind wanders, we bring it back – we are doing something tremendous right there.
Let’s begin the meditation.
To start, you can sit comfortably. You want to have some energy in your body. You also want to be relaxed and at ease. Feel your way into what seems like a balanced posture for you.
You can close your eyes, or not, however you feel the most comfortable. If your eyes are open, they can be slightly open; find a spot to rest your gaze, and let it go.
Take a few deep breaths. Relax your body. And intentionally set aside what you were just doing, and whatever might be coming ahead.
Then allow the breath to become natural. See if you can notice where you feel the breath most predominantly. And when you find that place, bring your attention there and just rest. If you’re with the breath at the nostrils, you might notice tingling, vibration, warmth, coolness. If at the chest or the abdomen, you might notice movement, pressure, stretching, release. You don’t have to name them, but feel them. Just one breath.
If something arises – sensations, emotions, sounds, images, whatever it might be – that’s not strong enough to take your attention from the feeling of the breath, just let them flow on by. You’re breathing. Just one breath. Everything else can come and go, doesn’t matter.
If something arises that is strong enough to take your attention away from the feeling of the breath – you fall asleep, you get lost in some incredible fantasy – we say that the moment you realize you’ve been distracted is The Magic Moment, because that’s the moment we have the chance to be really different: not judge ourselves, not put ourselves down, but simply let go and begin again. If you have to let go and begin again thousands of times, it’s fine. That’s the practice; that’s the training. Just one breath at a time.
You may notice the rhythm of your breath changing over the course of this meditation session. You can just allow it to be however it is.
If you see your attention jumping to the past, jumping to the future, judgment, speculation, whatever: it’s okay. Our practice is to let go gently. We let go as gently as we can, and simply return. Shepherd your attention back to the feeling of the breath.
Remember that in letting go of distraction, the important word is “gentle.” We can gently let go. And we can begin again.
And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes, and reconnect with whatever is happening around you.
Everything that arises in our lives can and does arise in our practice. We see the same desires, and fears, and joys. If anything, we are learning in meditation practice to be closer to our experience, and [to] develop wisdom from all the many things that we go through.
- Depression and other common mental disorders. World Health Organization. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/254610/1/WHO-MSD-MER-2017.2-eng.pdf?ua=1
- Smoller JW, Allison M, Cochrane BB, Curb JD, et al. Antidepressant use and risk of incident cardiovascular morbidity and mortality among postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative study.Arch Intern Med 2009; 169:2128-2139.
- O’Connor C, Fiuzat M. Antidepressant use, depression, and poor cardiovascular outcomes: The chicken or the egg? Comment on “Antidepressant use and risk of incident cardiovascular morbidity and mortality among postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative study.Arch Intern Med 2009; 169: 2140-2141.