Why Is Something So Old Suddenly The “New Thing”? Illustrations by Charlotte Shen
For a practice that has been carried out for thousands of years, it may be surprising to some to hear meditation described as a trend. But given the increased interest over the last couple of years, the shoe fits. Google Trends shows “meditation” as a search term or topic, peaking to multiple all-time highs since 2016. A new report based on data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that U.S. adults’ use of meditation in the past 12 months tripled between 2012 and 2017. But why, and why now? Well, the surging status of meditation may be being helped along by a trifecta of cultural forces: Celebrity flag-bearers, media technology and physical science.
The apparent rise in the number of celebrities touting their personal meditation practices is surely at least partly responsible for its lofty status of late. Ask what famously successful people, from music moguls Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to NBA GOAT Michael Jordon and his possible successor Lebron James, to the Queen of Television Oprah Winfrey and the King of Motivation, Tony Robbins and even iconic funny man Jerry Seinfeld all have in common, and one answer emerges. Meditation.
Consider the unprecedented level of access we have to their habits and personal routines via ever multiplying media sources, and the sheer number of followers these celebrities have, and it’s no wonder the hordes are trying to glob onto to whatever makes their heroes tick so successfully.
The “Success Industry” is in Full Bloom
Speaking of success, there is a bona fide cult of success that has flourished over the past several years, largely due to new media and the reach and personalized choice people have – Google, Youtube, Twitter all allow us to search for the kinds of information we want. And what do most of us want to know? How can I be more successful? How can I be healthier? How can I live longer? How can I relieve stress? How can I be more focused and productive?
To each of these queries, we will be bombarded with proposed solutions from a legion of experts and gurus, most of whom will deign to give us the gist before asking us to sign up for their life-changing courses and services.
But ask reputable success gurus like author Tim Ferriss, who has interviewed scores of the most successful and influential people in business, technology and entertainment, what’ s a tool that these people use to answer all of the above questions? He’ll tell you: "Despite the fact that these are people from tennis to surfing to cryptocurrency to fill-in-the-blank, like any field you can possibly imagine — some type of morning mindfulness or meditation practice would span I'd say 90% of the respondents."
New Technology: Apps Bring Mindfullness to Your Fingertips
In addition to new media giving us unprecedented access to information that might lead us to learn about the benefits of meditation, media technology is also facilitating the adoption of meditation and mindfulness practices through the proliferation of mobile apps that can gently take the hand of the uninitiated and walk us through the process in real time. Some of the most acclaimed and popular versions of these are Headspace (I’ve tried it and loved it), Calm, The Mindfulness App and buddhify.
Science is Telling Us the Gurus May Be Right!
We have all in modern times had to learn to be a little less gullible, as we’ve been exposed to wave after wave of “gurus” in every field, telling us how their methods and/or products will improve our lives. Almost inevitably, we are sobered to realize that our participation served only to enrich THEIR lives. That, to a large degree, is capitalism. A refreshing exception it seems, may be that the meditation gurus may have been right all this time! Science, specifically clinical studies, are supporting the potentially significant physical benefits meditation may bring to its practitioners. Take a look at these results from a range of studies cited in an overview by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (I’ve linked the overview above in the opening paragraph):
- In a 2012 study, researchers compared brain images from 50 adults who meditate and 50 adults who don’t meditate. Results suggested that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information.
- A 2013 review of three studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging.
- Results from a 2012 NCCIH-funded study suggest that meditation can affect activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain involved in processing emotions), and that different types of meditation can affect the amygdala differently even when the person is not meditating.
- A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.
How Do I Start?
So the evidence is quite compelling that meditation is more than just some New Age guru marketing nonsense, and has the potential to achieve real impact on our brain (and thus body) health. Given that it’s one of the most simple, basic, non-invasive habits we could cultivate (no memberships, equipment or special training required!), why not give it a shot? But how to get started? My advice is to keep it simple and brief in the beginning so that we are more likely to stick to it. Start by choosing a quiet time, preferably before you start digging into the meat of your daily schedule. Limit yourself to 10 minutes per day, as it’s less intimidating and easier to stick to than multiple longer sessions. I tried meditation about 2-3 years ago for several months. I downloaded the Headspace app, which takes beginners through a series of 10 introductory sessions (last I checked this was free), where the narrator’s soft comforting voice leads you through exactly what you should do, focus on, and expect. I actually listened every day on the subway to work! With my earbuds in, I just sat comfortably upright in my seat, closed my eyes and focused on the voice prompts. The background noise wasn’t distracting, but something to calmly focus on and take note of before returning my attention to my physical body, doing a slow scan from head to toe, feeling my breath come in and go out. Before I knew it, the session was over, and I can truthfully tell you, after a few days of this, I really did feel different after emerging from this mini mind vacation. So why am I talking in the past tense? Why did I stop? Well, remember the talk about ruts in the previous post? I get into them. A lot of them. They are hard to explain. I’ll state again that I’m not here to present myself as a guru, success model or anything similar. I’m just a homebody with a lot of flaws. Difficulty staying the course, maintaining good habits and avoiding bad ones, is one of those flaws. But I’m trying to get better. I want to improve myself and my life. My goal is for each rut to be a little shallower and easier to navigate myself out of. My goal is to work towards achieving higher highs and higher lows, along the way becoming slowly but surely healthier, more productive, happier and wiser. And I invite you other flawed homebodies to come along and try with me!
- Have you Ever Tried Meditation? What Happened?