Many might think that Meditation is a fad, a new status symbol or God knows what. I mean what’s up with all those Buddha paintings and ‘zen’ talk? Why is everyone rushing to meditate these days? What do they do sitting there? For a long time, I had tried to meditate with little success. I felt a major change in my attitude towards meditation when I read actually what it is supposed to do. And, I got an answer to ‘Why should I meditate?’
I am summarizing few points from various books by David Michie on the subject of Buddhism and Meditation. So, following are not my original ideas but I can vouch for some of these after practicing Meditation over last couple of months now.
This is how Meditation helps you physically-
Practices around meditation identify body and mind to be a holistic system rather than separate entities. This helps you understand how controlling one’s mind (because that is what meditation is in simplistic terms) in turn, impacts the physical aspects of your body. Meditation causes breathing to slow down which decreases your blood pressure and in turn helps you relax. Do not confuse this with resting (sitting idle does not decrease the rate of your metabolism as meditation does).
When we meditate the lactate concentration in our blood also decreases by up to a third. Blood lactate level is associated with tension and high blood pressure, and the infusion of lactate in the blood produces symptoms of anxiety.
Meditation increases the production of endorphins on our body (same hormone released when we consume chocolate, indulge in sex etc). It causes a feel-good emotion and creates positive mind-body states.
Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School said, ‘repeated activation of the relaxation response can reverse sustained problems in the body and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress’.
Reducing the risk of heart diseases
One clinical trial took 103 patients suffering from coronary heart disease, and over a sixteen-week period showed that the group which practised meditation did much better than a control sample who simply received education about their condition.
Their blood pressure had reduced by 3.4 mmHg (systolic) at the end of the trial compared with an increase of 2.8 mmHg for the health education (control) group.
Meditation also made the heart patients physically more robust and increased their exercise tolerance. Thus, the interplay between body and mind is clearly proven otherwise how can one explain such physical improvements by a practice which is considered sedentary.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is another powerful hormone that has been shown to increase with regular meditation (it helps in improving our immune system). Regular meditators are known to be less affected (in some cases, also got past) by allergies, flu etc.
This is my favorite and the one which I hope many people can know about.
Melatonin, produced by the pineal gland in the brain, as well as other parts of the body,has also been shown in lab studies to stimulate cells called osteoblasts that promote bone growth. Lower levels of melatonin stimulate the growth of certain types of cancer cells, while adding melatonin inhibits their growth. While we have no definitive evidence right now that meditation helps prevent breast and prostate cancer, we do know two things: that meditation boosts melatonin production, and that people with breast and prostate cancer have lower melatonin levels. Until such time as further clinical work is completed, we can’t formally join the dots—but the dots are there.
Some personal experiences by cancer patients have been reported where in regular meditation helped in combating the side effects of chemotherapy to the extent that the patients showed no hairloss etc.
Lowering the rate of ageing
DHEA also has another bearing with age factor. It decreases as we age. As DHEA levels plunge, ageing related problems come to the fore more strongly. DHEA has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is known to play a critical role in the development of many diseases of ageing, including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis and certain cancers. It prevents atrophy, dementia, depression and many other age correlated problems.
The longer we maintain higher DHEA levels, the longer we put off the many problems that accompany old age. And the practice of meditation achieves exactly this.
A study by Dr Robert Keith Wallace showed that those who had been practising Transcendental Meditation for over five years had a biological age twelve years younger than their chronological age.
This is how Meditation helps you psychologically-
Use of fMRI shows that brain’s circuits in the right prefrontal cortex are the most active when a person is angry, agitated or depressed. Whereas, when people are happy, energised or up-beat, activity shifts to the left prefrontal cortex.
A neuroscientist Dr Richard Davidson ran the test on an experienced Tibetan lama and his activity showed to be positioned on the most extreme left of the happiness spectrum. Meditation also helps keep your mind at an even keel and preventing mood swings.
Meditation is closely linked to Mindfulness which means paying attention on the present moment. By doing this, we prevent our mind from living in past or future, pain or anxiety and thereby spending unnecessary energies on these. This is an extremely difficult thing to practice but can be miraculous in long run. Practicing mindfulness and consciousness also leads to reduction of negative thoughts and depression.
I wrote this answer originally on Quora.