Practicing meditation and mindfulness is the most predictable tip for relaxation. Stop ruminating on the past or the future. Try to not even focus on the present. Attempt to clear your mind and think only about one thing, such as your breathing. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, and yet, you’ll struggle to do it. But pursuing this seemingly tiny goal will result in massive neurological changes that will improve your resistance to stress and anxiety, and wire your system for more resilience.
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If gaming isn’t your style, however, there’s nothing wrong with the more classically relaxing activities like meditation. Even today, meditation practice is still viewed as something rather nice you can do if you enjoy it, or if you’re drawn to the vague promises of a bit more calm and composure. But it’s important to realize that meditation is not strictly a mental activity. In fact, the more you meditate, the more you may understand it’s a practice that brings together every aspect of your being—physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual.
Meditating can physically change the structure of your brain—a powerful reminder that when it comes down to it, we are our bodies, and that the body impacts the mind just as much as the mind impacts the body. Meditation can strengthen this holistic connection, and it’s likely this sense of wholeness and coherence that leads to practitioners feeling more centered, less stressed and clearer mentally.
The concept is profound: our thoughts, or rather, our consciousness, can directly impact our physical body, including our brain. We’ve considered how nurturing the body supports our brain health (i.e. with exercise, sleep and correct nutrition), but the relationship is reciprocal: a calm mind can in turn soothe the body. Thoughts of relaxation can literally translate into more relaxed biochemical states in our bodies, as well as lasting changes to the physical shapes our brains take.
As meditation and mindfulness become more mainstream, it seems like everyone meditates now, or thinks they should at least try. We won’t consider the enormous spiritual or psychological benefits of meditation here in detail—by now it’s well documented that people meditate because they find enormous life enrichment from tapping into the present moment, re- centering their breath and taking a moment to still the chatter of the mind.
But meditation also has profound physical effects, and, if done regularly, can be like a crash course in training your brain to perform at its best. Meditation supports all those parts of the brain that are directly linked to emotional well-being, while moderating all the known effects from anxiety and stress we encounter daily.
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar (yes, again) explains in her 2011 research that meditation increases the volume, plasticity and health of four main areas of the brain— and even shrinks one area associated with unhealthy behavior. The left hippocampus is associated with learning and memory, as well as self-awareness and empathy for others. Increasing gray matter in this area—as meditation does—will help us not only learn better, but be kinder and more compassionate to others in the process.
The posterior cingulate is another area that, when larger and thicker, seems to be associated with more mental control (i.e.
being able to stop a “wandering mind”) and a more stable, balanced sense of self. By regularly asking the mind to focus, to return to the moment, and to not get carried away with every passing whim or thought, we get to train this area of the brain. The result is that we are able to face the rest of life more magnanimously, encountering new experiences calmly and without leaping in to identify with every passing emotion or sensation.
It may be that in future, scientists will understand more clearly these separate functions of the mind as much as they currently comprehend the individual functions of different muscles or organs in the body. But for now, simply becoming aware of what your mind is doing and acting to be conscious of that is an excellent exercise for your consciousness, resulting in more overall mastery of your intellect and emotions—your entire lived experience.
The pons is another crucial area, and it’s involved in a number of important functions, from sleep to interpreting facial expressions to motor output to coordinating data from the senses. Pons means “bridge” in Latin, and it can be thought of as having a primarily connecting and synthesizing role. As you’ve probably guessed, meditation strengthens the pons, helping it do its thing all the better.
The temporo-parietal junction (or TPJ), an area linked with empathy, perspective, responsibility and just action, is likewise enhanced by meditation. Consider the ramifications. It’s incredible to realize that a sense of broader perspective, of consideration for others and a feeling of compassion for beings outside yourself, can all be traced to and reflected in the activity of a region in the brain. Even more incredible is the idea that with dedicated practice and care, this area can be enhanced, i.e. via meditation.
Finally, the amygdala is also physically altered by meditation—but it shrinks. The amygdala is responsible for stress, anxiety and all those flight-or-fight responses that characterize what some Buddhists would call the ever-busy “monkey mind.” As you’ve already guessed, meditation helps with emotional regulation and reduces stress. It’s as though it allows us to consciously calm the reactive and irrational parts of our mind and strengthen our ability to look beyond ourselves, to observe without judgment, to have compassion for others, and to unhook ourselves from endless identification with fleeting stimuli, both internal and external.
It’s amazing to observe that these seemingly abstract benefits of meditation are actually anchored in the physical brain and can be seen to change the body itself.
With further practice, meditation will not only strengthen your body and mind, but strengthen the relationship they have with one another, so that you can start to see them as a single unified whole under one greater, coordinating consciousness. It’s true that regular meditation will probably boost your cognitive power, memory and ability to learn and grow. But its powers go far, far beyond that, toning up not just the mental and cognitive aspects of your being, but bringing you into closer contact with a larger overarching awareness.
In the end, a calm mind is an energetic mind. We turn to the practice of mindfulness to relax the brain so that your natural state of mind is rational, nonreactive, and in energy conservation mode.
Mindfulness is the practice of purposefully focusing all your attention on the current moment and being completely aware of yourself, your emotions, and your thoughts.
It can keep your mind from overthinking and running amok, which is the precursor to drained mental energy. The person who is aware of their thoughts as they are happening is far more likely to keep it together and calm versus the person who is unaware of what is taking place in the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness will feel distressing at first because people who are stressed or overwhelmed constantly feel they have too much on their plate to ever stop their minds from churning. This makes everything worse; when you’re continuously moving 24/7, this gives your brain and body very little time to recharge.
Let go of the past, the future. One doesn’t exist anymore, and the other may never come to be. Spending your time thinking about them is the definition of useless.
And—you guessed it—a massive waste of energy because there’s nothing to be done about them. Even attempt to drop what your thoughts and feelings are bound by in the present moment. Anything you can potentially be distracted by, just let it go and trust that it will be right where you left it in thirty minutes. As a last resort, make a list of these thoughts before you attempt to achieve mindfulness, and rest assured that the world will not end in the meantime.
Your focus should be only on what is happening now in your physical surroundings. Let go of what might happen later, what happened earlier, and all thoughts of the present. The only thing that matters is your breathing, your physical sensations, and the noises, sounds, smells, and sights around you.
Although it is most common to sit during meditation, you may choose to kneel or stand. Just make sure that whatever option you pick is comfortable for you to remain for thirty minutes. You can’t empty your mind if your body is suffering. Ease yourself from any tension you might feel by relaxing your body as a whole and focusing your mind on the task at hand—nothingness.
Make sure your body is upright so that the air you breathe is easily accessible to your lungs. Inhale through your nose. Ensure that your breaths are deep and slow. In doing so, you will allow the air you take in to go directly to your stomach, breathing the correct way for the purposes of your meditation practice.
Your mind may begin to wander from your breath, but don’t chastise yourself—this is only natural. When wandering takes place, forgive, forget, move forward, and focus on your breathing. This will help you regain focus rather than wrestle with your wayward thoughts. You’ll notice how easy it is for your anxieties to hijack your peace of mind and constantly jump into the mental space you’ve created. Instead of engaging with them and unfolding these thoughts, observe them and just let them go, then return to your breathing. We’re not necessarily trying to quiet our minds, but rather center all our chatter onto one thing.
For some of us with noisier minds, you might find it more helpful to focus on a physical sensation. For instance, some will balance a cup of water on their heads (or simply hold it) because this is an act that requires the utmost concentration.
Coincidentally, this is why many feel that running and other repetitive motions can create a meditative state. You can also move through your body, limb by limb, and feel the sensations present in each part.
Let go. Enjoy the break from the outside pressures you face daily. Reboot your brain and eliminate all the clutter that was preventing you from thinking clearly or being self-aware. Think about how the air feels on your lips, in your nose, and moving down your throat. Focus on the sound of inhalation and exhalation.
If this sounds too simplistic to be effective, you’re in for a surprise. At the core, this process is where mindfulness comes from.
Your brain gains a rare reprieve from its efforts as the proverbial mouse on a wheel.
Your body is able to reset ever so slightly to a state of homeostasis and relaxation. You receive perspective on your anxieties and understand that you are not forced to be overwhelmed—it was your choice all along.
And this is a key element to boosting your brain and keeping yourself primed for success.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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