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Meditating Your Way to Greater Happiness and Health in 20 Minutes a Day

Meditation has been proven to relieve stress and improve your outlook. Here, learn how simply pausing for just a few minutes a day can make a positive difference in how you feel. From Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out.

Meditation practices based in Eastern spiritual traditions became popular in the West in the ’70s, but meditation has actually been a part of the Judeo-Christian and Native American traditions for thousands of years. The process of turning inward through meditation is universally recognized as a way to plug yourself in to Spirit.

Meditation takes many forms: focusing on a mantra or the breath, contemplation, visualization, or using sound. It’s any process that quiets the mind and helps connect you to your source and innermost essence, that state of pure Truth and Love.

I love this beautiful story about how meditation works:

A wise teacher, instructing his students to meditate, told them, “The process is like filling a sieve with water.” All of the students were confused by this statement. How it was possible to fill a sieve with water? Some thought it meant meditation was very difficult, and others thought it meant they could only expect temporary gains from their practice. Discouraged, they stopped meditating. One student, however, approached the teacher and asked him to explain. The teacher took the student to the edge of the ocean, gave him a sieve, and told him to try to fill it with water. The student scooped the water into the sieve, but it immediately ran out. The teacher took the sieve from the student and said, “I will show you how.” The teacher threw the sieve into the water, where it sank almost immediately. He told the student, “The sieve is full of water now and will stay that way forever. Meditation works the same way. It’s not about scooping small amounts of Spirit into your individual life, but about dropping yourself into the ocean of Spirit and merging with that Spirit more and more each day.”

Meditation and the Happy Brain
Whether you are aware of them or not, whether you recognize them as spiritual or not, you probably have had the experiences of silence, or transcendence, or the Divine — a few seconds, a few minutes that seem out of time; a moment when the ordinary looks beautiful, glowing; a deep sense of being at peace, feeling happy for no reason. When these experiences come…believe in them. They reflect your true nature.
— Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual teacher and humanitarian

Though meditating is relaxing and enjoyable, its greatest value comes from the influence it has on your life outside of meditation. Hundreds of studies have been done over the past forty years showing the powerful effects of meditation on our bodies, minds, and emotions. Some of the first research, done in the early 1970s by physiologist Dr. Robert Keith Wallace, studied the effects of meditation, specifically the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, and found that it offered many physical and psychological benefits, including normalization of blood pressure, decreased anxiety, and better immune functioning. Many more studies on all different types of meditation followed, and today meditating has become an accepted form of stress management the world over.

Meditation does much more than just help you cope with stress. Some of the most exciting research being done today shows that meditating puts you on the fast track to being happy by enhancing activity in areas of the brain associated with happiness and compassion.

Psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center tested Buddhist monks — expert meditators — and found that their meditation practice seemed to calm the brain’s amygdala. What’s more, in and out of meditation, the monks were more serene. They were far less likely to panic or get upset, no matter what happened to them.

Dr. Richard Davidson has also done groundbreaking work with Buddhist monks, whom the Dalai Lama persuaded to volunteer for experiments studying the relationship between meditation, neuroplasticity, and brain activity. Dr. Davidson asked novice meditators as well as the monks, who’d spent more than 10,000 hours over the past thirty years practicing meditation, to engage in five different kinds of meditation while they measured their brain activity. The one that had the greatest effect was a “loving kindness” meditation designed to focus on compassion. Dr. Davidson discovered that during meditation, the more experienced monks had much higher levels of brain activity in their left prefrontal cortex, indicating happiness, empathy, and other positive emotions, than in their right prefrontal cortex, the area associated with anxiety and depression. This positive style of brain functioning was also found outside the period of meditation. In her book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, the science journalist Sharon Begley explains that the enduring effects of meditation are due to the brain’s neuroplasticity: “Brain wiring responsible for negative emotions withers and that [wiring] responsible for compassion and happiness becomes stronger.”

If you’re bummed thinking you can’t be happy because you haven’t been a Buddhist monk for the past thirty years, don’t be. Dr. Davidson’s research showed that people who’d been meditating for only three months, twenty to thirty minutes a day, experienced significant physiological changes, reflecting greater happiness and health. Happily, you don’t have to meditate for decades to have results.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Sitting down for a twenty- to thirty-minute meditation session each day is a great habit for plugging in to Spirit, but it isn’t the only way to meditate. In our interview, Happy 100 member and Tibetan Buddhist lama Anam Thubten Rinpoche told me about a meditation practice that anyone can do, anytime. I call it the Pause Practice: Seven times throughout the day, simply pause and just “be.” Become aware of your breath, and for a minute or two let yourself experience the present moment — the only time you can really experience happiness. When I do the Pause Practice regularly, I notice a greater sense of peace, perspective, and renewed energy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out (Copyright © 2008 by Marci Shimoff), is a celebrated transformational leader, an international speaker, and a #1 New York Times bestselling author. She is the coauthor of six of the top-selling titles in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and is a featured teacher in the international movie and book sensation The Secret.

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