Over the past decade, meditation has undergone a makeover in the eyes of the American public. Where once it was seen as an exotic spiritual practice primarily associated with monks and hippies, now it’s widely presented as a panacea, capable of curing everything from anxiety to relationship troubles.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. Meditation is no cure-all, but the benefits are both wide-ranging and well-supported.
The surprising benefits of meditation
Religious trappings aside, meditation appears to work by changing the brain’s dominant brain waves. Specifically, it cuts down on beta waves, which are associated with stress and high-energy activities, and causes the brain to produce more alpha waves, which are associated with creativity, wakeful relaxation, and calm, focused mental states.
The most well-known and highly studied benefit of meditation is its ability to reduce anxiety. Indeed, a literature review conducted in 2014confirmed that meditation is likely to be moderately effective at reducing anxiety- but also that it was nearly as effective at reducing pain and depressive symptoms.
The idea that meditation can reduce pain may seem far-fetched, but the basis is simple: physical and emotional pain involve many of the same neural circuits, so anything that can improve your mood can also potentially be useful for pain. The reverse is also true- Tylenol has been shown to reduce emotional pain caused by social rejection.
That same meta-analysis found less evidence for overall improvements in quality of life, and no evidence for improvements in sleep, cognition, mood, or weight.
A separate meta-analysis in 2016 found meditation to be highly effective at improving not only emotional issues, but also relationships. This same study found that meditation was moderately effective at improving attention, and minimally effective at improving any other measure of cognition.
Anecdotally, some people do report other benefits from meditation- including happier dreams, more consistent sleep, stronger motivation, and higher overall energy levels. These benefits don’t usually show up in studies because only a minority of people experience them, but they’re nonetheless very real and substantial for some practitioners of meditation.
One final benefit of meditation really seems to come out of left field: improved erections. A surprising number of men report improved erectile quality after only a couple weeks of meditation practice. This seems to be more common in young men, and in cases where erectile dysfunction has psychological rather than physical causes.
Indeed, a 1977 study found meditation to be extremely effective at curing ED in young to middle-aged men. Seven out of nine subjects saw a marked improvement in symptoms within two weeks, while the remaining two subjects found meditation too difficult and dropped out of the study.
The bottom line is, meditation has different effects on different people. A minority will find that meditation just doesn’t click with them. Most people will experience reduced anxiety, improved focus, better moods, and improvements in their interpersonal relationships. A lucky few will even experience improved physical health, boosted productivity and raging boners.
How to start meditating
First, let’s cover what you don’t need to do.
You don’t need to sit cross-legged on a wooden bench. In fact, you don’t need to sit in any particular position.
You don’t need to be out in nature- although that might help.
There’s no need to take a class or hire a meditation coach– although that definitely helps.
You don’t need to hum, or repeat a mantra for the whole time you’re meditating.
And you don’t need to meditate for a long time. Most research uses meditation sessions only ten to twenty minutes in length, but you can see results from meditating for as little as two minutes a day.
All you need to do is sit down somewhere quiet, in a comfortable position, close your eyes and relax. Focus on slowing and deepening your breathing, while putting all other thoughts out of your mind. Remember to breathe from the belly- your chest shouldn’t be heaving.
If you feel your mind drifting, and distracting thoughts entering your head, just gently push them away and let your mind empty out again. While you don’t need to think about anything, or verbally intone a mantra, repeating a mantra in your head can be helpful for people who otherwise find it hard to keep out unwanted thoughts. An easy one to start with is the “joy-peace” mantra. As you breathe, silently think the word “joy” as you breathe in, and the word “peace” as you breathe out.
To start with, meditate for just two minutes a day. Your only goal to start with is to make meditation a daily habit; don’t worry about getting anything out of it.
After the first week, you can start to gradually increase the length of your sessions, until you’re meditating for fifteen minutes a day, or even ten minutes twice a day. That’s the duration that’s been associated with substantial improvements in anxiety, pain and mental focus on the research.
Meditation might feel like a chore at first, but it’s so relaxing that before long, you’ll look forward to it every day.