Among the many forms of physical, mental, and spiritual healing to come from eastern and ancient cultures, none is so widespread as meditation.
The earliest records of meditation as a practice come from ancient Hindu self-actualization practices. In the millennia since those mentions, some form of meditation has been practiced in every country and in most every religious tradition.
Meditation is connected with a variety of different end goals. Some forms of meditation focus on mental relief, while some focus on bodily improvement through sustained and concentrated breathing. Some emphasis self-reflection and focus on your place in the world and your relationship with a deity, while others are simply used as modern-day relaxation techniques.
Nevertheless, meditation has long been used for healing, both physical and spiritual. There's even a growing body of evidence to suggest that it has real, tangible benefits. So what might those benefits be?
1. Meditation Reduces Stress
One of the most widely recognized benefits of meditation worldwide is its ability to reduce stress. Stress acts like a multiplier for various pains and anxieties you experience day to day; being exceptionally stress makes everything worse and reduces your ability to cope. This includes both mental and physical issues; stress makes your body less able to respond to injury and sickness. That's why people who are constantly pressured in their daily lives tend to get sick more often.
Meditation has been shown through numerous studies to help reduce stress throughout the body and mind. You can think of it like a pressure release; when you meditate, you relieve the pressure bearing down on you, which makes you more resilient to future stresses.
2. Meditation Improves Sleep
Another huge benefit of meditation is the way it can help you get a better night of sleep. Sleeping through the night – at least eight hours, as science usually recommends – helps your body heal, helps your mind relax, helps you fight off illness, and on and on. The benefits of a good night of sleep are immense.
Meditation helps relax the body, and it helps your mind work through issues and concerns. When you're more relaxed, you're more readily able to fall asleep, and more easily able to sleep deeply. Improving both the quality and duration of your sleep is a huge boost that helps you live a happier and healthier life.
3. Meditation Lowers Blood Pressure
One of the more tangible, physical benefits to meditation is that it can help lower your blood pressure. Stress increases blood pressure, so lowering stress should reduce blood pressure, right?
Studies have found that simple meditation can dramatically increase telomerase gene expression, which is a process whereby the body uses the enzyme telomerase, which contributes to cardiovascular issues.
Now, meditation alone isn't going to replace blood pressure medication in those who have high blood pressure. However, medication coupled with dietary changes, an active lifestyle, and meditation, can help get high blood pressure under control enough to cut off medication in the future.
4. Meditation Helps You Cope
Another thing stress does is makes it harder for you to cope with new sources of stress. That's why stress is so dangerous, and so insidious; it can build upon itself, feeding back into itself until something breaks. The more stressed you are, the more a small additional source of stress can affect you. That's why so many people find themselves irrationally irritated at small sounds, snapping at people for innocuous statements, or having breakdowns over trivial issues.
Meditation helps reduce the stress that's building up without an outlet. The more stress reduction you do, the easier you'll find it to shrug off the small things, while devoting more of your attention and focus to the larger issues in your life. It becomes easier to handle problems when they arise, and let the stress fade away if it comes.
5. Meditation Decreases Anxiety
Anxiety disorders affect large numbers of people around the world. With the constant pressures of our modern society – from poor nutrition to health issues to job stresses and on and on – it's no wonder so many people are anxious about seemingly everything these days.
Meditation is one of the most widely recommended treatments for both acute and chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety is treated in the same way stress is, since high levels of stress are a contributing factor in ongoing anxiety. In some people, it can even be as effective or more effective than medication. Meanwhile, acute anxiety attacks can be fought with meditation, mindfulness, grounding, and focus.
6. Meditation Relieves Pain
Meditation can be used for pain relief, and it has been for thousands of years. Whether it's the acute pain of a surgery or the ongoing pain of a chronic disease, pain can often dominate our thoughts and override other stimulus.
What meditation can do is help you be mindful of your pain. It helps you isolate it and put it in context. This helps with describing pain and with contextualizing it for other treatments, but it also helps for recognizing that pain doesn't always need to be a dominating part of your consciousness. With training, meditation can help you isolate that pain and put it out of your mind.
Meditation isn't likely to cure you of chronic pain, but it can certainly help. There are as many different pain-focused meditation plans as there are practitioners, so try anything you can find to see what works.
7. Meditation Boosts the Immune System
Studies performed within the last decade have indicated that meditation can have a beneficial effect on the immune system as well as other bodily systems. Now, if you've been reading along, you already know how this is going to go, right?
Meditation helps you reduce your stress. Since stress puts, well, stress on your body, your body becomes less able to fight off illness. If you just ran a marathon, you'd have a harder time running another one than someone fresh from home. It's the same sort of thing. Your body has been expending energy coping with stress, and that's energy it doesn't have to fight disease.
8. Meditation Improves Memory
Meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, is currently thought to be a promising way to treat memory issues. We all forget things from time to time, but if you're the type to forget your own name if you don't have a card reminding you – or if you're just getting older – participating in mindfulness meditation can be a good way to improve memory function.
Tests have been performed where participants are shown letters on a screen, and are then asked minutes later to identify if a particular letter had been on the screen. These tests draw a baseline for short-term memory. Participants who use meditation in between tests find that they have better memory responses than those who do not. It's quite a potent technique.
9. Meditation Helps Fight Addiction
Another potential benefit of mindfulness meditation is the ability to fight addiction. For people who are trying to quit smoking, for example, meditation helps contextualize cravings, identify them, and fight them. Some people find it to be incredibly beneficial.
While meditation isn't going to fight every kind of addiction, and it's not going to work for every single person fighting an addiction, it's one tool out of many that you have to help fight your own demons. Whether it's smoking, a harder drug, or just an addiction to processed sugar, meditation can help give you the context and the willpower to fight off cravings.
10. Meditation Fights Dementia
Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease are tough diseases to cope with. The brain deteriorates in a way that robs you of memory, of agency, of recognition, and more. It's difficult to treat because we don't quite know what even causes it in the first place, though some increasing studies are indicating it might have something to do with our gut flora, of all things.
Meditation has been showing some promising results for treating dementia and Alzheimer's in the last few years. It doesn't even take much, just a simple guided meditation session of half an hour a day. That alone is enough to help improve – tangibly improve, on MRIs – brain connections and function. It's incredible!
11. Meditation Boosts Creativity
One of the biggest benefits of meditation is that it allows you to order, organize, and address your thoughts. Instead of thoughts forming half-baked and being discarded, you can focus on entire trains of thought and work through them, which means you can discard thoughts that don't lead anywhere and focus more on those that do.
This boosts creativity in two ways. First, it allows you to take creative ideas and run with them beyond the basic inspiration. Second, it allows you to work through and shelve all of your normal day to day thoughts, leaving more room for creativity and inspiration in your thought patterns. This is carried forward even beyond your meditation sessions, and is a big part of why many entrepreneurs and high-level creative types practice meditation.
12. Meditation Increases Compassion
Another potential benefit of meditation is the ability to increase empathy and compassion in those who practice it. While this might not be an intentional goal – few people think they lack compassion – it's a great benefit in those who recognize it and nurture it.
Cultivating compassion can help you work better with the people around you, as you can better understand the stresses they may be going through and they issues they face. While you're reducing and coping with your own issues, you can also work better to help reduce those issues in others. When you're stressed, you tend to impart stress on others; compassionate meditation allows you to help reduce that impact as well.
13. Meditation Fights Cardiovascular Disease
While we've already mentioned the ability for meditation to reduce blood pressure, it can also help with the effects of full-blown cardiovascular disease. Several studies have, quote, reported "surprising mortality reductions" in CVD. This is just one of many effects reported by this study of studies, so that's a great source to read through for a variety of benefits.
The effects of meditation on cardiovascular disease are, unfortunately, under-studied. Much more research with various experiments and control groups is needed to determine how much meditation can truly change the disease, but the results so far have been very promising.
14. Meditation Manages Grief
The same way that meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, it can help with grief. Working through grief, whether it's the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one, is a crucial part of healing and moving on in life.
Meditation is never going to make grief go away. It's not a "cure" for these kinds of emotions and thoughts. Rather, it's a way to come to terms with the reality of a situation, process feelings you're not sure how you feel about, and otherwise organize yourself. It helps you work through grief and partition it aside, to return to as necessary, but to keep it away from affecting your other aspects of your life.
15. Meditation Increases Happiness
Meditation, overall, simply increases happiness. It does this from both sides; it helps reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and illness, removing the reasons you may be unhappy. At the same time, it increases compassion, mindfulness, and awareness, which help boost your potential happiness. You can use it to help find joy in the little things, and to help minimize the impact those little stresses can have on you. It really can do it all, in a way.
The best part is, meditation is easy. There are hundreds of videos, apps, audio files, CDs, and programs to help you with guided meditation, but you don't even need them if you don't want them. You can start meditation today, and all you need is some time to do it. So why not give it a try?