When someone says the word “meditation,” what immediately comes to mind? Do you picture a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged in a robe? Or maybe you’ve had the unfortunate experience of being bombarded with incessant Headspace ads on YouTube. You might even be drawn back to a memory of that person you met one time who wouldn’t shut up about how meditation “changed their life.” Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, today (just like every other day) I am going to be that annoying person. For some reason, people tend to roll their eyes or feign a half-hearted interest in the topic when I explain how monumental meditation has been in my life. It is bizarre to me that despite the overwhelming scientific literature to support the effectiveness of meditation, many people still don’t take it seriously and look down on it. Since I grew up in a household where morning chants and meditation were the norm, I have always embraced it, but now that I am in college I can tell you that it is an absolute necessity in my daily life. As college students, we spend so much of our time trying to balance our work, relationships, and mental health—all things that can be supported by a solid meditation practice. In the same way that students go to the gym, eat healthy food, or get enough sleep, more college students should practice meditation daily, as all of these practices are essential to their health.
One of the most significant effects of meditation is its ability to improve attention. A recent study out of Case Western Reserve University has shown that mindfulness actively improves stability, control, and efficiency in the mind—all of which are important qualities of attention. Mindfulness can literally reshape your brain so that it functions differently. A Harvard study conducted by neuroscientist Sara Lazar in 2011 revealed that following eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction, the cortical thickness in the hippocampus—an area associated with learning and memory—actually increased in size. This suggests that in addition to improved attention, meditation can actually make it easier to learn and remember information, meaning improved cognition overall. Who wouldn’t want to be able to sit down and write a paper more quickly or stay tuned into a Zoom class instead of trailing off into space? It won’t fix all of your problems, but I can tell you from personal experience, that if I slack off from meditation and mindfulness for a few days I genuinely notice myself getting more easily distracted.
But a sharper brain isn’t the only reason to start meditating. There are many other benefits including improved interpersonal relationships, a decreased tendency to take on other people’s negative emotions, reduced burnout, and alleviated effects of anxiety disorders. There is also evidence that meditation assists in managing symptoms of depression, according to a study that compared the effects of antidepressant medication and mindfulness practice when it came to preventing relapse for depression. There was a significantly higher reduction in the risk of relapse for both groups—73 percent—compared to the placebo group, with no significant differences between those who took medication and those who used mindfulness therapy. This is encouraging because it offers a potentially safer alternative to medications that carry many side effects.
Aside from impacting one’s mental health, meditation has also been shown to improve physical health. According to a 2014 study, meditation can actually boost your immune system. It does this by decreasing inflammation and increasing “virus-specific, cell-mediated immunity.” In other words, through practicing mindfulness you can essentially train your immune system to work more effectively. When I first learned about this I was actually shocked. How could something as simple as sitting down for 20 minutes a day and tuning the noise in my head down actually help prevent me from getting sick? Alongside habits like eating fresh food, running, and taking vitamins, meditation is just another daily practice that supports physical health. Now, in the age of COVID-19, more than ever, we could all benefit from both mental and physical resilience.
Whether you want to improve your cognition and mental health, interpersonal relationships, or physical health, or are just generally curious about what the practice can do for you, beginning your meditation practice shouldn’t be an intimidating process. At first it can feel a little awkward or like you are doing it “wrong,” but there are plenty of online resources like mindful.org to help get you started. Each morning I wake up, grab my meditation pillow, sit on the floor of my room by the window, turn on my favorite OM chant and spend about 20 minutes practicing before I get up and get on with my day. It really is that simple.
Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan/ Heights Editor