The Benefits of Being Mindful: The Art & Science of Meditation

Did you ever wonder how the practice of meditation can help to improve your life and your performance? Here is a rundown on the Art and Science of Meditation.

By Andrew Rothermel | Reading Time: 16 minutes |


Many of us have busy lives and busy minds.  We wake up early for work on a regular basis, rush around the house to get ourselves and maybe our families ready for the day, fight traffic to get where we’re going, are told what to do all day by somebody we probably don’t like all that much, fight traffic to get home, and have adult chores to do later in the night to keep our lives in order.

In between everything many of us are constantly glued to our technology – computers at work, tv’s and computers at home, and not least of all, mindlessly staring at social media on our cell phones all day long.  Maybe somewhere in between the hustle and bustle a few of us take some time for ourselves to improve our personal self with some exercise or real social life (not social media).

Life is busy and it can be tough to carve out time for ourselves but it’s important to do so.  To take some quiet time away from all the noise, technology, and daily distractions.  To listen to our thoughts, to let our minds wander, and to just do nothing because nothing is something.  The something that is nothing, is often overlooked and replaced by more tasks and chores or technology.

The Benefits of Being Mindful: The Art & Science of Meditation

How Meditation Can Help

Mediation can be a lot of things to a lot of people.  It helps slow down life and recognize when we are distracted, reduce anxiety and depression, increase memory and attention, and even help fight dementia.  Click here to read the scientific benefits of meditation in a previous article I wrote if you haven’t read it already.

On an individual basis, meditation can be what you want it to be.  There are many styles of meditation – Zen, Mantra, Transcental, Yogic, Vipassana, Qigong, Shamatha, Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction, visualization, body scan, progressive muscle relaxation, and many others.  Most forms of meditation come down to two basic ideas:  focused attention and open awareness.

Focused Attention

Focused attention meditation is a widespread style of meditation practice which requires moment by moment focus on a specific object such as breathing, shapes, sounds, tastes, or bodily sensations.  While performing this type of meditation practice, the practitioner must constantly monitor the quality of attention.  When the attention wanders from the chosen object, the typical instruction is to recognize the wondering and then restore attention to the chosen object.[1]Lutz, A., et al. (2008): Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. In: Trends Cog Sci. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2693206/.

This practice helps to develop three skills which help to regulate attention:

  • The first of which is the ability to monitor distractions without disrupting the intended focus.
  • The next skill is the ability to disengage from a distraction without engaging in the distraction.
  • And the last skill is the ability to shift focus quickly to the chosen object.

The ability to focus on the intended object with gradually less effort is a sign of progression for this style of meditation. The novice meditator will experience more distractions while the advanced meditator display an acute ability to notice when the mind has wondered and are able to rest the mind steadily on the chosen object of focus.  At the most advanced levels of this style of meditation, the ability to sustain focus becomes progressively effortless.

Objectless Meditation

In contrast to focused attention meditation, open monitoring meditation or sometimes called objectless meditation, aims to remain only in the monitoring state, paying attention to moment by moment happenings without focusing on any specific object.

Initially, the use of focused attention meditation training is helpful for open monitoring meditation because it helps to calm the mind and reduce distractions, however, to truly perform open monitoring meditation requires no specific focus to be maintained.

Instead, the aim of open monitoring mediation is the gain a clear reflexive awareness of all mental and physical stimuli as it occurs without engaging in the stimuli and instead returning to open awareness of the next stimuli.[2]Lutz, A., et al. (2008): Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. In: Trends Cog Sci. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2693206/.

Method Features
Focused Attention Meditation
  • Directing and sustaining attention on a selected object (e.g. breath sensation)
  • Detecting mind wandering and distractors (e.g. thoughts)
  • Disengagement of attention from distractors and shifting of attention back to the selected object
  • Cognitive reappraisal of distractor (e.g. ‘just a thought’, ‘it is okay to be distracted’)
Objectless Meditation
  • No explicit focus on objects
  • Nonreactive meta-cognitive monitoring (e.g. for novices, labeling of experience)
  • Nonreactive awareness of automatic cognitive and emotional interpretations of sensory, perceptual and endogenous stimuli

Table 1: Schematic descriptions of focused attention meditation and objectless meditation. (Source: Adapted from Lutz et al., 2008).

Part I: The Art of Meditation

Learning to Meditate

Humans have five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.  Your eyes see things, your ears hear things, your nose smells things, your skin touches and feels, and your tongue tastes.  You cannot turn these sensing organs on or off. 

If your co-worker walks past your cubicle and blasts a loud and stinky fart, you will hear it and smell it and you cannot decide not to do that.  When you open your eyes in the morning your eyes automatically see the world.  If I was to pinch your skin, you would feel it.

Our sensing organs are constantly on, we cannot control those things.  The job of the nose is to smell, tongue taste, skin feel, ears hear, eyes see.  The job of the brain is to think.  Often, the brain, just like our other sensing organs operates on its own. Brains begin to think and have thoughts and if unchecked, we have no idea how we began thinking about the thing we’re thinking about.

Brains think, it’s their job.  Brains are slightly different than the other sensing organs mentioned because we can decide to think about certain things when we wish to. For example, when you started reading this article, you were definitely not thinking about an elephant standing on a circus ball.  But now, you are most likely visualizing that image.  As humans, we have the power to decide what our brains think about.

Your eyes perceive the stimulus - whether you like it or not. (Image Source: depositphotos / bruesw)

Your eyes perceive the stimulus – whether you like it or not. (Image Source: depositphotos / bruesw)

There are two sides of the coin to that concept

Sometimes we tell our brain what to think and sometimes we don’t.  With that idea in mind, consider this:

  • Who are you?
  • What is actually you?
  • If by accident, you were to lose half a finger and you were to look on the ground and see part of your finger laying there, is that skin and flesh you?

I would say no.

You are still you. You are you, not individual pieces of your body.  You are also not your brain.  Your brain thinks on its own, that’s it’s job.  When you decide you want your brain to think about elephants standing on a circus ball, you can, and you do.  Meditation can help us realize exactly who we are and who and what we are not.

Using Anchors to Meditate

What does all this have to do with meditation, specifically learning how to mediate?

When we mediate, we always have an anchor.  Anchors are an object of focus such as the breath, sounds, shapes, pain, objectless, smell, and taste. Typically, I will begin with breathing meditation as a starting point to learn meditation because breathing is something we all must do to survive.

When you sit to meditate, even while focusing on just the breath, your mind and all minds, will begin to wander.  Random thoughts and ideas will pop up out of nowhere – which further demonstrates that we are not our minds, you are you.  You are separate from your mind.  Remember, the job of the nose is to smell, you do not control that.  The job of your brain is to think, you only partially control that.

When meditating, return to your anchor, in this case the breath. Two tips to help you stay focused during these couple minutes is to internally say to yourself:

  • Inhale” (while you are inhaling).
  • And “exhale” (while you are exhaling).

Or try counting the inhales and exhales, for example, “inhale 1-2-3, exhale 1-2-3, etc.”. Using these ques will help to return to focus on the breath when the mind wanders.

Contrary to popular belief, the idea of meditation is not to push all thoughts away and pretend to be in a white four-walled room with nothing but yourself.  Meditation is an act of training the mind to focus.  In order to train the biceps you must do arm curls.

In order to train the mind to focus, one option is meditation.

Meditation, like any skill, requires regular training and patience. The outcome is increased attention and self-knowledge. (Image Source: depositphotos / Rangizzz)

Meditation, like any skill, requires regular training and patience. The outcome is increased attention and self-knowledge. (Image Source: depositphotos / Rangizzz)

You cannot expect to become good at something unless you practice it.

Meditation is an active practice of focusing

When your mind begins to wander during meditation, do not push your thoughts away.  Imagine your thoughts are clouds drifting through the sky and gently passing by.  For example, during meditation, you begin to think about the banana you ate at breakfast.  If we do not control our mind, often one thought leads to a sequence of thoughts and we spiral down the path of the original thought.  In this case you might think about the banana and how it didn’t really fill you up and now your hungry and next time I will wake up 10 minutes earlier so I can make eggs which will be more filling and then I won’t get so hungry by lunch.

Ughh lunch, I can’t believe I spent so much money at chipotle last week at lunch.  That cashier was so rude.  I remember when I was a cashier in high school at the grocery store. What a good time.  Life was so simple back that.

WHOA!  If your mind is unchecked, look what happens.  We went from a thought about breakfast to your high school job.

This is where anchors come in

Accept that you had a thought about breakfast, imagine the word “breakfast” as a cloud in the sky and let it pass through and away from you while you return to your breath.

Inhale, 1-2-3, exhale, 1-2-3”.

As you continue to practice meditation, thoughts will not go away, there will just gradually be a greater distance between thought 1 and thought 2.  As a new meditator, especially if you are a busy minded person like me, you will have thoughts and thoughts and more thoughts.  Your brain will run wild.  As you continue to train the focus aspect of your mind, instead of thought 1 and thought 2 happening 10 seconds apart, eventually it will be 30 seconds apart, and gradually you will have thoughts further and further apart while focusing more and more on the anchor, eventually without even recognizing it.

While you are not pushing these thoughts away, you are recognizing what they are.  Take note of the thoughts you have but again, be careful not to wonder down the path of the thought.  This time to yourself will allow you to become more familiar with how your unconscious mind is thinking.  If you like the thoughts you have, keep them.  If you notice you have thoughts that you are not fond of, gradually work on those things to change them.

Meditation is a time to experience

Experience the feeling you are having.  If you feel an itch, do not scratch it.  Just sit with that feeling and experience what it is like. Do not try to manipulate the breath, just experience what it is like to breath in your body.

I like to think of myself as the witness.  During meditation, my job is to observe how the body is acting. It will take time, patience, and practice to get to a point that you feel comfortable and confident in your meditation practice. Continue to practice. As you get better, you will be better at observing and need to focus less because it will become more natural.

Remember, if you are actively focusing, you are not truly focusing because focusing on focusing is not truly focusing.  When you are truly focusing, it is happening without having to actively engage in it.

In a world where we are constantly plagued by fears and brooding about the past and future, meditation can help us to live in the here and now and enjoy the moment. (Image Source: depositphotos / mayatnik63)

In a world where we are constantly plagued by fears and brooding about the past and future, meditation can help us to live in the here and now and enjoy the moment. (Image Source: depositphotos / mayatnik63)

Final Thoughts on the Art of Meditation

Learning to meditate can be a frustrating journey, especially in the beginning but over time, just like any other skill that it must be consistently practiced over a long amount of time to become good at it.  You cannot pick up an instrument or a sports ball and expect to play wonderfully the first or second time you try.  Meditation is no different.  While you may notice some benefit right away, it takes time and patience to become an experienced meditator.

Meditation is an opportunity to explore the inner workings of who you are, what makes you tick, to keep what you like and change what you don’t.  Meditation has the ability to help in general life situations and circumstances by helping us to be more present and in the moment to enjoy exactly where we are and what we are doing without wishing we were somewhere else.  Less worrying and ruminating about the past or future and more present minded with the current tasks at hand.  I wish you all the best with your meditation practices going forward.

Part II: The Science of Meditation

Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not clearing or blanking your mind, which is virtually impossible to do.  Meditation is a wakeful state produced by specific attentional techniques.

While meditation is over 5000 years old, scientific research has only just begun to study it.  However, research does suggest that meditation may enhance memory and reduce the risk of dementia by improving sleep, decreasing depression, increasing well-being, down regulating inflammation, upregulating immune function, and increasing telomere length.

There are many forms of meditation but in general, meditation can be defined as a form of mental training which aims to improve an individual’s psychological capacities such as attentional and emotional self-regulation.[3]Tang, YY. / Hölzel, BK., / Posner, MI. (2015): The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. In: Nature Rev Neurosci. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3916.

One of the most popular meditation practices for therapeutic purposes is the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MSBR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early 1980s.[4]Moore, A. / Malinowski, P. (2009): Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. In: Consciousness Cognition. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19181542.

Mindfulness meditation has received the most attention in the research and can be described as non-judgmental attention to present-moment experiences and includes various aspects of attention and focus training.

a.) It has been suggested that mindfulness meditation comprises at least three components that interact closely with each other and represent a process of enhanced self-regulation: Increased attention control, improved emotional regulation and altered self-perception. b.) Mindfulness meditation can be roughly divided into three different exercise phases: Early Stage, Middle Stage and Advanced Stage, which are connected with different efforts. (Graphic Source: Tang et al., 2015)

a.) It has been suggested that mindfulness meditation comprises at least three components that interact closely with each other and represent a process of enhanced self-regulation: Increased attention control, improved emotional regulation and altered self-perception. b.) Mindfulness meditation can be roughly divided into three different exercise phases: Early Stage, Middle Stage and Advanced Stage, which are connected with different efforts. (Graphic Source: Tang et al., 2015)

Over the past decade, over 20 studies have investigated brain alterations related to mindfulness meditation however, because the studies vary in design, measurement, and type of meditation, the location of reported effects in the brain are not consistent and cover multiple regions of the brain.[5]Tang, YY. / Hölzel, BK., / Posner, MI. (2015): The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. In: Nature Rev Neurosci. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3916.

In addition, meditation training programs vary in several ways such as the type of mental activity promoted, the amount of training recommended, the skill level of the instructor, and the level of emphasis on spirituality.  Because there are a variety of meditation techniques as well as instructors who have a wide range of abilities and teaching experience it creates some uncertainty about which methods and to what extent those methods influence psychosocial outcomes.

However, there is emerging evidence that mindfulness meditation may cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion, and self-awareness.

Brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation. Schematic diagram of some of the brain regions involved in attention control (the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum), emotion regulation (several prefrontal regions, limbic regions and striatum), and self-perception (insula, medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus). (Graphic Source: Tang et al., 2015)

Brain regions involved in the components of mindfulness meditation. Schematic diagram of some of the brain regions involved in attention control (the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum), emotion regulation (several prefrontal regions, limbic regions and striatum), and self-perception (insula, medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus). (Graphic Source: Tang et al., 2015)

Meditation & Dementia

The number of people 65 years of age and older in the United States is expected to increase from approximately 13% to over 20% of the population by the year 2050.  During that same time period, the amount of people 85 years or older is expected more than double from 2% to 4.5%.

While it is good news that more people are expected to live longer, old age often comes with increased risk factors for dementia and age-related pathological conditions.  As of 2010, there were over 35 million people who were diagnosed with dementia worldwide.  This number is projected to triple by the year 2050.[6]Kurth, F. / Cherbuin, N. / Luders, E. (2017): Promising Links between Meditation and Reduced Aging: An Attempt to Bridge Some Gaps between the Alleged Fountain of Youth and the Youth of the Field. In: Front Psychol. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5447722/.

Research has recently begun to investigate the link between meditation and the aging process.  In fact, some research has showed a negative correlation between age and brain gray matter in long-term meditators compared to age-matched controls, which may imply meditation has a positive effect on the aging process.  Grey matter of the brain is involved in muscle control and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.

Recent research also suggests that lifestyle choices can make a difference when it comes to prevention of dementia.  Stress and chronic high levels of cortisol may lead to high levels of inflammation all of which play a role in dysfunction and atrophy of important structures in the brain that are responsible for memory and emotions and the increased likelihood of acquiring some form of dementia.[7]Khalsa, DS. (2015): Stress, meditation, and Alzheimer’s disease prevention: where the evidence stands. In: J Alzheim Dis. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26445019.

Meditation & Telomere Length

One area of interest in the research is the link between telomere length and regular meditation practice.

Telomeres are DNA and protein complexes which can be found at the end of chromosomes and are necessary for complete replication of DNA and help to protect against chromosome degradation.  In general, telomeres shorten with age and can provide insight for early onset diseases such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes mellitus, cancer mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline and dementia.[8]Alda, M., et al. (2016): Zen meditation, length of telomeres, and the role of experiential avoidance and compassion. In: Mindfulness. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27217844.

The shortening of telomeres can be accelerated by multiple behavioral factors such as poor diet, poor sleep, tobacco use, excessive consumption of alcohol, sedentary lifestyle, and psychological distress.

In fact a study analyzed the association of meditation practice and telomere length.[9]Alda, M., et al. (2016): Zen meditation, length of telomeres, and the role of experiential avoidance and compassion. In: Mindfulness. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27217844. Participants included a group of 20 expert Buddhist meditators and 20 healthy age, gender, ethnic, and lifestyle matched non-meditators.

Sociodemographic and health characteristics of the 40 study participants. (Graphic Source: Alda et al., 2016)

Sociodemographic and health characteristics of the 40 study participants. (Graphic Source: Alda et al., 2016)

The results of the study showed that expert meditators as a group had a significantly longer median telomere length and a lower percentage of short telomeres in their cells compared to the comparison group.

The expert meditators also showed significantly better results in measurements related to mindfulness abilities such as attention and awareness, observing, describing, nonjudging, resilience, self-compassion, and satisfaction with life and subjective happiness.  Additionally, the expert meditators reported significantly lower experiential avoidance, anxiety, and depression.

Psychological variables in meditators (n=20) and non-meditators (n=20). (Graphic Source: Alda et al., 2016)

Psychological variables in meditators (n=20) and non-meditators (n=20). (Graphic Source: Alda et al., 2016)

It is possible that meditation and mindfulness results in individuals experiencing less stress, anxiety, and depression – all of which are associated with high levels of cortisol which may play a role in the degradation of telomere length.

However, the connection between mindfulness and the relationship to telomere length remain unclear.

Meditation & Attentional Focus

Many people use a variety of meditation techniques to help with anxiety, stress, depression, negative thoughts, pain, and unwanted habit removal such as drinking, eating, smoking, and general substance use.  But still others use meditation as a tool to help increase focus and attention in their daily day to day lives.

One study investigated participants ability to suppress interfering information and to focus and direct their attention using well-established measures.[10]Moore, A. / Malinowski, P. (2009): Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. In: Consciousness Cognition. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19181542. The study compared a group of 25 Buddhist meditators with experience in mindfulness meditation with a group of 25 non-meditators on several tests of attention.  Participants were assessed in a quiet experimental situation, but without inducing a meditative state of state of mindfulness.

The results of the study showed meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention.  High levels of mindfulness were correlated with:

  • high processing speed
  • good attentional and inhibitory control
  • and a good coordination of speed with concurrent accurate performance.

High levels of mindfulness were also correlated to reduced errors across measures which suggests mindfulness results in greater attentional control, accuracy of visual scanning, inhibitory control, carefulness, cognitive flexibility, and quality of performance.

Because meditation has been shown to have attentional benefits many athletes have turned to meditation as a tool to increase performance.  When it comes to sports, meditation and mindfulness may help to unlock an athlete’s highest potential.  Improving athlete’s mindfulness may help improve performance due to increased ability to focus on only the task at hand at the present moment and block external distractions. 

In fact, Phil Jackson, a former NBA head coach, has won the most NBA championships of any head coach in the history of the NBA.  He coached the Chicago Bulls during their 1990’s championship reigns with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as well as the Los Angeles Lakers championships runs in the early 2000’s with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Phil is widely known for not only his NBA championships but the way he coached his teams to those championships, earning the nickname “Zen Master” as he would often have his players and teams practice various forms of meditation and spiritual practices.

Many athletes experience some level of anxiety before or during competition, with some athletes experiencing very high levels of athletic anxiety.  Anxiety has two subcomponents: cognitive and somatic anxiety, both of which can influence performance:

  • Cognitive anxiety is the mental aspect of anxiety and has the potential to negatively influence performance through negative expectations about success, negative self-talk, worries about performance, images of failure, and inability to concentrate and disrupted attention.[11]Parnabas, VA., et al. (2014): The relationship between relaxation techniques and sport performance. In: Univ J Psychol. URL: http://www.hrpub.org/download/20140205/UJP2-19401601.pdf.
  • Somatic anxiety affects the physical body and has the potential to cause negative symptoms such as feelings of nervousness, high blood pressure, dry throat, muscular tension, rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, and butterflies in the stomach.[12]Parnabas, VA., et al. (2014): The relationship between relaxation techniques and sport performance. In: Univ J Psychol. URL: http://www.hrpub.org/download/20140205/UJP2-19401601.pdf.

One study which had a sample size of 122 participants, 71 males and 51 females, measured the correlation between different kinds of stress-relaxation techniques and sports performance.[13]Parnabas, VA., et al. (2014): The relationship between relaxation techniques and sport performance. In: Univ J Psychol. URL: http://www.hrpub.org/download/20140205/UJP2-19401601.pdf.

The profile of the study participants. (Graphic Source: Adapted from Parnabas et al., 2014).

The profile of the study participants. (Graphic Source: Adapted from Parnabas et al., 2014).

The results of the study showed that there is a strong statistically significant correlation between all stress-relaxation techniques measured and sports performance. The stress-relaxation techniques measured included: imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathing techniques:

Subject

Sports Performance

The Usage of Imagery

0.097**

The Usage of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

0.078**

The Usage of Meditation

0.091**

The Usage of Breathing Techniques

0.091**

Table 2: Correlation of different types of stress-relaxation techniques and athletic performance. ** = p < 0.01. (Source: Adapted from Parnabas et al., 2014).

Conclusion on the Science of Meditation

Who we are and what we become are significantly impacted by our lifestyle choices.

Having a regular meditation practice can have wide ranging benefits which include memory enhancement, risk reduction in neurological diseases and disorders such as dementia, anxiety, and depression by increasing well-being and reducing stress, down-regulating inflammation, upregulating immune function, and increasing sleep quality.

Additionally, people have experienced the ability to remove unwanted habits such as drinking, excessive eating, smoking, and general substance abuse through regular meditation practices.


Title Image Source: depositphotos / YAYImages


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Written by Andrew Rothermel
I’ve studied and experienced exercise, fitness, health & wellness in a variety of formal and practical educational settings since 2008. Personal trainer, strength coach, yogi, author, teacher, coach.
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