Blogging about how to meditate correctly is probably something I should wait to do until next week after Thanksgiving. With nineteen people coming to our house for dinner in two days and a cookbook photo shoot tomorrow, I know I really should be working on my Thanksgiving side dishes. Or at least make the pumpkin pie. But I have been so excited about my recent meditation experience that I just have to share a teeny bit about it now….
Trying to Meditate is NOT Something I Just Decided to Do Yesterday
First of all, you should know I have been trying for years now to meditate. I have not been particularly successful.
On the day I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, I was told by my neurologist that my lifestyle would potentially play a big role in how I managed the disease (you can read my full story HERE.) Following an anti-inflammatory diet, regular (but not extreme) exercise, nutritional supplements and stress management were the four lifestyle factors my neurologist emphasized.
I took to heart adopting the diet, exercise and supplement regimen right from the start (you can read my 19-year clean food diet journey HERE). Not only were those three factors the easiest for me to control, I also secretly believed they were the three most important. Besides managing stress seemed pretty much totally out of my control, so why even bother?
I won’t go into the details here, but fast forward to around 2005 and I realized stress management really was an essential component to the whole healthy lifestyle thing after all. But let’s face it: managing stress is often easier said than done.
Of all the lifestyle modification factors, stress management is the least tangible. I mean, it’s a whole lot easier to make a green smoothie or even do a yoga class than it is to “manage stress.” And yet, as I have learned, there are multiple proven ways to reduce stress. Not surprisingly, meditation is always on the list. Always.
But how to meditate correctly? It does not come naturally to the vast majority of people. Few things come naturally to me, and let’s just say meditation was certainly not one of them.
The Sound of Silence—Does It Even Exist?
Like the Simon and Garfunkle song, The Sound of Silence, how does one get to a state of mind where there is complete silence? Sure, you can shut yourself in a quiet room. But can you quiet your mind…to silence?
It’s a story for another time (it’s also kind of relevant though so I will tell a short bit), but up until my most recent meditation experience the last few days I only knew that such a quiet place existed after participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony in Costa Rica. Many things happened during the ayahuasca ceremony, but one of the things was that for the first time in my life I was able to get to a state of total inner silence and bliss. I was able to completely rest my mind and just “be”….like a floating feather.
If you know me on a personal level, you know this is somewhat of a miracle. Because I am not the “floating feather” type. I’m very “Type A” and ever since the 8th grade I don’t go anywhere without my “to do” list. I definitely don’t just “float” through the day.
If you haven’t done Ayahuasca then it all sounds a bit hokey. I get it. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t have experienced it. The Ayahuasca experience was life changing on MANY levels that are not relevant to this article, but the “floating feather” experience is relevant. Ayahuasca expanded my mind in ways not possible other than through experience. For example, how can you really know what it is like to be in love if you haven’t experienced love? How can you know real physical pain or even depression if you have not experienced those things. You can’t. You can be the smartest person on earth, but there are some things you can’t learn out of a book. The “floating feather” experience, where my mind was at complete rest, has stuck with me. For over a year now I have wanted to return to that zen place. But I didn’t want to have to trek back to Costa Rica and go through another five day Ayahuasca ceremony to get it. I wanted to tap into that zen place on my own. In my own bedroom.
Since returning from Costa Rica, in my heart I believed that meditation was the way to get to the “floating feather” mind-at-complete-rest place. The stumbling block was that I could not get out of my own way in order to get there. I couldn’t quiet my mind.
I didn’t know how to meditate.
That is, until just a few days ago…
All Meditation Practices are Not Created Equal
Sitting still and “clearing my mind” has always been painfully difficult for me, so it is not at all surprising that I haven’t had great luck with my meditation experiences in the past.
I have done the type of meditation where I sit and notice the existence/presence of a thought but try not to judge the thought. I’ve found that type of meditation to be basically impossible. How am I supposed to have a thought and then just observe the thought without reacting to it or judging it? That type of meditation stresses me out.
I have taken classes on relaxation breathing techniques. Once I even took a course on transformational breathing (the photo above is of me and my son at a Transformational Breathing class at the Jamar Enlightenment Center.) I have read extensively on mindfulness. And of course I have done yoga (although it is not exactly meditation for me, yoga does give me a great workout—I absolutely love Travis Elliot’s Ultimate Yogi DVD series, by the way.) At one point I even thought maybe I had even invented my own type of “moving” meditation while I was injured and doing mindless laps in the pool. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds sitting still and meditating to be a challenge, because yes, Dynamic Meditation was already been invented by someone else who couldn’t sit still (wink).
But here’s the thing. All meditation practices are not equal. Up until a few days ago however, I would say of all the various types of meditation I have tried over the years, the dynamic or “moving” type of meditation has been the most effective for me personally. But it was still NOT easy. I did not particularly look forward to it. I never got to the “floating feather” state. And of course it’s not something I kept up with either.
Do You Need to Meditate If You Don’t Have Stress?
I don’t know who could possibly be living in the year 2017 without having any stress whatsoever. However, the thing is, I actually feel less stressed these days than I have felt in years. Maybe that’s because I have in many ways intentionally slowed down after realizing I don’t handle stress well. It’s true I am on a tight deadline for my cookbook, so I suppose that is a bit stressful. But this is my fifth book and the whole thing doesn’t really stress me out nearly like it used to. As I have gotten older I have come to realize more and more about what is really important in life, which has actually helped me reduce stress.
But here’s the VERY important thing, meditation benefits the body in ways that go beyond stress management…
One of the main things that motivated me to finally learn how to meditate was research showing how meditation improves brain function by creating new neural pathways (or new connections). If you read about my Ayahuasca experience last year then you know I am always looking for ways to expand my mind. I am fascinated by neuroplasticity and the idea that you can “rewire” your brain. Considered to be one of the most important discoveries of neuroscience, neuroplasticity is the change of brain structures as a result of experience. Over the last 10 years evidence has been growing that not only the acquisition of navigational knowledge by London Taxi drivers (see video) or learning a new motor task like juggling (see article), but also meditation practice can lead to significant changes to brain structures.
Now that I am over forty, I have also become increasingly interested in anything that slows the aging process. Meditation can help us age more gracefully by “turning on” specific genes that produce telomerase. Scientists have isolated length of telomeres and telomerase as indicators of cellular aging. The longer the telomere, the more times a cell can divide and refresh. Each time a cell replicates, its telomere length, and therefore its lifespan, gets shorter in a natural aging process. Think of it this way, longer telomeres = younger body / shorter telomeres = accelerated aging. All you really have to know is this: science shows meditation lengthens telomeres and slows aging.
The Benefits of Meditation (Beyond Stress Management)
Of course you can’t reap the benefits of meditation unless you learn how to meditate correctly (and I promise I am getting to that part!). But assuming you do learn how to meditate correctly then extensive peer-reviewed published research on the wellness benefits of meditation include:
- reduced cortisol (the “stress hormone”)
- normalized blood pressure
- reduced insomnia
- lower risk of heart attack
- reduced risk of stroke
- reduced anxiety
- improvement in mood and reduced symptoms of depression
- improved brain function and memory
- increased blood flow to the brain
- increased integration of brain functioning
- improved creativity
- decreased insulin resistance (and weight management)
- reduced drug and alcohol use
- healthy cellular aging (as measured through preservation of telomere length)
Without going into detail on the research behind each benefit, it goes without saying that unless you are meditating properly you are not reaping the full-spectrum of benefits. Sure, if you are sitting quietly in lotus pose you might temporarily feel more at peace, even if your mind is on the bills, grocery list, kid’s soccer game, etc. But the point is, if you do not know how to meditate correctly you just won’t be getting ALL of the benefits.
Also very importantly, only one type of meditation has been proven to reap ALL of the benefits listed above: transcendental meditation.
On a personal level, only one type of meditation has been doable for me: transcendental meditation.
Only one type of meditation has gotten me to the “floating feather” spot—consistently and quickly: transcendental meditation.
And only one type of meditation was able to be learned in less than an hour: transcendental meditation.
What is Transcendental Meditation?
First, I should say that hearing about transcendental meditation (it’s called TM for short) is not new for me. The late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi derived TM from the ancient Vedic tradition of India. Maharishi brought the technique to the U.S. in the 1960s. My father-in-law, Ken Larson, who happens to be the calmest and most centered person I know, has been a big supporter of it for years now. Ken is not in a rock band nor is he an artist or actor, he’s a very successful engineer who learned TM back in the seventies. For as long as my husband and I have been married, which is over 17 years now, I have known that my father-in-law had great results with his TM practice. But he is not the type to push anything on you and I just thought Ken is able to meditate only because Ken is so calm naturally. It never occurred to me to question what he was like before he did TM or what led him to the practice in the first place.
I had been reading about TM for a few weeks now and then out of the blue one of my dear friends, Erin Lodeesen, texted to say she just started TM and that it was the best gift she had ever given herself. In 3 days her stress level was down 80%. I figured it was a “sign” and I got online to find out where to take lessons.
But as for what TM is, it’s basically a meditation technique that is easy and effortless that enables the meditator to achieve complete mental rest. The technique is practiced sitting comfortably in a chair for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day. During the state of complete mental rest that TM enables the mind to enter, both the body and brain are then able to rid themselves of toxic “baggage”, repair and regenerate. The mind is silent yet fully alert and the rest one gets from a TM session is deeper than sleep.
The Science Behind Transcendental Meditation?
More than 600 scientific studies on the benefits of the Transcendental Meditation technique have been conducted at 250 independent universities and research institutions, including Harvard Medical School, Cornell Medical School (which happens to be where my husband graduated medical school), University of Michigan Medical School, and UCLA Medical School.
I can’t possibly go into all of the research here in this short blog post, but the research on TM has been published in leading, peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals. Moreover, during the past 18 years, the National Institutes of Health has awarded over $24 million to study the beneficial effects of the TM program on heart disease, hypertension and stroke. In other words, there is real science behind TM.
What Have I Noticed Since Starting Transcendental Meditation (TM)?
TM is always taught the same way around the world. It’s taught in a 4 day course. Technically I have only been doing the course for 3 days now, tonight is my 4th and final night. But in addition to actually learning how to meditate correctly, I have already started to notice things in life seem easier. My mind is more clear. I seem to be able to tap into an internal energy that I was getting too tired to do before. It actually takes energy to sit here and write all of this, especially while also doing all of the prep work for the 19 people coming to Thanksgiving dinner in two days and trying to figure out how to stage everything a day in advance for the cookbook photo shoot. But I feel so incredibly alert, refreshed and energized. I didn’t feel like this last week or the week before or the week before that.
I promise I will write more about all of this in upcoming blogs, but for now, I need to get back to making some stuffing (wink)
In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more, start by watching the videos below! And, if YOU have had an experience with TM please do share in the comments below!
“Transcendental Meditation benefits from a vast body of 40 years of research showing very powerful long-lasting reductions in stress and sustained improvements in health.”
—Norman Rosenthal, MD, renowned psychiatrist, medical researcher, and best-selling author who is credited with the discovery of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Transcendental Meditation Technique: A Complete Introduction
An Introduction to the Transcendental Meditation Technique