Meditation at Hillside

Photo by Azra Fazal

Hillside Festival gently sits on the small island of Guelph Lake Conservation Area; as I skirted the island’s edge, encompassed by the lake’s beauty, I came across a meditation class. The class was drawing to a close, but I joined in all the same. “Now turn to the person next to you, stare into their eyes, but say nothing, just focus on your breathing”, the serene, white-haired woman softly murmured.

To turn to a stranger’s face and silently scrutinise their every feature was one thing, to know the stranger was doing the exact same to you – well that opened up a whole new realm of awkwardness. It was actually the persistent focus on my own breathing that made those ten minutes bearable. Nowadays, people associate meditation with just about everything I felt in those ten minutes: weird, awkward, stiff, powerful, peaceful and enlightening.

Even with the stereotypes often given to meditators, it’s hard to argue that there are benefits, especially in stress relief.

So why do so few of us meditate? Perhaps it is the assumption that it takes a particular kind of person to meditate and reap the rewards — yet the abundance of research conducted in the last decade begs to differ. Hundreds of participants in studies have experienced health and wellness from meditation, revealing that there is science behind the magic.

In 2012, Carnegie Mellon University published a paper that investigated loneliness. Prior to this, loneliness had been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and all cause mortality, thus the topic was duly noteworthy. A group of 40 people were split into either the eight-week meditation program or the ‘carry on normally’ program. The results revealed a significant decrease in loneliness for the meditation group, but this is qualitative data so I can understand if you’re not yet convinced by the ‘power’ of meditation. But rest assured, the study had more to offer — and this time it is of the quantitative nature.  Significant differences in gene expression were found between the two groups. Meaning that sitting quietly for 30 minutes a day can actually alter your DNA structure and subsequently the proteins produced in your body.

Meditation changing the physical structure of the brain has also been proved by a Harvard University study in 2010. The study was conducted in a similar manner to the one at Carnegie Mellon, but this time MRI scans were taken of the brain. The scans revealed astonishing differences in brain structure between those who had meditated and those who had not. For the meditation group, increased neuron densities occurred in four regions of the brain; the regions were accountable for learning, memory, and emotional regulation. ‘Increased neuron densities’ is another way of saying stronger and faster connection pathways; therefore meditating can result in you finding those lost glasses quicker, or never losing them in the first place.

If sample size and length have currently been too small for satisfaction, a 2009 paper boasts 201 participants in a five-year study. A 43 percent reduction in risk for all-cause mortality, myocardial infarction and stroke, was found in — you’ve guessed it — the meditation group.  

The ‘magic’ of meditation is also seen in a Loyola University of Chicago 2008 study, where meditation was found to reduce cortisol levels (known as the stress hormone) in women with early stages of breast cancer. Then, in 2010 the University of Pennsylvania found that meditation improved the cerebral blood flow, which in turn combats memory loss. These two examples reveal bodily changes which account for the feelings of ‘less stressed’ or ‘better memory’.

If you are still hesitant on meditating, spend a day acknowledging. Acknowledge how often you daydream, lose your trail of thought, forget something, feel tired or lack motivation.

So, sitting in whichever way you feel comfortable, focussing on your breath go in and out and letting your eyes glaze over for just 15-30 minutes a day, can have huge physical effects on your body. The technique is not easy, so do not be discouraged when you realise that your mind keeps leaping from thought to thought — just remember the three golden rules: acknowledge the thought, don’t criticise yourself and then back to the breath.

If you are still hesitant on meditating, spend a day acknowledging. Acknowledge how often you daydream, lose your trail of thought, forget something, feel tired or lack motivation. You’ll realise that all these predicaments come frequently, and the next time they do come, think to yourself ‘I need to meditate.’

Getting pulled down by life’s hectic and stressful nature shouldn’t be an excuse to not meditate, if anything, it should be a reason to meditate more, it’s like Ghandi famously said: "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one."

Julis is a biology student at Oxford University, she volunteered at A\J in summer 2015. 

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