We’re all familiar with the old saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Of course, it has nothing to do with the color of our lawns. Since the beginning of time, we’ve been looking for something better.
It’s human nature to be fascinated by stories like Ponce de León and his search for the Fountain of Youth or an alchemist’s attempt to turn iron into gold. Many years have passed, technology has evolved, and we are enjoying the benefits of human evolution. Yet we’re still looking for that panacea, the magic pill that solves all our problems. In short, we want to look better, feel better, and even be better.
The Ancient Cure to Modern Woes
Long ago, yoga masters learned that meditation, the practice of looking inside ourselves—for the satisfaction of all our hopes, desires and dreams—is the answer. The wisdom of the sages sounds intriguing, but is there any contemporary support for their claims?
Since the early 1970s, meditation has been scrutinized by scientists and psychologists. Research shows that meditation has countless benefits, and anecdotal claims abound where scientists can’t measure.
Let’s take a look at what the scientists, yogis, and other enthusiasts tell us about meditation. Then you can decide whether the investment of your time and attention is worth a few minutes of quietly sitting still each day.
Looking Good: The Physical Benefits of Meditation
Our culture values physical beauty and health. Although genetics plays a big part in our looks, we work hard to improve on nature. That’s why the fitness and cosmetics industries are so robust. However, if we’re plagued with chronic health issues, all the make-up in the world won’t make us look good.
Medical science tells us that chronic stress is one of the biggest detriments to our physical health. Stress is known to cause headaches, high blood pressure, digestive problems, heart disease, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, insomnia, sexual and fertility disfunction, muscle aches, and lack of immune function. Stress makes us look and feel older, and it’s indirectly related to weight control, anxiety, and depression. That’s a long list of ailments—all related to stress!
Meditation has been proven scientifically to affect our response to stress. It helps reduce the effects of normal day-to-day stresses as well as responses to bigger, uncontrollable situations. As individuals, we don’t have much control over things like terrorism, mass shootings, world hunger, or climate change. However, with a regular meditation practice, we can react intelligently and calmly to the things that are outside our control. When we face our problems with courage, our stress is greatly reduced. We then experience a sense of well-being resulting in better overall health.
Feeling Good: The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Meditation
Marcus Aurelius, the philosophical Roman emperor, said, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, it is in your way of thinking.” You might reply, “That seems simple enough, but wait—my mind is a mess! I’m constantly worrying about the future and hashing over the past. I have no control over my thoughts!”
Yes, an uncontrolled mind can be pure hell. Thousands of uninvited thoughts pass through it each day, and they stir up emotions, good or bad, that we must cope with.
Our minds actually become weak and ineffective through excessive activity. Just as your body needs to rest every day to rejuvenate, so does your mind need to rest to work optimally. Meditation is a conscious, wakeful, potent way to give the mind its needed rest.
Meditation calms the constant chatter of the mind. A calm mind becomes strong, and a strong mind can accomplish anything. It can make good decisions and follow up on them. Studies have shown that meditation helps the brain work better, improving both short- and long-term memories. Meditators are more optimistic and have higher levels of concentration and focus. They can easily defend against inner destructive thoughts as well as outside influences.
Being Good: The Social and Spiritual Benefits of Meditation
With our highly developed brains, we have the capacity to become better human beings. No other species can think, “I’d like to be a better person.” As we evolve, we even ask the ultimate questions: “Who am I?” and “What is the purpose of my life?”
Along with the ability to consider such questions is the responsibility to follow through and find the answers. Just as Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” the yogic sages and saints teach that our valuable human lives are wasted unless we work to improve ourselves. Meditation is a fundamental spiritual discipline. It gives us the mental strength and clarity needed to pursue higher ideals.
Experienced meditators know that their practice makes them better and wiser people. They see situations from a broader perspective and understand life’s purpose. They are calm in trying situations, and that calmness helps others. Their compassion for all creatures grows, and they see the value in giving more than receiving.
Meditators experience a sense of happiness that’s not dependent on any object, person, or situation—joy rises spontaneously from within. That joy is easily transmitted to others who feel happier in their presence.
Meditation Is the Panacea
Meditation is almost magical; it has the potential to fulfill all your desires. Scientific evidence has limitations, and testimonials are only hearsay. The real proof is in your own experience.
You might find it difficult to believe that sitting still, seeming to accomplish nothing, can do so much for you. But if even one of the benefits noted above appeals to you, then it’s worth a few minutes a day to discover for yourself.
A meditation practice is like a savings account with high interest; make small, daily deposits, and you’ll be rewarded with compounding benefits. Don’t wait another day to begin—start with this short and simple technique.
Read the next article in this series:
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.