“Quiet the mind and the soul will speak.”
“When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.”
“Learn to be calm and you will always be happy.”
You’ve probably heard or read at least one – or a variation of – these words of wisdom, likely splashed across a generic stock photo of a body of water or blue sky. And you’ve probably found it difficult to take these words seriously.
As far as mindfulness slogans go, they’re par for the course. And while they might speak to some, it’s easy to see why they’ve led so many to consider meditation a sham. It’s difficult to imagine that simply being still and performing a breathing exercise can connect us to our inner souls and help quiet our minds, now louder and more anxious than ever as we weather a pandemic.
But how meditation functions is not that simple. It has a long history that has roots in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and practices. There’s also plenty of science confirming meditation not only positively impacts our mental health, but our physical health.
A 2018 Harvard study found those who went through the process of “clearing their minds” for 15 minutes each day over a two-month period saw a change in gene expression that regulated inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism, which saw a decrease in blood pressure brought on by stress.
Other research has linked meditation to lowered anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia. While some of these studies have proven controversial due to small sample sizes or problematic experimental designs, there has been consistent evidence showing the significant impact on mental health and chronic pain.
Due to widespread anxiety, many are turning to meditation now more than ever, as a practice that can be done at home or while going for a walk. In fact, downloads for meditation apps Headspace, Calm and Ten Percent Happier have increased by 25 per cent rise since January according to the Washington Post.
Techniques vary widely and can look like sitting down, eyes closed and focusing on your breathing, or staring at a specific object while repeating a mantra. Meditation can be more physical, involving Tai Chi, yoga or walking.
But in order for any of these forms to be effective, they must be approached honestly, skepticism set aside.
“The correct attitude is not vacation, but education,” says John Vervaeke, a University of Toronto psychology professor who recently launched a meditation series on YouTube in response to the pandemic. There, Vervaeke livestreams a short meditation lesson each weekday morning, followed by a meditation period for those looking to find “a sense of connectedness.”
“Don’t reduce mindfulness training to just sit-in meditation,” he says. “You need a meditative practice, a contemplative practice and a moving practice so that mindfulness can flow together. You want to learn things while you’re sitting that you can transfer to while you’re moving around in the real world. The hope is to be able to step back, look at your mind and then look at the world again. It’s a revision.”
Or a reframing. Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment while accepting whatever it is you feel in that moment. If meditation is “successful,” it might help to reframe your anxieties in a way that can feel more manageable and help you become more adaptive. This is a skill called cognitive flexibility and it can help prevent catastrophizing while also providing emotional and existential insight.
“When you realize, for example, ‘I’m not so much afraid of the events as I’m afraid to have all this unconscious meaning I’m projecting onto the events,’ this is analogous to some of the things that can happen in cognitive behavioural therapy,” says Vervaeke. “The first step is becoming more cognitively flexible to increase your capacity for structuring resiliency.”
We know that as many are struggling with their mental health, we’re losing our sense of self. Meditation seeks to strengthen and stabilize that connection by peeling back layers of emotion, for example, when we become afraid and then grow angry because we feel fear, and then sadness because we can’t control our anger.
“We don’t really lie to ourselves, what we do is mis-frame situations in a highly biased way,” says Vervaeke. “So if I do something great, it’s because I’m a great person. He does something great, it’s because he was lucky. If he does something shitty, it’s because he’s a horrible person. If I do something shitty, it’s because of my circumstances. These are the kinds of things we do all the time. Meditation helps you reduce these self-deceptive tendencies, which are exacerbated right now. It’s not about altered states of consciousness, it’s about altered traits of character.”
While these might be daily tendencies – before, during and certainly post-pandemic – that doesn’t necessitate constant meditation, says Vervaeke, who values continuity of practice and intention over quantity. That means even five minutes a day can make a difference and help build meditation into your life. If you’re unable to find total comfort or feel intrusive thoughts, that doesn’t mean the process isn’t working but that you’re building your meditative muscle.
The key is finding a guide who is teaching what they’re modelling, has the right expertise (particularly a cognitive science background), and honest intentions.
Meditation is an eduction and about transforming your consciousness into cognition. That’s no small feat.