This article is split into two sections on meditation: how it changed my life and its scientific benefits. The first is a deeply personal explanation of my particular experience. I want to start with this because I’m hoping by sharing, it’ll give further insight than the dozens of other articles online that tell you why meditation is beneficial, without the necessary anecdotal explanation in support. After all, it’s useful knowing what studies have discovered, but it can be difficult to relate. If you have a thirst for science, you’ll be catered for; the second section summarises key findings.
Feel free to skip to the science if the thought of reading my personal journey bores you. It’s up to you. I won’t judge. Well, not much. But be warned — you’ll be missing out on the story behind the stats and the sensations and the worldview shifts that bubble behind the physical changes to the grey stuff between my ears. The brain. I’m talking about the brain.
Why I Turned To Meditation
The story has to begin somewhere. Growing up in a working class family in Bristol in the UK, like most Western societies, meditation was about as alien as, well, aliens. Other than one forward-thinking primary school teacher lighting incense and asking the class to sit still and relax (something I only realised was a form of meditation literally seconds ago as this popped into my head), meditation was engulfed by a myriad of false beliefs, all pointing one to a sign that said: Not for me.
I can’t say precisely when my mental health became a serious issue, but I was young. I can pinpoint the age of 15 being the first time anxiety and depression started to take control, although looking back I’d experienced panic attacks even younger. By 15, though, they’d become a regularity. I didn’t know what they were. The panic attacks coincided with an illness which left me bedridden through most of my GCSEs (couldn’t have timed it better), an illness that had symptoms closely resembling anxiety, close enough to obscure the true nature of my suffering at the time.
In truth, it took a number of years for me to understand and accept what I was experiencing was anxiety, a product of the mind. Labelling anxiety or depression purely a mental illness completely minimises the devastating impact it has physically. While the root cause is psychological, the instantaneous physiological response wrecks havoc on the fight or flight system. Such is the seamless link between body and mind, it’s not surprising many sufferers go to great lengths to find a physical cause before realising the issue is psychological. Certain physical illnesses can also instigate anxiety and depression, making this crossover even more confusing.
Once I’d accepted my fate, the process of managing symptoms began. I was around the age of 17 or 18 when I sheepishly ordered my first self-help book online. I’m writing this with a wry smile, looking back now, but such was the stigma and my own sense of shame, I even had a space in my room — out of view — to hide my collection. Forget the porn buddy, at the time I felt I needed a self-help buddy to remove my collection of self-helps books in case of an emergency. After all, no one could discover I was mentally weak. At least that’s how I felt at the time, such is the vicious prison of mental illness and, to a degree, perceived masculinity.
An Uncertain Beginning
While reading and understanding the intricacies of anxiety and depression, my intuition led me to meditation. The benefits were clear to see. Buddhist philosophy peaked my curiosity; everything I read resonated. Plus, reframing suffering as integral to spiritual growth was reassuring. However, my initial interest in meditation wasn’t spiritual. I was an atheist. Buddhism appealed to me because I didn’t see it as a religion, I saw it as a sense of principles that “made sense” as opposed to the restrictive dogma found in Western religions.
Eager to get going, I purchased — and I shit you not — Meditation for Dummies. Unfortunately, I faced a major hurdle. My anxiety was so intrusive at the time, my thoughts so visceral and attention-seeking, my mood so consuming, that I struggled to relate to any of it. Simply sitting with the dense fog of thoughts and feelings felt like a form of punishment, not liberation. So I stopped.
Returning With Direction
In the years that followed I continued to suffer from depression and anxiety and continued to educate myself to find a solution. It wasn’t until I was at university that I had a breakthrough. In an unavoidable plug I wish I was getting paid for — I discovered the Headspace app. This gave direction to my meditation, guided me through in a step-by-step process, and finally made this intimidating beast seem manageable by exposing the fact it was both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex. I then began meditating daily, and that’s when changes started to happen.
How Meditation Changed My Life
Uhhh, sensationalist subheading alert! I apologise, but it’s true. It did change my life. Perhaps not in the way I was hoping, or in the way you may be hoping it could change your life as you read through this article (don’t fall into the trap of “I’ll be happy when I start meditating”!). But it opened my eyes to the true reality of things, provided genuine insight into my inner-world and helped me witness how that inner-world shaped my outer-world, too. Crucially, it didn’t get rid of unwanted emotions. It got rid of my need to get rid of them.
And the most peculiar thing? The biggest benefit of meditation is that — when complemented with spiritual reading — it transformed me from an atheist to a “spiritual person,” the kind who talks of eternal love and God and consciousness and transcending time and The Now. The kind I’d raise my eyebrows at, the kind I never thought I’d be. Ultimately, it revealed to me that we’re not what we think (tagline plug alert, uhhhh!).
I appreciate for those completely new to meditation, you may need a bit of time before jumping headfirst into the vast ocean of consciousness and eternal bliss (I’ll stop with the metaphors now) you may be thinking: what are the benefits of meditation that I can relate to? You asked for it, so here it goes:
1. It helped me to understand anxiety and depression.
Meditating on thoughts and feeling associated with anxiety and depression helped me to break down the mental concept of what “anxiety” and “depression” is. Rather than seeing both as some kind of life-sucking Demogorgon, I began to observe the individual components of them. Instead of one label encompassing all the unpleasantness, I saw the physical symptoms, the emotions, the chains of interlinked thoughts, the erroneous beliefs. All of this while I simply sat and focused on my breath.
By shining awareness on the true nature of “anxiety” and “depression,” it helped me stop seeing the way I was feeling as anxiety and depression. To be clearer — I stopped identifying with it. It wasn’t “my” depression, or “my” anxiety. In moments away from meditation when these symptoms were present, I began to note: “Ah, I’m experiencing a wave of anxiety in my chest, my heart rate has increased, I’m thinking x, y, z.” As soon as become a detached observer of the symptoms and the thoughts, you stop resisting.
This is key: resistance to negative thoughts and emotions gives them power. Accepting them reduces their power and they lose their hold on you. This is also key: meditating doesn’t mean those thoughts and emotions disappear. Instead, you avoid resisting and fighting against them.
2. Meditation reduced the frequency of “my” panic attacks.
Nothing screams resistance like a panic attack. For those of you unfortunate enough to have experienced a panic attack, you’ll know what I mean. For those who haven’t, they’re often described as the sensation of losing your mind, losing control or feeling like you’re about to die. It really is that grim. The imploding, explosive wave of sinister energy that motors its way through the body, the sensation of not being able to breathe, the palpable, grotesque sense of danger… Panic attacks aren’t fun, and a lot of sufferers, myself included, feel anxious at the prospect of an anxiety attack. It’s the cruellest catch-22 of anxiety.
Meditation helped though, in particular the focus of present awareness. At their core, panic attacks are linked to a need to “escape.” In the moment of panic, the sufferer doesn’t want to be where they are, they want to escape to safety, mentally or physically. The “attack” is a strong resistance to the present moment, whether situational or emotional. By habitually sitting with the breath, I became more in tune with my mind’s tendency to mentally attempt to escape when faced with troubling emotions. This is important because we can never escape the present, it’s all there is and all there ever will be.
When I experienced the onset of panic away from the time spent meditating — as with step one — I noted the physical properties, focused on my breath, and stopped resisting. Doing so drastically reduced their impact. I still get waves, now and again. But when I do, it’s less “OH SHIT THIS IS HAPPENING” and more “ah, I’m experiencing a strong wave of anxiety, my heart’s racing, but everything will be okay.” Again, I can’t emphasise enough, when it comes to anxiety resistance really is futile.
3. It helped me embrace sadness.
There is no such thing as a “bad emotion” or a “good emotion” — there are only emotions. But most of us label emotions as positive or negative. Looking back, I feel that my own emotional perfectionism exacerbated my suffering. I ran away from negative emotions. Sadness, unlike irrational anxiety, is a valuable and healthy emotion, one I was fleeing from. I mentioned masculinity above. Well, “boys don’t cry.” Men are encouraged to be stoic, to be strong. Anxiety by no means is exclusive to males, but I feel social conditioning makes men more inclined to resist such emotion. No wonder I was running away from sadness. Life is rich, it’s full of ups and downs, joy and suffering. Resisting half of the equation, the sad side of life, is resisting life itself.
Meditation helped me to sit with sadness, examine it, appreciate it. Sadness is a useful tool. It comes in many forms, and you can learn from any of them. It’s important to note, in spiritual terms, the deepest sense of compassion and love comes with a sense of tenderness, of sadness. We live in a society that likes to emphasise happiness. No one likes a grump, after all. But this isn’t healthy. Embracing sadness and the whole emotional spectrum with the same respect is one of the key processes of spiritual growth.
How do I embrace sadness? As mentioned above, I respect and “sit” with it. From my own personal experience, I believe that some forms of depression are due to consistent resistance to sadness, resulting in an “energy block” of that emotion. Consequently, when I feel sad, I let the sadness come to the surface in a process that is both humbling and cathartic. You can try and run from your emotions, but they’ll always catch up with you.
4. It helped me embrace death.
Did you just read the word death and recoil, even slightly? The odds are you did. In the West we have an odd relationship with death. Odd in the sense that we rarely talk about it, instead choosing to ignore it until it confronts us and catches us off guard. But we all die. All our loved ones will die. And not talking about that won’t make that prospect any less scary.
A big part of meditation is understanding the impermanence of the present moment. There’s no greater illustration of impermanence than death. Personally, a lot of my anxiety was a symptom of my resistance to accept death. By that, I mean on a deep, subconscious level, I wasn’t willing to fully embrace that fact we die, and it caused me to fear the future because, guess what, the future is guaranteed to contain death. I suspect my resistance was triggered by a string of deaths of loved ones I experienced over a short space of time, and the unresolved grief arising from my lack of acceptance.
There are lots of theories on how the fear of death trickles down into everyday fears. But for this article, it’s important to note that a big benefit of meditation was alleviating my fear of death. I worked on my relationship with life and the belief systems and attachments to it. My perspective changed and death became the key component responsible for injecting life with its ephemeral beauty.
Scientific Benefits Of Meditation
This is an area I will eventually explore in greater detail. For now it’s worth noting a few key studies to illustrate that my experiences have a grounding in science. Meditation causes measurable changes to the brain. There’s a whole wealth of benefits to meditation, but some studies that stand out for me personally include:
- Electrical brain waves are different during meditation than they are when we’re awake or asleep. This is deeply significant. The study by The Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered that our brains are in a different state when meditating, a state that is neither awake or asleep. As well as being a key tool in accessing this state, does this prove meditation is a natural process our ancestors would practice?
- Meditation reduces the tendency to ruminate thoughts in those who suffer from depression.
- Meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. A study revealed those who have been meditating over a long period of time had more grey matter in the obrito-frontal and hippocampal cortex of the brain. Curiously, these areas deal with emotional regulation and response control. My “Been There, Meditated, Increased My Obrito-Frontal And Hippocampal Cortex” T-shirts will be available to order soon.
- Meditation has been proven to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
- And it even increases immune function.
Well This Is All Fantastic, How Do I Start?
As mentioned above, I highly recommend trying the Headspace app to start experiencing the benefits of meditation. It’s a guided mindfulness meditation that can steer you through the basics. However, if you want to get started without downloading an app, the process is simple. If you want to go alone, follow the below instructions or play the guided video.
- Sit in a comfortable position, upright and alert. Using a chair is fine, but make sure your back is supported.
- Take a few deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
- After a few minutes, close your eyes. Focus on the sensations of your body; the feeling of your feet on the floor, your hands in your lap, your legs on the chair beneath you.
- Next, pay attention briefly to the sounds surrounding you. Don’t judge them, just observe.
- Bring your attention to your body. From head to toe, mentally “scan” your body. Notice the sensations and emotions within you.
- Turn your attention to your breath. Each in breath. Each out breath.
- Whenever you become distracted by thought, return to the breath. Note that the moment you notice distraction is the moment you become “aware.”
- When you are ready, stop focusing on the breath and give yourself some time to let the mind be completely free. No focus. No attention.
- Then return your attention to your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, hands in your lap, etc. Notice sounds and smells around you.
- Open your eyes.
- Smile (optional).
It seems incredibly simple, and it is. I will eventually give more instruction and guidance on meditation. But for now, I hope my story has helped to inspire you to try and experience the benefits of meditation for yourself. I don’t want to mislead, however. This is an article focusing on the benefits of meditation. There has been, and will continue to be, frustration and mishaps along the way in my journey. There are days where I feel completely out of touch. Disenchanted. Lost. Days of clarity are followed by days of confusion. But it’s all part of the learning curve, and every bend and bump along that curve gives an opportunity to learn.
One last thing — good luck!
I’m keen to hear your experience of meditation, share all in the comments. If you have any questions about my experience, ask below.