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Meditation is an exercise with numerous benefits. It is proven to be an effective way of enhancing quality of life by improving physical, mental, and emotional well being. Meditation techniques are constantly undergoing scientific scrutiny. Research often provides new insights about the effects of meditation on the mind/body. It's not just one particular method that has proven to be helpful either - benefits have been shown through the practice of a variety of techniques.
Engaging in meditative activities can provide many of the health benefits that are discussed below.
1 - Improved mood and working memory - even under stress.
Meditation is not an activity designed to take us away from the problems of life, rather it helps us face them with our full capacity. Everybody has to deal with stress at some point. Whether it is work, school, or family life, our ability to deal with circumstances is sometimes pushed to the limit. Dealing with circumstances that seem beyond your control can result in negative mood, anxiety, or chronic stress. New studies have proven that meditation actually improves mood and working memory; even in times of extreme pressure.
2 - Alleviate mental distractions
Training the mind to stay focused is a major motivation for practicing meditation. Brain scans show that experienced meditators process distracting thoughts with ease, then quickly return to a state of focus. Fortunately the rewards of meditation practice don't take years to cultivate. In a recent study it was shown that less than a week of practice resulted in significant improvement of cognitive abilities across a range of tests.
Meditation also has positive effects and reduces the symptoms of some mental disorders. ADD, anxiety, and depression are all marked by an increase in distracting or otherwise unwanted thoughts. Meditation trains the mind to free itself from detrimental thought patterns.
3 - Increase the size of your brain
That's right, meditating actually causes your brain to grow. You might think "who cares - I like my brain just the way it is", which is a perfectly reasonable response. However, age tends to cause thinning in the frontal-cortex. We all grow older and experience these effects. Without proper mental exercise, the gray matter responsible for language, cognition and emotional processing gradually degrades. This degradation has the potential to leave us with a higher risk for declining cognitive ability.
Thankfully, regular meditation slows thinning of brain tissue. Meditation is also responsible for thickening parts of the brain associated with attention, and working memory - crucial areas that are linked with intelligence. The gains in cognitive performance, experienced through brief periods of meditation, seem to show a positive relationship between meditation and improved intelligence.
4 - Enhance the strength of your immune response
Studies show that meditation not only improves mood, but also improves the quality of your immune response. One study demonstrated that meditators who were given a flu shot had more antibodies in their blood, as compared to non-meditators. The same study also observed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotion. Some beneficial effects of the meditation lasted up to four months after practice was concluded.
5 - Alleviate symptoms caused by sickness
We all know that stress influences the ability of our immune systems to fight off disease; which may be why meditation helps improve the symptoms from a wide range of conditions, such as:
Research shows that meditation can have a positive impact on many health related issues. In one study, it was shown that meditation can enhance the effectiveness of conventional medical treatment. Meditation should not replace any recommendation provided by your doctor, though it might be worth considering as a complement to traditional medicine. Discuss the benefits or possible side effects with your health professional.
6 - Decrease Fatigue
Meditation might be a better stimulant for you than a cup of coffee. If you find yourself in need of a midday nap, or just didn't get enough sleep the night before, it might be time for a meditation break. Several studies have shown a link between meditation and mental alertness. Sometimes meditation can act as a replacement for sleep, with higher gains in performance.
7 - Meditation can help reduce the impact of physical and emotional pain
Chronic physical pain can have a serious impact on your mental health. The negative thinking that can accompany pain leads to stress, which can further exacerbate problems. Fortunately, studies show that meditation can reduce the direct experience of physical pain up to 50%.
Beyond physical pain, chronic pain can have a negative impact on emotional well being. Through meditation people have learned how to respond to pain in a healthier manner. Training the mind allows the opportunity of a choice about how you will experience the present. Learning that you are in control of your response, and training yourself to do so, can have a significant impact on how you experience physical as well as emotional pain.
8 - Getting into a state of flow
The state of flow has been described in many different ways, but generally reflects the same experience. Flow consists of a harmonious state with positive qualities, that leads to a joyful state of being. When the characteristics of flow are described it's clear how flow is synonymous with a meditative state.
Losing yourself in the activity, intuitively knowing what you're going to do next, reacting spontaneously and purposefully to present circumstances, being unaware of the passage of time and confidence in your ability to face challenges; these are all feelings which accompany a state of flow.
One of my favorite descriptive terms to explain the experience is being "in the zone". Hopefully you've experienced this feeling before. Sometimes it happens spontaneously, while at other times it happens through a great deal of preperation. Maybe you were confident in your ability to complete a project, and things seemed to fall into place. If you play competitive sports, it's possible that your training led you to a high level of performance, and it felt like you were guaranteed to win.
Regardless of how you experienced flow, meditation can help you recapture this feeling. The clear focused attention required to get in flow can be cultivated through practice and carried over to other areas of your life. Capturing this state can help you move forward with purpose, confident in your ability to reach your goals.
9 - Improve your powers of empathy
Cultivating compassion can have a profound impact on how we deal with others. Forgiveness and compassion are important for building strong relationships, while at the same time contributing to a positive self-image.
Loving-kindness meditation (also called metta meditation) focuses on building thoughts of compassion for all sentient beings. To begin, we must first have compassion for ourselves, it can then be extended to friends, family and others. Building compassion for ourselves is not a selfish act - in fact it is one of the most unselfish things you can do. Compassion for the self leads to self-acceptance, even in light of past mistakes. Compassion and forgiveness are interrelated - we cannot begin to forgive others if we cannot first forgive ourselves.
Self-acceptance can lead to much more positive interactions. Understanding someone else's mental and emotional state can help us put their actions in context. When we have knowledge of other people's suffering, we can work to alleviate it. Compassion can ultimately lead to greater happiness for all. Through training we can actually move away from negativity and begin to experience a more joyful state of being.
10 - Attain enlightenment
Enlightenment is possibly the end-all of spiritual aspiration. This elusive attainment has kept philosophers and spiritual seekers contemplating the mysteries of the world for thousands of years. Achieving enlightenment is supposed to reveal the underlying nature of reality to those who attain it. Those who attain it describe it as the greatest paradox one could imagine, but also freeing and expansive.
Is this something you believe is possible? Is this your ultimate reason for meditating? If the idea of meditation raises more questions than you are comfortable with, then you may want to seek a spiritual guru to guide you on your path. Enlightenment may reveal some answers, while unveiling even deeper mysteries - much like scientific progress.
Some spiritual traditions describe levels of progress in the various stages of practice. It's said that through regular engagement in meditation, it's possible to have deep insights into one's own being
With all of the benefits of meditation, it's a worthwhile practice regardless of personal feelings toward spiritual attainment.