Mindfulness, meditation, and the power of silence
There’s no time like the present, and recent research is proving that embracing the present moment might be a path not only to peace of mind and longevity, but also to enhanced brain capacity, emotional maturity, and overall wellness. A few weeks back, I was invited to participate in a mindfulness meditation workshop. Being an energetic, on-the-go working parent, I looked forward to the opportunity to simply sit and just be. The class delved into the beauty of living in harmony with nature, eating healthful meals, resting, exercising, and taking the time for quiet each day.
Often overlooked, ironically, is the idea that the quiet time we carve into our busy schedules can make our days more fruitful, more productive and, ultimately, more successful. A recent study at UCLA found that those who participated in meditation saw increased brain capacity, specifically preserving the tissue in the brain that stores neurons. This research implies that cultivating quiet time can actually protect the brain from neurological degradation.
Another study, by researchers at Harvard University, also bolstered these findings, discovering that meditation might be connected to structural changes in the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing. “We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex,” notes Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, “which makes sense: When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present-moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.” The study also found that the meditators had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision-making.
Michel Mennesson, MD, a psychiatrist in Litchfield County, meditates daily and finds this to be a powerful intervention for himself and clients. “A quiet and calm mind is an effective mind. Meditation teaches us to reach a state of calmness that can be utilized in times of struggle and suffering.” Mennesson practices at Newport Academy, a healing treatment center for adolescents struggling with mental-health and substance-use issues. He finds meditation to be a powerful tool in treatment. “Concentrating and quieting our minds during meditation results in stillness and a decrease in thought elaboration. This helps us to make wise decisions while going through difficult moments.”
For many of us who lead very full lives in the stimulating tech-saturated modern world, making space for silence can seem daunting, if not unattainable. Here are a few steps to lead the way.
Carve out time
Because time is precious, we must focus on making it work for us and not the other way around. To find silent serenity in the day, it is best to plan for it. One trick is to add a time slot to your calendar (on your phone or at work) specifically allotted for a “meeting of the mind.” If you need to, mark it as a literal meeting, something important, so you start to give value to quiet.
Pick a practice
We all have to begin somewhere. For some of us, Transcendental Meditation is the best way to find quiet. This practice is structured, with two 20-minute sessions daily. For others, metta meditation—the practice of offering compassionate awareness to yourself and others—is a perfect way to find silence. And others might prefer cross-country skiing in the woods as the best path to quiet.
When embarking on any quiet practice, try not to get attached to the results. Simply offer yourself to the practice (whichever one you choose) and notice how you feel.
The findings around meditation are significant, and validate the notion that quiet contemplation, or moving meditation, or even simple silence can be restorative and potentially regenerative. Lazar tells the Washington Post, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly.” Quiet sounds good. n