For many an Angeleno, a customary Saturday morning involves a pit stop at a local café for an iced matcha (add hemp milk, please) followed by a 30-minute guided meditation class in a nearby park.
But you certainly don’t have to be an LA hipster to partake in a little mindful breathing session. Meditation has numerous health benefits. In fact, studies show meditating can even make you more compassionate.
So, what exactly is meditation?
While it may seem like a trend, meditation has a long history and has been a significant part of cultures all across the world. Mindfulness as a form of meditation has been around since about 1500 BCE. And, meditation itself goes back even further. In the Indus Valley, archaeologists discovered the oldest known evidence of the practice in wall art dating from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. It has been used as a spiritual practice and religious exercise in multiple religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and others.
Now, meditation is used by many around the world to enhance personal health and help foster compassion and mindfulness.
The practice is backed by an expansive amount of research pointing to its mental and physical health benefits as well as spiritual benefits.
Biologically speaking, meditation can boost immune function and help manage pain, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. It can increase grey matter, improve focus, memory, and enhance creativity. It may help decrease feelings of anxiety and stress and symptoms of depression. But can it help nurture compassion? Well, science says: yes.
How can meditation make you more compassionate?
The Dalai Lama once said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Having compassion is feeling concerned about and understanding the emotional state of others. Though it shares similarities with empathy, compassion is a step beyond this as it also encompasses the desire to help alleviate the suffering of those around you.
A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science looked at the impact of meditation on making compassionate choices. It assigned people to one of two eight-week meditation classes. One class focused on mindfulness and calming the mind; the other class discussed compassion and suffering, specifically. Students in both classes were given 20-minute guided meditation audio to practice each day at home.
And after eight weeks, researchers placed participants in a situation whereby a compassionate decision—which was, in summary, to give up your seat for a stranger in crutches—could be made or not. Compared to non-meditators, those who did practice meditation were much more likely to give up their seat.
Writing about possible reasons for these results, the study’s authors theorized that meditation offers an enhanced awareness of one’s surroundings and an increased ability to adopt others’ perspectives.
“The most provocative implication is that meditation may help us become more compassionate in any context where compassion is discouraged,” Paul Condon, one of the study’s authors, told Greater Good Magazine. “[This includes] the workplace, toward a member of a rival group, or toward anyone who is disliked.”
Research on the brain suggests that meditation has an immediate neurological impact. Researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center scanned the brains of meditators and found that the “empathy” region of the brain—the anterior insular cortex—becomes significantly engaged when meditation is practiced.
Meditation helps to create neural pathways that mentally unite the meditator with other people, allowing them to see the interconnectedness of all human suffering, regardless of whether it is someone you know or a stranger.
So, how do you meditate?
Meditation doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in the lotus position by a tranquil lake in the middle of the woods for an hour (though feel free to dive right into this if that’s what you’re into).
You can meditate just about anywhere: On the couch, on the floor, on the train, or in your car (not whilst driving it, of course). Small doses of meditation are still effective. And opting for these, especially in the beginning, may help you make a habit out of it.
Apps like Headspace, which specializes in meditation, can help you learn the skill of mindfulness. If you’re new to meditation, here’s a few helpful tips on how to get started:
Set a time limit
For beginners new to meditation, it can be helpful to meditate for short periods of time in the beginning, such as three, five, or ten minutes. Gradually increase the amount of time you meditate the more you get comfortable with being still.
Take a seat or lie down
In its simplest form, meditation consists of sitting or lying down with your eyes closed. Find a calm, quiet place that you can relax in.
Focus on your breathing
Let your mind be still. Meditating for the first time can feel unprofitable. As Headspace points out, “you should expect your mind to be busy, easily distracted, and restless, if not more so.” Close your eyes and focus on your breath without controlling it. Breathe naturally.
All in all, you’ll find it easier and more pleasurable every time you meditate. There are many different kinds of meditation and what works for one person might not for another. But, there are countless resources to help get you on your way. Download a meditation app, listen to meditation audio for free on YouTube, or you can purchase guided tracks or meditation music online.
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