Lately, many friends, family members, co-workers, strangers on the street—even my therapist—have expressed a certain weighted despair hanging over their outlook. There is an anxiety tattering the nerves of the nation, refueled by each day’s fever pitch of headlines.
Many of these same friends have also admitted that they wish they meditated more—that they mean to, that maybe they even have a reminder set in their phone, but somehow the habit fails to stick.
Indeed, there is something daunting about pursuing a thoughtless calm within the mind’s torrent of chatter—a task that journalist and former meditation cynic Dan Harris likens to “holding a live fish in your hand.” The most common excuse, though, is simply that life is busy. Setting aside a chunk of minutes to do nothing is all too easy to deprioritize.
But the outer chaos of today’s world has aligned with meditation’s extensive list of physiological benefits—which includes salutary effects on depression, addiction, stress, the immune system and worry—in such a way that makes the ancient practice seem as important as eating vegetables and drinking water.
Two years ago, modern science turned up one of its most profound findings: meditation actually changes the structure of our brains. Using MRIs, a Harvard study found that subjects meditating for eight weeks (approximately 30 minutes a day) had thicker gray matter in the hippocampus—the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. This effect flies in the face of the natural aging process, in which the brain shrinks as we get older. The study found that brain structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection had also increased, while the area of the brain associated with stress shrank.
A study out of the U.K. published last month found that the frequency of negative thoughts drastically decreased after 10-minute sessions of acceptance-based mindfulness meditation—a technique in which the meditator takes note of the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise. Attention-based breath meditation was slightly less effective in reducing negative thoughts, but still helpful.
“Two and a half millennia before Eckhart Tolle started cashing his royalty checks, it was the Buddha who originally came up with that brilliant diagnosis of how the mind works,” Harris writes. Among the mental habits identified in Buddhism is the concept of papañca, “mental proliferation,” or the tendency to run away with a thought or worry, entertaining various negative, hypothetical scenarios—something many of us are prone to lately. It’s harmful not just to mental well-being but to our bodies, too.
My own phone has buzzed with a meditation reminder every day at 1 p.m. for more than a year now, ever since I finished reading Harris’ wit-fest of a book, 10% Happier. I’ve come to realize mid-afternoon is an ill-planned time to dive into my mind’s abyss in search of calm; waking up a little earlier to meditate first thing is a more promising strategy, at least for many beginners. And while 30 minutes is a long time, Harris suggests beginners commit to just five minutes a day, and see what happens.
“Every time you get lost in thought—which you will, thousands of times—gently return to the breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game,” writes Harris, whose meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
Among the plethora of helpful, no-nonsense advice for the beginning meditator laid out in 10% Happier is something I’ll be doing a lot of in the coming weeks: “Every once in awhile, do a little reading about meditation or Buddhism,” writes Harris. “Even though the basic instructions are simple, hearing them repeatedly can be useful. It’s the opposite of airplane safety announcements.” He adds that glancing at even a few passages of a good book can be a helpful reminder of the compelling intellectual underpinnings of the practice, and among his recommendations is a title that seems most relevant to the times: Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, by Dr. Mark Epstein.