There’s a middle school in one of the roughest neighborhoods of San Francisco where crime, poverty and traumatic stress are part of every day life. There, twice a day, a bell rings and the once rowdy students quiet down to sit in silence for 15 minutes.
It’s part of the Quiet Time program, where adolescents are being taught to clear their minds and become accustomed to periods of silence in an effort to reduce stress levels and improve focus.
Within a year of implementing the program, attendance rates rose to 98%. Within three, teacher turnover dropped to zero and the suspension rate dropped by 86%. Schools that have adopted Quiet Time have shown significant improvements in attendance, disciplinary action and test scores, and the kids themselves report being more relaxed, focused and less stressed.
All from sitting quietly and doing nothing. Amazing.
It’s funny how something as simple as sitting and breathing has such powerful benefits — like changing the behavior of kids, or reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, increasing productivity, and improving creative thinking.
Scientists are discovering that meditation can actually rewire the brain by strengthening the connections and pathways that are being exercised, changes that, according to one study out of the University of Oregon, are visible after just 11 hours of meditation.
In another fascinating study out of Harvard, 16 people were enrolled in an 8 week mindfulness course. Upon completion, not only did the participants demonstrate an improvement in awareness and “non-judgement”, their pre and post-course brain scans showed increases in the gray matter of the brain connected with memory and learning, and decreases in the gray matter in the region responsible for anxiety and stress.
Meditation works and yet, so many people continue to dismiss the idea of it.
Why? For starters, the word itself is a frightful one. Meditation. Ick. There is nothing appealing about the term, and even I hesitate to use it (did you notice that I omitted it entirely from the title of this post?)
More importantly, the thought of doing nothing and thinking about nothing is terrifying. In fact, a recent series of studies out of The University of Virginia, found that 12 of 18 men (and 6 of 25 women) chose to give themselves an electric shock rather than have to sit in a room with nothing to do but think.
Shocking (heh) but understandable. I’m fairly certain that my husband would be one of the self shockers if he were to participate in the study.
Meditation is a difficult and frustrating practice and I, for one, conclude that there are a number of activities that I would much rather do:
- Fold laundry
- Read Ulysses
- Scrub the tile grout on my bathroom floor with a toothbrush
Doing nothing is that hard.
Meditation is not easy to measure. Unlike an exercise program where your results are visible, meditation is much more difficult to quantify.
So why invest time and energy into something we can’t see, touch or feel?
Because the mind is the center of everything that we are. It decides how we feel, what we say, what we do, where we go, what we eat and drink, and how we move. It defines our sense of fulfillment and joy and happiness.
That’s something worth taking care of.
The normal of stress
Let’s talk about stress for a minute.
It’s our way of responding to things that disrupt our normal routine. Our brains do not like change, the unexpected, or too much (or too little) of anything. When it does encounter a perceived threat, the brain produces a surge of hormones to ready the body for impending attack.
The response, fight or flight, is physiological. Under stress, our body literally prepares to fight or run, launching into survival mode: our heart rate increases, blood flows to the muscles, we become more tense and aware, and all rational thought goes out the window.
We all experience some degree of stress, (and a little bit of it is not a bad thing). But one third of Americans admit to feeling like they are living with extreme stress. Like they’re preparing to fight a 500 pound lion every single day. And that number is growing.
It’s not surprising, then, that too many stress hormones over a long period of time have some pretty damaging effects on the body such as increased risk for heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, not to mention our increased likelihood of making poor, rash decisions. It causes the US $300 billion in medical bills and lost productivity per year.
Meanwhile, meditation, that sitting and breathing thing, has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, improve productivity and creativity, and physically rewire the brain?
Yea, that’s not just for hippies and spirit junkies. I’ll unwind with wine and gossip magazines thank you very much.
Strip away all of the fancy, spiritual stuff and you are left learning something that’s so important:
Acceptance. Acceptance of what is and what has already happened. Acceptance of the fact that that there are things that happen to us — unfortunate, unfair, and sad things — that are beyond our control. We don’t have to agree with it, we just have to accept that it’s there.
It’s important to note that meditation, then, is not about forcing thoughts out of our heads. It’s about watching them and allowing them to exist, free of judgement and resistance. Andy Puddicombe of Headspace.com likens it to the idea of sitting on the side of the road, observing traffic, where the road is our mind and the cars are our thoughts. Our nature is to run into the middle of the street to chase our happy thoughts and stop the negative ones.
But our job is to remain on the sidewalk and watch the cars go by.
This simple act of watching our thoughts , the good and the bad, forces us to face them head on.
Little by little, as we go about our day, we start to notice things around us and pause to take in the moment. And it’s this brief moment of presence that ultimately teaches us how to respond thoughtfully to a situation (rest and relax) as opposed to reacting automatically (fight or flight).
A beginner’s guide to sitting and doing nothing
An easy way to get started, is to practice a very simple mindfulness meditation that is based on the Buddhist idea of Vipassana meaning “to see things as they really are”, where you allow yourself to be aware of your thoughts, circumstances, environments and experiences. Here’s how to do it:
- Commit to a practice. Start with 10 or 20 minutes a day for a month. Formalize it, write it down or announce it, so that you make it harder to quit when it gets hard (and it will get hard, I promise).
- Same time, same place. You’ll find it easier to continue meditating if you get into the habit of practicing at the same time every day. Ideally first thing in the morning, when the mind is quieter and you’re less likely to be disturbed.
- No distractions, because the fear of disturbance will make it more difficult to reach that desired ‘relaxed’ state.
- Sit comfortably, with your spine straight, head up, and legs crossed, hands resting on your lap.
- Focus on the breath. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, in and out through the nose, always focusing on the breath.
- Let your mind wander. Your mind will drift and you won’t be able to stop it. Don’t try to force thoughts out of your head. Just accept the insanity and keep breathing.
The ROI of meditation
There’s so much to gain from sitting and doing nothing, even if the nothing you bear is a mere five minutes a day. Study after study is showing that meditation not only reduces stress and anxiety, but it also improves attention and focus, enhances our creativity and problem solving abilities and improves interpersonal relationships.
Which means that in spite of its difficult-to-practice and measure nature, meditation is a pretty good return on investment.
It’s not the ultimate solution or cure all. This I know. But it moves us in a positive direction.
“The real challenge isn’t what we’re able to do with our eyes closed. It’s to be more self-aware in the crucible of our everyday lives, and to behave better as a result. That’s mindfulness in action.” – Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project
And that’s why I meditate. Because the idea of being present and accepting of “what is” is finally starting to grow roots somewhere in my chaotic subconscious, where more and more, I find myself thinking before speaking, appreciating everyday moments, not getting flustered when something falls through the cracks, and focusing on solutions instead of dwelling on problems.
I encourage you to give it a go – try it for a month. You don’t even have to call it meditation. You can think of it as a mental workout. Or a breathing exercise. Or simply a time to sit and do nothing.