When I was a teenager we had a young science teacher who had long hair and wore tie-dye shirts. He was completely different from the other teachers we had, so of course, we all thought the world of him.
One day in class he started to talk about meditation and how being able to meditate could help you focus. He asked us to come back to the lab at lunchtime. He said he would teach us how to meditate and we would learn the art of relaxation and self-discovery.
Most of us took up the invitation. Not that we cared about self-discovery, but it was something different to do. I can remember sitting on the floor and the teacher telling us to close our eyes. We had to feel our limbs becoming heavier and heavier…
You can imagine a group of young teenagers, with a teacher we liked, but whom we thought was completely potty, telling us to empty our minds (aren’t they already empty at that age?) I can’t remember how the session ended but I know meditation wasn’t mentioned again. The next term he had gone. Rumour had it that he had joined a retreat and had given away all his possessions. We weren’t surprised.
Back to the future
Fast forward into my forties and suddenly I am looking at meditation as a way of easing my anxiety. It started off worrying about my daughter’s health when she developed epilepsy as a teenager. But, it soon escalated so that I was becoming anxious about things that had never bothered me in the past.
I scoured the internet looking for answers. That’s when meditation popped up and I remembered my old science teacher.
From what I read about meditation today thinks have changed. You don’t have to give all your money away to a bearded bloke in a white kaftan. You don’t need spaghetti legs to sit crossed-legged, (which is handy because I’m not sure I can anymore). You don’t even much time to meditate these days. If you can find 5 or 10 minutes that’s supposed to be okay.
So, all well and good but would it ease my anxiety and what about the scientific evidence?
I found an interesting study by Gaelle Desbordes. She’s a research faculty instructor at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2012 she conducted a trial which focused on mindful meditation. Participants had fMRI scans on their brains before an 8-week meditation course. When the course had finished they did the scans again.
This time the scans showed that the amygdala wasn’t as active. In other words, it was calmer.
The amygdala and your emotions
The amygdala is the part of your brain that deals with emotion, particularly fear. Fight or flight mode activates the amygdala. This can happen because there is a genuine danger, you might have stepped out in front of a car. Or you are suffering from anxiety or a panic attack, which produces the fight or flight sensation.
Another study highlighted in Psychology Today demonstrated that meditation does indeed reduce anxiety. That’s what I wanted to know.
Finding out more
Now I needed to find out what kind of meditation I needed to practice so I could find out if meditation can calm the mind.
I, first of all, read some books. One by American Journalist, Dan Harris. He’s famous for having a panic attack live on air. You can see it on YouTube.
He’s written two books about mindful meditation. His latest book is Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. Dan Harris is down to earth and has a great sense of humour.
The book is about a road trip he took in America to talk about meditation. It’s got lots of anecdotes and discussions about meditation. The book is funny as well as being informative.
Another book I liked a lot was A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax. Ruby always makes me laugh and she has brought her humour to a serious subject. The book includes a 6-week mindfulness course (which I haven’t tried yet).
If you want to learn mindfulness online, have a look at the course from BeMindful. The website also includes a list of mindfulness teachers who you can contact privately. Mind and the Mental Health Foundation also both have information about mindfulness.
You can also use apps like Headspace, or Dan Harris’ Ten Percent app. Headspace gives you a 10-day free course. Ten Percent has free resources if you buy his latest book. There’s also plenty of YouTube videos you can watch.
I am definitely going to give it a go. I do think meditation can help to calm your mind, and, I’m glad you don’t need spaghetti legs because I am not at all flexible. But, I just need to find the time…