When I arrive, 11 others are already sitting quietly in folding chairs, ready to begin the Buddhist-inspired meditation session.
For the next hour, we all sit, eyes closed, listening to our leader’s suggestions to focus on our breathing and relax, noticing thoughts as they come to mind, but not judging them.
I’m new to this. Although I’ve tried at-home short meditation sessions, I’ve never been able to stick to them, despite my good intentions. And this evening, as much as I try to focus only on my breathing, a zillion thoughts float in and out.
Meditation and Health
This time, I swear, I’m sticking with this meditation thing. My newfound resolve is fueled by an overwhelming amount of research that meditation is really, really good for you. The list of benefits for those 50-plus is getting much too long to ignore.
The benefits are both physical and mental, says Jeffrey Greeson, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at Duke University who researches meditation and practices it. “And of course mental and physical health are intertwined.”
“As people age, even if they age with attitude and great aspirations, the system wears down,” Greeson says. “The body can experience inflammation,” and that’s linked to a host of ills, including heart disease, depression and asthma.
So, following instruction, I try not to judge my thoughts. With effort, I make it through the entire hour without talking – a feat that would have amazed the good sisters at Catholic school, who long ago booted me out of the annual silent retreats pretty much every year for lack of focus.
What Can Meditation Do for You?
Inflammation Meditation can fix your inflammation, it seems. People between the ages of 55 and 85 who participated in an eight-week meditation program had a reduction in inflammation, as measured by their C-reactive protein levels.
Carnegie Mellon University researcher J. David Creswell, Ph.D., who was running the study, taught them mindfulness-based stress reduction. These exercises emphasize being aware and attentive of the present moment – observing but not judging thoughts and gaining insight and awareness from them by detaching.
Insomnia Meditation can also improve insomnia, a bug-a-boo of many older adults. University of Minnesota researchers found that meditation improved sleep just as well as prescription medicines do, reducing the time it took insomniacs to fall asleep by 20 minutes and boosting total sleep time by more than 30 minutes.
Infections Meditation can also reduce the number of respiratory infections in adults 50-plus and ease chronic symptoms such as back and neck pain, other studies suggest.
How to Pick a Style
For those bewildered by the different meditation approaches, Greeson offers a crash course.
- Mindfulness encourages practitioners to ”become aware of what is already there,” observing thoughts but not judging them. Mindful breathing, he says, teaches you to focus on the breath while you notice it, but let go of thoughts and other ”stuff” in an accepting way. If you want to become more tuned in to your mind and body, mindfulness may be a good choice, Greeson says.
- Buddhist style meditation is in the mindfulness camp and has the same benefits.
- Transcendental meditation, or TM, encourages practitioners to transcend their normal state of consciousness, to use a prayer-like mantra to block out distracting thoughts and gain pure awareness or ”transcendental consciousness.” Greeson says, ”Many people are drawn to TM for its elegant simplicity and its effectiveness, in both cultivating mental focus and eliciting a deep relaxation response.” If you want to relax deeply and clear your mind of distractions, TM may be your thing.
Whatever approach you choose, “it’s amazing the insight you can get,” Greeson says. “When we’re meditating, we’re not reacting to all the ‘stuff.’ It’s the non-doing that is the key.”
How to Find Meditation Instruction Off- or Online
Instruction ranges from free to pricey, and online or in person. When you’re looking into a class or course, Greeson suggests asking the leader two questions: “Do you have training in teaching meditation?” And, “Can you tell me about your personal meditation practice?”
- To find a local meditation class or instruction focusing on mindfulness, click here.
- The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research center offers in-person classes; click here.
- Meetup.com lists more than 6,500 meditation groups worldwide; to find one local to you, click here.
- The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research center also offers online classes and also links to free guided meditations you can play or download; click here.
Learn more about TM by clicking here.