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The Meditation Cure

Quiet reflection is good for your brain and can lead to better choices

spinner image Man meditating, Meditation benefits mind and body
Meditation may help lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.
Getty Images

I had never given much thought to the thickness of my cerebral cortex or the volume of my brain, nor had I considered how increasing them would help regulate my attention span and emotions.

But this, experts tell us, is what can happen when we meditate regularly. It's the science behind the fad that makes mindfulness — observing and accepting our thoughts as they occur in the present moment without judgment — an antidote to our ADHD way of life. It's why seemingly everyone you meet has tried meditating or plans to.

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I'm one of millions — or, one of "them," as a coworker put it — who meditates daily. Even without a brain scan, I can tell you that since I've begun, my brain is healthier. A recent checkup also indicates that my cholesterol, blood pressure, resting heart rate and a half-dozen other health metrics are at their all-time best. Studies tell me that meditation has something to do with this as well.

But the numerical aspect of my well-being is much less important to me than how I feel, and my life has been undeniably richer. I feel unhurried, sharp, focused, patient and more at ease with others and myself than I can remember. Friends have even commented on my social media postings, asking if my account has been hacked by some Russian gang that posts pictures of dogs, roses, kids and sunsets with nefarious intent. But nope, it's just me.

To be clear, I'm not an ashram-y guy. I don't burn incense, wear hemp or quote the Upanishads. I have not had a blinding moment of enlightenment.

I spent much of my adult life like most everyone, building a career and raising a family. But over time, life gets complicated, and it's easy to get swept up by daily hassles and the tidal wave of hormones — cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine — that make us frantic, reactionary and overly sensitive.

For me, that meant that I became, at times, "that guy." The impatient one in the Starbucks line talking about work on my phone like I was negotiating a NATO treaty; the coach in youth soccer who told a kindly, annoying ref named George to go &%$* himself; the distracted father and husband who monitored his email as if it were the Nikkei.

The things we sacrifice when we react our way through life are significant, and I knew I needed change. In search of clarity, I began to meditate. I started slowly, a few days a week, 10 minutes at a time. Today, a year later, I meditate most days for 20 minutes.

It's not mysterious. I simply sit flat-footed in a straight-backed chair and take five deep breaths — in through the nose, out through the mouth — to get started. I mentally scan my body for tension or discomfort and then continue to breathe steadily through my nose, counting breaths to keep focused on the rise and fall, not on my runaway thoughts.

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When my mind wanders — and it always does — I simply note it and return to my breath. At the end, I give myself permission to think of anything, anything at all, and my mind paradoxically goes blank for 20 or more seconds. Blissfully blank.

Even with a hundred hours of meditation behind me, I continue to marvel at how busy my mind can be, but I am even more amazed that I can climb outside my thoughts — that they don't define me but are rather "like traffic on the road" in front of me, as one guided meditation said. I find that my emotions no longer drag me around like a dog on a leash.

Meditation has worked for me, but on the rare occasions when I talk about it, I find myself focusing on the one result I haven't read or heard much about. Sitting in silence, aware of my thoughts, has lengthened the space of time between a stimulus — a thought provoked by something I see or hear — and my reaction to it.

Until I began my meditation practice, I hadn't realized that this space existed and that what I did with it determined so much in my life. That sliver of time between a comment from a friend or spouse, or getting cut off in traffic, and my reaction to it is where opportunity lies. Through practice, I'm aware that I can choose whether to take a comment personally and react in kind, or take a moment and respond more thoughtfully.

It's not easy. The space between is not filled with silence that lets you think but with a rush of clanging emotions, regrets, longing and fear — learned reactions that often move us to act based on past patterns or simple frustration. When I meditate regularly, I find that in these moments I can let all of this noise simply fall away, like silt to the bottom of a lake. This leaves me with the ability to see each unique situation clearly, to choose my reaction.

Since I've been meditating, I find that I increasingly choose wisely and that life is simpler when I do — and, apparently, healthier.

So don't let what you see and read fool you. Meditation is not one thing to all people. It's not a quick fix or a simple cure for stresses large and small. It's a way to be more aware of the choices we all have each day. What you choose is up to you.

spinner image Headspace App Phone, Meditation Cure
Headspace App via iTunes

Plug In, Chill Out

Like 46 million others, I use a smartphone to improve my health and fitness. Headspace, a top-rated meditation app available on Apple iOS and Android, helps me excavate my inner calm. The first 10 sessions are free; then it costs $12.95 a month. These are four other apps I use to still my mind when:

I've just about had it with ... just about everyone.

When texting motorists or rude baristas suck the life out of me, Breathe2Relax helps me find instant calm. It focuses on diaphragmatic breathing for deeper relaxation in minutes. The app also includes helpful tips on how to breathe correctly.
Free on iOS and Android

Marine Aquarium consists of tropical fish swimming placidly among one another — a good metaphor for perfect family and work life. As the bubbles rise and fade, so does my anxiety.
$1.99 on iOS and Android

I've reread the same sentence in the latest Grisham novel nine times. Focus@Will allows me to choose individualized playlists engineered to add energy and focus to whatever I'm doing. In fact, I'm listening to "Classical" in a "low intensity" setting as I write this. I hope it's working.
$5.99 per month on iOS; $4.99 per month on Android

I'm awake at 1:15 a.m. ... and 2:15....

Soundrown uses natural sounds to block out distractions — both inside and outside my head — so I can relax. I like the crackling "Campfire," but "Coffee Shop," surprisingly, has the right combination of clinking cups and background murmuring to distract me from my nocturnal brooding.
99 cents on iOS; free on Android

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