Meditation and My #HappyMe Challenge
September is my favorite month. I am admittedly slightly biased because it just so happens to be my birth month, but I’d still probably prefer it even if I wasn’t lucky enough to have the sapphire as my birthstone.
Crisp fall air rolls in. The days are still warm. After summer’s lightness of being and the adventures it brings, September invites you to get grounded and re-center, even as the summer energy lingers. It brings a new season with new beginnings. And of course, crucially, because it brings chai latte and sweater weather.
New months and new seasons are a good time to re-focus on your goals and start new projects. On the first, I was seeing challenges all over Instagram, so I decided to do my own little personal happiness challenge: 4 weeks through the end of the month, starting today, focusing on something in my life that makes me happy.
Happiness Challenge Day 1: Meditation
Why did I start with meditation? Well, partially because I had a cool picture I already wanted to post of me meditating in the Rockies. But in all seriousness, now that I’ve made meditation a daily practice for nearly a year and a half, I have seen how it impacts my wellbeing, and, yes, my happiness. And in a month that reminds me to get grounded, meditation is the best way to do that.
Meditation is an ancient practice, and now is slowly seeping its way into mainstream culture. Why? Because modern science is finally catching up and proving what the yogis and Buddhists have proclaimed for thousands of years: regular practice has a profound positive impact on success and wellbeing.
Top athletes, CEOs, and leaders are taking on this practice and achieving more and achieving better. It boosts clarity, improves productivity, and increases happiness. Happier people are more successful. Win, win.
Not only does it help us calm down and focus and improve our odds of success, but it can help us tap into our innate capacity to heal. So when I first found out something was drastically wrong in my body, I immediately signed up for a meditation boot camp and added it to my self-prescribed healing regimen.
My Meditation Journey: The Beginning
My initial forays into meditation occurred way back in 2009, beginning with my first yoga teacher training – a month long immersion at an ashram in India. The carefree whims of youth lead me there, curious about what this whole yoga thing was really about.
I was traveling to India with no set plan or any pressing reason to return home, and at $650 all in – a fraction of rent alone in New York or Tokyo – I’d be situated for a whole month, have a new, challenging experience, and walk away with a potential new skill and certification. So I figured why not sign up and get a little something out of my travels?
I wasn’t fully prepared for the 4:45am wakeup calls, the early morning meditations complete with chanting, and the silent mealtimes, but over the weeks of intense study and practice, I was definitely beginning to see positive shifts in my physical and mental wellbeing. There did seem to be something to this whole yoga thing after all. But the meditation wasn’t quite sitting well with me. Rather, I couldn’t sit with it.
Meditation: Take 2
Another participant had just done a meditation course in Dharamsala in Northern India – the land of the Dalai Lama. Given my flexibility, she suggested I look into in the ten day Introduction to Buddhism course, which was beautifully situated in the hills bordering Tibet, and also happened to be super cheap.
Ok sure, I thought. Buddhist philosophy intrigued me especially after having lived in Japan for over a year – why not dive in a littler further while I’m already here. And while I’m expanding my mind, see another part of the vast country, where the weather was a welcome break from the sticky monsoon summer. And maybe catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama while I’m at it (sadly, I did not – I found out when I arrived that he was not in town).
And as it turned out, meditation isn’t just one thing – there are many styles, each with their own approach. They all share similar benefits, but one approach might suit one person better than the next. The best meditation is simply the one that you actually do, every day. So I might as well try this one on for size.
So I signed up and I went, stopping in Mumbai, Udaipur, Jaipur, New Delhi to see the Taj Mahal, and Amritsar to see the Golden Temple along the way – win!
When I got to the meditation center in Dharamsala, we immediately had to hand in all of our electronics. I had a hard time giving up my camera, but otherwise I didn’t mind releasing my phone for a few days. But on top of that, we couldn’t speak for the entirety of the program, except for one hour each afternoon to discuss the Dharma lesson of the day.
Being the bookwormy introvert that I am and having done the silent mealtimes at my yoga course, I adapted pretty well to the silence. My roommate on the other hand couldn’t handle it and left on Day 3. Sweet for me, cause I got a private room!
I’d also like to note that the oatmeal they served each morning for breakfast was delicious. During our group debrief on the last day, some of the 45 participants confessed they made it through the ten days just because of the oatmeal. Each day they told themselves: I’ll leave after breakfast tomorrow. Each day, they stayed for one more bowl of oatmeal, until they arrived at day 10. Hey, whatever keeps ya motivated!
After the course ended, I planned to travel down to South India where I’d signed up to volunteer as an English instructor for two months. I kept up the yoga as much as possible, but really didn’t follow through with meditation. After the two months were up, I went to a Zen center in the mountains of Tamil Nadu for a three-day introduction to Zen meditation, a slightly more formal practice than I’d done up north to learn more and get a refresher.
But even after all this intense instruction, the meditation practice did not stick. I stopped in Egypt for a few weeks on my way home, and again kept up the yoga but couldn’t bring myself to sit in silent stillness for even five minutes.
Fast forward to 2016, two more yoga trainings and over six years later, I still had failed to establish a meditation practice of any kind. But with the pain in my chest and scans telling me I had a growth the size of a grapefruit in my chest, my yoga practice was officially on the back burner. Meditation was now in.
After a brief search, Google serendipitously directed me to a deep-dive meditation course beginning that very week in New York City – two hours a day for four days.
This was a new style of meditation for me, marketed as meditation for lazy people: a Vedic, mantra-based meditation where you could sit with your back propped up. Great, because sitting up perfectly straight in a cross-legged position for twenty minutes twice a day was not gonna happen for me. Perfect. Done.
My Meditation Miracle
Ok no, I’ve never had an out-of-body, floating-up-to-space kind of experience, but this course did get me in the practice of meditating for a full twenty minutes, twice a day. That, for me, was a miracle in itself. Given that I received my initial Lymphoma diagnosis on day two of the course, I certainly had the motivation to persist. But the course finally gave me an approach I could actually stick with.
Every morning throughout the course of treatment, I woke up and did my morning meditation. Nearly every afternoon throughout the course of treatment, I took 20 minutes to myself to meditate again. And I honestly did feel an improvement. This form of meditation is meant to rid the body of stress, and my little body was riddled with it.
And it turns out, Meditation Works…
But slowly, surely, I was feeling better and better, closer and closer to my normal self in spite of the crazy chemo drugs being pumped into my system. I wasn’t experiencing side effects aside from some fatigue, but sleeping in the hospital is next to impossible anyway. Eventually, my sleep began to improve. A few weeks after treatment, I took myself off the anti-anxiety medication they’d kept me on to ensure I got at least some sleep.
I began to notice a difference on days I missed my afternoon meditation, and I definitely noticed a difference on days I missed the first. I must confess I’ve fallen off the afternoon wagon as of late, and I notice the difference. My mind is less focused, I’m more fatigued, less productive.
But I have made a point to stick with the morning meditation as much as possible – nearly every day for a nearly year and a half now. And I plan to continue and up my afternoon game.
Benefits of Meditation
This is my happiness project, after all. Meditation boosts the factors that contribute to an overall sense of well-being, like an increased sense of self-awareness and self-acceptance. By practicing non-attachment, non-judgement, and acceptance, you’re detaching from and letting go of the critical, unhelpful thought patterns that can cause us to spiral into unhappiness and separation.
Rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, you stay present in the now and realize how amazing that really is. You accept your circumstances, whatever they may be, and appreciate the gift of each moment.
Studies of the brain on meditation have actually shown that brain signaling increases in the left prefrontal cortex, which manages positive emotions. It decreases in the right, which is responsible for negative emotions. Meditation physically boosts serotonin production, which improves mood and emotional stability. It also boosts optimism. More positive emotions equals a happier mind.
Let’s face it, most of us deal with stress on a regular basis these days. It’s become a part of modern living. Not all stress is bad, but we’re talking chronic stress, which wreaks havoc on our health. Meditation can help us take charge of our bodies, brains, and emotions, thereby enabling us to tap into our natural capacity to manage and reduce the stress response. Talk about self-empowerment. Regardless of which approach you take, meditation reduces stress. And of course, less stress generally means a happier you.
Focus. Perhaps one of the most challenging states to reach these days, with the constant distractions of technology. Meditation can help you shut out distraction and concentrate on the given task. This is partially related to the energy boost meditation provides: more energy means more capacity to focus and get the job done.
This one’s huge. Harvard neuroscientists have actually found that meditation increases the amount of gray matter in the pre-frontal cortex, the brain regions responsible for working memory and executive decision making. Literally, more brain cells. Their research found that 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of brain matter as 25-year-olds.
Meditators also have longer telomeres – regions at the end of chromosomes that protect them from degradation. Length relates to biological aging – longer telomeres correlates to younger biology. Bottom line: meditation protects the brain from aging. While it’s unclear whether this actually translates to a longer life, protecting DNA from degradation clearly boosts physical wellbeing as we age chronologically. I’ll take that.
Literally. Meditation physically ‘boosts’ the brain: the neuroscientists found increases in brain volume in specific regions of meditators’ brains responsible for a wide variety of cognitive tasks, which translates to improved overall cognitive functioning:
- The researchers found the primary difference in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
- They also noted a measurable difference in the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
- Meditators had thickening in the temporo-parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
- Thickening was also measured in the Pons, an area of the brain stem called the which produces a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters.
In addition, they measured a reduction in the amygdala, the brain region that controls the fight or flight part response and which plays an integral role in the experience of anxiety, fear and stress in general. Interestingly, this change in the amygdala was correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
Improved Physical Health.
The relaxation induced by meditation has a positive impact on cardiovascular health: the increase in nitric oxide from the relaxation response causes the blood vessels to open up and blood pressure to drop. It reduces anxiety, insomnia, and tension-related pain, including headaches, ulcers and muscle and joint pain.
Meditation also improves immunity. I used to get a cold every month like clockwork – the kind that had me stuck in bed for a day or two at a time. Then it got to the point that I was constantly feeling under the weather – turned out that was lymphoma taking hold. But, since I started meditating at the start of treatment, I’ve gotten a cold a grand total of once, even with an immune system severely compromised by 600 hours of chemo. That’s gotta count for something.
How to Reap the Benefits of Meditation
So basically, meditation is super awesome for your health and happiness. But how to begin? Well, you don’t necessarily have to meditate for a full 40 minutes every day to see a positive impact. Evidence indicates that meditating even 10 minutes a day can have a significant positive impact.
But sitting for 10 minutes can still be a challenge for a new meditator, so it’s best to experiment with various guided meditations and try out different approaches. Many find it helps to seek out a teacher to help you get started. As my own journey indicates, it can take a little trial and error! But these days, there are many apps like Insight Timer and Headspace and online resources to get you started.
Here’s the course I took that finally got meditation to stick. They offer live courses monthly in NYC, a few annually in LA, and an online program for people who can’t attend in person. I have no affiliation, just happy to share the benefits – get in touch if you want to learn more about the program!