The Hidden Truth about Mindfulness

I have an opinion that many people don’t agree with.

You might be on the same page. You might not. But you’re definitely going to want to hear me out.

I think that Mindfulness is Bullsh*t. I don’t believe that it does what it promises to do.

But hold on a second. Before any mindfulness junkies reading this article mindfully spit out their coffee and mindfully slam their laptops closed, hear me out.

Let me clarify my opinion; I think modern mindfulness is bullsh*t.

A brief history of mindfulness

If you haven’t heard of mindfulness by now, you’ve probably been living under a rock. But just in case, I’ll introduce a brief definition.

Mindfulness is the state of directing one’s awareness to the feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations that are being experienced in the present moment. This also includes acknowledging and accepting them without judgement. It is commonly used as a therapeutic technique to manage emotions and reduce stress.

Modern mindfulness (which I will now refer to as McMindfulness) has largely taken over from Vipassana, at least to the degree that it is far more well known in the West. Vipassana (aka Insight Meditation) is a serious practice. In fact, beginner vipassana courses are usually 10-day silent retreats. Insight meditation requires intense effort, which is absolutely necessary for real change.

Mindfulness, however, when applied outside of a traditional Buddhist context, is typically taught as a continuous ‘light’ effort. Try to “be mindful” or “be aware” of your daily activities. The instruction that is given is not the same – in either context, practice or outcome – as a punctuated, committed effort, as used in Vipassana.

The word mindfulness comes from sati in Pali. Originally, it was not considered a stand-alone meditation technique; it was an indriya, a faculty or quality you’re supposed to have in vipassana. It loosely translates to remembrance, that is, the remembrance to be fully aware of the contents of experiences.

So how did it become distorted?

MIT professor Jon Kabbat-Zinn brought mindfulness to the West after having studied meditation under serious teachers, including the widely known Thich Nhat Hanh. He went on to establish the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, where he developed the now famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.

Note that it is a ‘mindfulness-based’ program. Zinn’s attempt to remove any Buddhist framework was understandable; he was trying to introduce a novel and somewhat radical approach to Western medicine. At the time however, it was impossible to predict what effect MBSR would have on the culture of meditation.

The problem is not in mindfulness itself; it is in the fact that what we are exposed to in the West varies greatly in degrees of authenticity. What is clear however is that an Insight based practice that has been stripped of all Buddhist framework is inherently flawed.

“Mindfulness has become pernicious, diluted, and distorted by the prevailing narcissism of our time. The problem has somewhat less to do with how it’s practice and more to do with how it’s promoted. People aren’t necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are relying on breathing techniques to deliver magical benefits. And all the while they are tediously, non-judgmentally focused entirely on themselves.” – Thomas Joiner

Another concern is that as mindfulness continues to be misused, it will go through a hype-cycle. First there will be an over-promise, then it will be a fad, later it will be discredited, and finally it will be forgotten. This is a huge pity, because the degree to which a number of styles of meditation could benefit Western culture is still largely untapped, and our fast-paced consumer society is largely at danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.



How to Practice Real Vipassana and not McMindfulness

There are a few things you can do to assess the quality of your mindfulness and make sure that what you practice will make a real difference to your life.

Attend an official retreat. This is the quickest and most effective way to have an authentic experience. Retreats typically run for 3,5,7 or 10 days. If you’d really like to know what meditation is about, attend a 5 day or longer retreat. Though they can be a challenge to novice meditators they have the benefit that the monkey mind tends to go through cycles of overactivity, tiredness, and deep calm – so you truly get to see what meditation is about.

Understand the context. If you have a well-respected meditation teacher in your city or state, then most useful you can do is learn from them directly. However, this isn’t always possible, so the next best thing is to read some books. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh is a good starting point, as is anything by experienced American Buddhists such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Pema Chodron.

Hold yourself accountable. This is the trickiest thing to do for beginner meditators. With that said however it’s the most useful skill to have because it’s something you’re going to use for your entire life. Basically, you need to act as an internal auditor to your own experience with the question “I am truly being mindful right now?” This means, am I really completely engaged in the experience or am I only half-heartedly being aware.

For example, when you initially start with exercise, everything feels like a workout. However, once you’ve gained some experience, you can tell the difference between a real workout and a half-baked effort. Ask yourself what can convince you that you’re really being mindful? What does it feel like from a bodily sensation?

In the pilot episode of the Deconstructing Yourself podcast, long-term Vipassana practitioners Michael Taft and Kenneth Folk dive deep into this process, it’s definitely worth a listen!

Here’s a guided Vipassana meditation by Tara Brach

The key difference between this style of Vipassana and concentration meditation is that in insight meditation, holding awareness of either the bodily sensations or thoughts or awareness of the breath is fine. As long as you are aware of the contents of the experience, and not lost in mind-wandering, you’re following the instructions of the practice. The main focus is that you remain aware of the experience in the moment and don’t get lost.

In concentration meditation, the attention is directed exclusive towards the breathe, and awareness of other feelings or thoughts should be met with a re-directing of the attention back to the breath.

There are dozens of ways you can practice mindfulness. As long as you focus diligently and non-judgmentally on the sensations of an experience, you are engaging in vipassana.

Other examples of Vipassana

Some Insight meditations you may want to experiment with are:

Rising and falling. In this practice, you notice the sensations associated with the rising and falling of the abdomen as you breathe. Simply place your attention on the motion of rising and falling of the breath from the beginning of the inhalation to the end of the exhalation. Don’t judge or describe them, simply feeling the experience from a purely sensory perspective. You may notice that the abdomen stops for a split second at the end of the inhale.

Mental noting. This is the most common technique used in therapeutic contexts and has been proven to be effective for dealing with anxiety. Simply watch closely what feelings, thoughts, and sensations arise, and give them a short name before letting go of them.

Some notes you may want to start with are: hearing, feeling, thinking, seeing, touching. As you gather more experience you might want to use more specific labels such as; fear, anxiety, anger, joy, surprise, heat, cool, hard, soft, smooth, rough, remembering, planning etc.

Walking meditation. If you have any issues with your back or other physical pain, walking meditation is going to be a great ally.

Here’s a basic walking meditation from the Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society.

 

  • Observe the standing posture, noting “standing” for a few moments. This means to focus awareness on the posture of the body as you stand (for a more detailed description of how to observe posture, see Exercise 4). If this is difficult you can choose one point to focus on, such as the soles of your feet, being aware of the feeling of pressure from touching the floor.
  • Before moving, note “intending to walk.” (Don’t skip this step).
  • Slowly lift the right foot and place it down, taking one step. This should be a single fluid motion without breaks. Be aware of the entire arc of movement from beginning to end. As you do so, label the step “placing” (remember to label while the motion is happening, not afterwards). The left foot should not have moved and the left heel should still be on the ground. After placing the right foot down, stop completely for a moment.
  • Slowly take a step with the left foot, noting “placing.” Stop.
  • Continue walking, making sure to stop completely after each step. Only move one foot at a time.
  • When you reach the end of the walking path, place your feet together on the last step, noting “stopping.”
  • Note “standing” for two or three moments.
  • Now you will begin to turn, in four steps. Note “intending to turn.”
  • Lift the toes of your right foot and pivot on the heel, turning to your right. At the same time, say the mental note “turning.” The right heel should stay on the ground. Be sure to keep your head in line with your torso. The left foot should not move. Stop.
  • Lift the left foot and place it down next to the right, while noting “turning”. (The left foot doesn’t pivot, but steps.) You should have moved about ninety degrees. Stop.
  • Pivot on the right heel again, noting “turning.” Stop.
  • Lift the left foot and place it down next to the right, noting “turning.” By now you should be facing in the opposite direction, having turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
  • Repeat steps 1-12 as many times as you wish.

 

Practicing Vipassana Meditation with intention and diligence can lead to real insight, which is why it is such a fundamental part of Buddhist teachings.

If you’ve been struggling to get the hang of mindfulness for a while, it’s likely that it’s because you’ve yet to receive appropriate instruction or context. Try some of the practices I’ve mentioned above, or better yet, find an authorised Vipassana retreat.

What’s your experience with Mindfulness, Vipassana, or other styles of meditation? Let me know in the comments!

4 Fundamental Meditations to Rewire Your Brain and Improve Your Life

Pretty frustrating, isn’t?

You’ve been meditating for a while now, but you’re starting to wonder if it’s all worth it.

You sit down pretty frequently; you attempt these techniques that you’ve come across in books and courses and YouTube videos. But no matter how hard you try, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like it’s working. You’re starting to a little annoyed, and if we’re honest, maybe even a bit impatient.

Who can blame you?

There’s constant talk about meditation having dozens of benefits. From bettering symptoms of depression and anxiety to improving focus, physical performance and immune system functioning, there have been thousands of studies that have explored the benefits of meditation. There’s also a billion-dollar industry that can’t wait to tell you how quickly it can take away your stress (for a small price of course).

Meditation is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And I promise if you stick with it, you’ll see the change that you’re looking for.

Right now, if you’re not seeing any real benefits, it’s because you’re doing one of three things wrong.

    1. You’re not meditating enough. If you’re practicing pretty frequently, really this should mean every single day. And if you do have a daily practice and you’re still not noticing any benefits, you may need to increase the time of your sessions.
    2. You don’t have a strong intention. You can be meditating for hours a day, but if you’re not doing so with diligence and purpose, you’re not going to see the rewards that you want. The cliche quality over quantity is important here.
    3. You’re not doing the right type of meditation.

The last point here is what this article is going to focus on. Not all types of meditation have the same effects. If we don’t clarify this we can start a meditation that we believe is going to do one thing, and does something else.

In the same way that a variety of gym routines will exercise different parts of the body, a variety of meditation routines will strengthen different parts of the brain. It’s also useful to note that exercises will be appropriate depending on where you are in your own journey and that in the long run, we want a balanced strategy that ensures the benefits of all of them.

Here are four types of meditation and exactly how they change your brain and improve your life.

  1. Concentration Meditation

This practice, often referred to as Focused-Attention Meditation (FAM) in the scientific literature, is pretty much exactly what it says. Concentration meditation trains our ability to voluntary direct our attention towards a chosen object.

FAM often serves as a basis for other types of meditation. In some Buddhist schools, this is called Samatha. It varies between traditions (i.e. Sri Lankan vs Tibetan vs Korean vs Japanese) but the underlying principles are typically still the same.

These are:

  • Directing and sustaining attention on a selected object (e.g. breath sensation)
  • Detecting mind wandering and distractors (e.g. thoughts)
  • Disengagement of attention from distractors and shifting of attention back to the selected object
  • Cognitive reappraisal of distractor (e.g. “just a thought”)

Initially, FAM shows activation in areas associated with monitoring (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), engaging attention (visual cortex) and attention orienting (the superior frontal sulcus). However. in long-term practitioners there is less activation in these areas, suggesting that attentional focus becomes less and less taxing on the brain the longer one meditates.

It’s also been reported in advanced meditators that feelings of vitality are improved, and there is a reduced need for sleep. Emotional reactivity is also believed to be decreased.

Best for: training your mind to concentrate to superhuman degrees and preparing yourself for other forms of meditation.

  1. Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is probably the most well-known technique in West. It’s derived from Vipassana (also known as insight meditation) and involves the development of the ability to non-judgmentally observe thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise and pass. The capacity to witness the experience without becoming attached or ‘caught up in it,’ is an essential principle of the practice.

After having been brought to mainstream Western medicine by Jon Kabbat-Zinn in the 70’s and 80’s, mindfulness has accrued a substantial amount of empirical research around it. It is sometimes known as Open Monitoring Meditation (OM) in scientific research and contrasted with FAM. It’s a common intervention to help deal with anxiety spectrum disorders.

Over 20 studies have looked at the neuroscience of mindfulness and found a variety of neural correlates including cortical thickness and grey-matter volume and density. This doesn’t suggest that this technique is the most effective, rather that is has been the most well researched. Improvements in symptoms of depression, stress, anxiety, and general emotional regulation, have been found in a number of mindfulness studies. Importantly, however, there is no solid evidence that it can improve attentional control.

Best for: increasing awareness of the subtleties of your experience such as thoughts, sensations, and tendencies.

  1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Put simply loving-kindness meditation (LKM) sometimes known as Metta in Buddhism, is the practice of cultivating love and compassion by consciously directing positive well-wishes towards another individual or group.

One example from well known American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield asks practitioners to bring to mind someone they care about, someone they feel relatively neutrally towards, and someone they have difficulty with and repeat the phrases:

May you be filled with loving-kindness.

May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you be at ease and happy.

This may seem a little strange for the sceptical and secular practitioner, but it’s an incredibly powerful method.

Studies have found that for LKM practitioners, activity in the left ventral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was increased both during the meditation and at the baseline. This area of the brain is necessary for identifying the emotional value of stimuli and producing a corresponding emotional state. Also, the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), which is important for the regulation of emotional responses, was found to be activated during LKM.

This suggests that LKM can increase our ability to experience the positive emotions of others, while also improving their emotional regulation, therefore decreasing the likelihood that they will become emotionally overwhelmed.

Best for: increasing positive emotions and feelings of connection and well-being. When we see the stereotypically ‘cheerful Buddhist’ they are typically well practiced in these techniques.




  1. Awareness of Awareness (Nondual) Meditation

Non Dual awareness is one of the more advanced meditation stages. Some schools, however, emphasise its importance right from the beginning of practice. Essentially non-dual awareness means not two, or formless. It’s an awareness that can be considered to both precede and transcend any thoughts, sensations or objects. Eventually, you want to be able to sustain the awareness even while been aware of and engaging with the world of form.

There are various ways to enter a non-dual state, for example, meditating on the absolute or on nothingness, the use of koans and riddles, questions and self-inquiry, and focusing on the awareness of awareness.

The last of these is what many teachers start with and has been popularised in the West through the books of Eckhart Tolle.

Non Dual meditative states have been found to be associated with a significant decrease in the Default Model Network (DMN). This network includes a series of centers that work together to create a sense of self in the individual. When the network is overactive or is communicating ineffectively, we often have an imbalance of self-referential processes and experience affective disorders such as depression or anxiety. When it is reduced, feelings of connective and oneness increase.

Best for: cultivating a deep background of peace that lasts in all situations and seeing ‘the ultimate truth’. Very advanced practitioners and ‘enlightened’ beings usually report that they are resting in a state of nondual awareness.

Ensuring real behavioural change with meditation is a matter of finding the right technique and sticking with it. It’s important to stick with a practice for at least a few weeks, preferably more than a month if you want to know that it’s right for you.

What experience have you had with these practices? Let me know in the comments!

 

23 Ramana Maharshi Quotes on Silence, Life, and God

Ramana Maharshi Quotes

What does it really mean to be enlightened?

This is a question that’s been argued over for millennia. Who has experienced a real awakening, and who is simply trying to profit from the seeking of others?

At very best we can come to a consensus on certain figures. One of those beings was the 20th-century sage Ramana Maharshi, who was one of the first gurus to introduce the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta to the West.

Born in 1879 in what is now Tiruchuli, Tamil Nadu in India, Maharshi had a strong death experience at age 16 that sparked in him an awakening that would impact an entire generation. Six weeks after the experience he moved to the holy mountain Arunachala, where he stayed until his death in 1950.

Throughout his life, a community sprouted up around him as he was regarded by many as an enlightened being, and is now generally considered one of the most advanced sages of the last century.

Because of the time in which Ramana Maharshi lived, there is a certain degree of mystery surrounding his life story. A strange man by our cultural standards, he sometimes spent years in complete silence throughout his life, only answering questions by drawing with a stick in the sand. In his early years, he would often meditate for hours through the attacks of ants, mosquitoes, and even scorpions.

As he recalls:

“Days and nights would pass without my being aware of their passing…When anyone thought that I should have food, I would stretch a hand and something would drop into my hand. My hands were not useful for any other purpose. I would eat and rub my head on my head or body and drop again into my continuous mood. This was my condition for some years from the time of my arrival.”

The teachings of Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi mainly advocated the path of jnana yoga, which emphasise a method of self-inquiry. By constantly paying close attention to the feeling of ‘I’ and asking questions around that sensation, particularly ‘Who am I?’ and ‘To whom do these thoughts arise,’ he believed your ego would dissolve and you would become one with the infinite Self.

Maharshis most famous discipline, Papaji, went on to influence the west and become teacher to some well know modern gurus such as Mooji and Gangaji.

Note: In the following quotes, when Maharshi talks of the Self with a capital S, he is referring not to our idea of self, but to the infinite.

On Spiritual Awakening

“Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render the world.”

“Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”

“Realisation is not acquisition or anything new nor is it a new faculty. It is only removal of all camouflage.”

“Aim high, aim at the highest, and all lower aims are thereby achieved. It is looking below on the stormy sea of differences that makes you sink. Look up, beyond these and see the One Glorious Real, and you are saved.”

“Time is only an idea. There is only the reality whatever you think it is, it looks like that. If you call it time, it is time. If you call it existence, it is existence, and so on. After calling it time, you divide it into days and nights, months, years, hours, minute, etc. Time is immaterial for the Path of Knowledge. But some of these rules and discipline are good for beginners.”

“Thoughts come and go. Feelings come and go. Find out what it is that remains.”

Through his teachings, Ramana explained that to realize the truth of existence would be the best way you could give back to the world. Instead of trying to please everyone, he emphasised the importance of dissolving the ego and understanding the nature of Self. This, in turn, would lead you to act as an expression of the infinite, which would be spontaneous, loving, and more fruitful for your community than acting from the perspective of personhood.

On Happiness

“Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.”

“The explorers seek happiness in findings curiosities, discovering new lands and undergoing risks in adventures. They are thrilling. But where is pleasure found? Only within. Pleasure is not to be sought in the external world.”

“If one’s mind has peace, the whole world will appear peaceful.”

“All unhappiness is due to the ego. With it comes all your trouble. If you would deny the ego and scorch it by ignoring it you would be free.”

“Man’s search for happiness is an unconscious search for his true Self. The true Self is imperishable; therefore when a man finds it, he finds a happiness which does not come to an end.”

“Everything in the world was my Guru.”

Happiness, as Maharshi explained it, was something that you essential were, not something that you had to attain. Through diligent self-inquiry, you would strip away the ideas that got in the way of your peaceful nature and contentment would become your permanent state.



On God

“The greatest error of a man is to think that he is weak by nature, evil by nature. Every man is divine and strong in his real nature. What are weak and evil are his habits, his desires and thoughts, but not himself.”

“Have faith in God and in yourself; that will cure all. Hope for the best, expect the best, toil for the best and everything will come right for you in the end.”

“Know that the eradication of the identification with the body is charity, spiritual austerity and ritual sacrifice; it is virtue, divine union and devotion; it is heaven, wealth, peace and truth; it is grace; it is the state of divine silence; it is the deathless death; it is jnana, renunciation, final liberation and bliss.”

Though he wasn’t as big an advocate for Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion to god, as some of his predecessors and disciples, Ramana was still entirely committed to the expression of the infinite he saw in Mount. Arunachala. As he explained when asked “Is it good to love God, is it not? Then why not follow the path of Love?”

“Who said you couldn’t follow it? You can do so. But when you talk of love, there is duality, is there not – the person who loves and the entity called God who is loved? The individual is not seperate from God. Hence love means one has love towards one’s own Self.

On Stillness and Silence

“The method is summed up in the words “Be still’. What does stillness mean? It means destroy yourself. Because any form or shape is the cause for trouble. Give up the notion that ‘I am so and so’. All that is required to realize the Self is to be still. What can be easier than that?”

“If the mind falls asleep, awaken it. Then if it starts wandering, make it quiet. If you reach the state where there is neither sleep nor movement of mind, stay still in that, the natural (real) state.”

“There is neither creation nor destruction, neither destiny not free will, neither path nor achievement. This is the final truth.”

“Silence is truth. Silence is bliss. Silence is peace. And hence Silence is the Self.”

“You can only stop the flow of thoughts by refusing to have any interest in it.”

“Remain still, with the conviction that the Self shines as everything yet nothing, within, without, and everywhere.”

“Become conscious of being conscious. Say or think “I am”, and add nothing to it.” Be aware of the stillness that follows the “I am.” Sense your presence, the naked unveiled, unclothed beingness. It is untouched by young or old, rich or poor, good or bad, or any other attributes.”

“When one remains without thinking one understands another by means of the universal language of silence.”

Stillness was a core motif throughout Ramana’s teachings. He saw the path of inquiry as leading to stillness and the perspective of stillness as leading to truth. The early years at his ashram saw him spending years meditating, often perfectly still in both body and mind.

If you’d like to learn more about this method from modern-day teachers who are better suited to explain in language we may understand, search YouTube for talks by any of the following experts:

  • Mooji
  • Adyashanti
  • Rupert Spira
  • Gary Weber
  • Gangaji

What experience have you had with self-inquiry? Let me know in the comments!

How to Meditate for Concentration

How to Meditate for Concentration

Let me ask you an important question.

Do you ever find yourself getting distracted?

Maybe you’re in a conversation and you can’t help but give in to the urge to check your phone. Or maybe you’ve got an important piece of work to do and every fifteen minutes you’ve somehow managed to take a break to check your Facebook feed.

Whatever it is, you know that you’d enjoy things more, and have a lot more free time, if only you could find it in you to truly concentrate.

In the last decade, we’ve seen a huge cultural trend towards secular (non-religious) meditation in the West. Whilst interest in meditation was typically reserved for spiritual seekers throughout most of the 20th century, it has now penetrated mainstream culture and is being widely used by everyone from Fortune 500 companies to professional athletes in an attempt to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve performance.

When people ask me “can meditation help me concentrate?” the answer is a resounding yes, but I’m often reminded of a quote from Bill Gates:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

Many of us are shocked when we hear of studies that suggest that just 8 weeks of meditation can change the physical structure of our brain. These claims are true, but to see a dramatic increase in your ability to focus, you would have to spend a significantly longer period of time practicing.

With one year of a consistent meditation practice, you will likely see a moderate (but potentially underwhelming) increase in your ability to focus. This isn’t really what people want to hear, and seems to be why the majority of people who practice meditation in some form don’t become long-term practitioners.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should be disheartened. As Bill Gates said, we drastically underestimate what we can achieve in ten years. In fact, the benefits you would see after just three years of consistent meditation can be more dramatic than you could imagine.

Studies of long-term practitioners have found that the benefits of meditation continue to increase over time. And as far as we know, there is no ceiling to this improvement.

For example, long-term meditators with around 5000 hours of experience will see superhuman increases in attention-regulation when compared to non-meditators.

When we look at the brains of expert meditators, those with around 19000 hours of practice, we see that distracting sounds and disruptive thoughts are virtually eliminated when concentrating on an object.

To take this further, those with even more experience (an average of 44000 hours) have less activation in the regions of the brain associated with attention – meaning they were able to concentrate deeply with virtually no effort on behalf of the brain.

It’s not expected that anyone reading this will meditate 44000 hours in their life, as this is equivalent to about 4 hours of practice a day for thirty years. However, a sustained daily practice can still see you reach levels of concentration that you have never before experienced or expected.

What is concentration meditation?

In the long-term, it is likely that any and all types of meditation will improve your concentration when compared to doing nothing, just like any type of exercise in the gym will help you lose weight.

However, as with the gym, there are specific techniques that are going to be much more effective for improving a certain skillset. Finding the right type of meditation for you, and the right technique within that type is the key to you seeing an improvement in your ability to sustain attention.

When meditation is studied, it is usually placed into two categories; focused-attention and open-monitoring.

In open monitoring meditation, the practitioner holds an ongoing, non-judgemental awareness of the contents of their experience. This means that they step back and watch the experience unfold, as opposed to directing their attention towards something. The intention of this practice is to gain an increased awareness of the sensations and thoughts that occur within one’s body and mind.

Studies of some open-monitoring meditations, such as mindfulness, showed that attentional-control (another term for concentration) did not improve in the short term. This means that despite its popularity, mindfulness is probably not actually the most effective meditative technique for a lot of people who want to see change. Though mindfulness is often used as a technique to stop overthinking, it actually doesn’t directly change the degree to which initial thoughts pop up.

In fact, the mindfulness we see in the mainstream now is often a misuse of ancient Buddhist precepts, which saw it as an attitude to hold in conjunction with a variety of other methods, as opposed to a stand-alone technique.

On the other hand, concentration meditation is used to train the mind for sustained attention. During focused attention meditation, the practitioner directs their attention wholeheartedly towards a single object. When the mind wanders away from the chosen object, such as the physical sensations of one’s breath, the meditator directs the attention back to the sensation.

In this practice, the brain is found to produce Gamma and Beta waves. This suggests that there is increased voluntary control of attention and cognitive processes, which you don’t find in open monitoring meditation in which Theta waves are produced.

Concentration meditation has been shown to improve performance on a number of aspects of attention, such as improving the ability to control perceptual rivalry (distracting thoughts). Studies have found it to be far more effective than mindfulness meditation when it comes to training our ability to consciously regulate attention.

Concentration Meditation 101

Find a private and quiet spot

When meditating you want to eliminate as many disturbances as you can. Find a place that you could use to meditate regularly, and preferably where you’ll be by yourself. It’s great if you can turn your phone on aeroplane mode, so you’re not anticipating texts or calls.

It’s important when you practice concentration meditation that you have either as much quiet as possible or a consistency in the nature of the sounds that you hear. If you are not an advanced meditator then traffic, yelling, or other disturbances will constantly take your attention away from the object and it will be hard to gather the momentum needed to cultivate focus.

If you live in a big city and it’s hard to get away from the noise pollution then I recommend you try listening to music or binaural beats. A lot of people find that calm classical music and nature sounds are helpful.

Remember however that your mind is drawn to what it believes to be the most interesting or pressing stimuli in your field of experience. So in some cases, even these sounds can make it tough to focus on your object of meditation.

Another solution that I find effective is to use earplugs, noise cancelling headphones, or listen to white noise. Nature is another great option, as it has a calming effect on the nervous system – as long as you feel safe and comfortable and the weather allows it!

Pick a meditation object

There are effectively an unlimited number of objects you can choose from, all of which will have a slightly different effect on your meditation. The ones I mention below are the most common and are the best place to start for someone new to the practice.

The breath

Focusing on the sensations of the breath is the most common object given to beginner meditators. It’s difficult at first but is a tried and tested technique that’s been used for thousands of years. 

The physical sensations on the nostrils are often recommended as a focus point because if we listen to or visualize the breath it’s easy to start meditating on an idea of it and not the real thing. Some teachers also recommend focusing on the rising and falling sensations of the stomach if the nostrils are too subtle.

A mantra

Mantra meditation can be an incredibly effective way to cultivate focus. The specific mantra that you use to begin with isn’t actually that important, but it can help to choose a Sanskrit mantra such as ‘Om’ as there are fewer mental associations than with English words. Simply say the word as you exhale, or if you’re using a mantra with multiple words, find a rhythm that works with your breath.

Saying the mantra out loud is typically easier for beginners, but as you progress you can try repeating it in your head. If you don’t have a teacher to guide you, for pronunciation simply try to mimic what you can find on YouTube.

To learn more about mantra and chanting I highly recommend Russill Paul’s book The Yoga of Sound.

A sensation of the body

This is another great way to practice concentration meditation, all you need to do here is pick a sensation in the body and focus on it in the same way I explained with the breath meditation.

This can be anything from the feeling of the sun on your face, the feeling of your back against the chair or the feeling of your feet on the floor. If you’re really struggling to stick with just one you can start with two sensations and alternate between them.

Counting

Counting meditation is tough but incredibly effective if you’re meditating at home and are concerned with getting the technique wrong. It’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.

Simply count to ten in your head, and every time you notice a thought come up and interrupt your counting, you start again. Once you can consistently get to ten, you can extend it to twenty, thirty, forty etc. One benefit of this practice is that you can see a tangible improvement in your ability to focus, and this can be very motivating.



A visualization or external object

To meditate on an external object is simple. All you need to do is look directly at it with absolute attention and soft but diligent focus. This traditionally done with something like a candle or an image of the Buddha.

You can also visualize an object, which is good for imagination, but with many beginner practitioners will likely lead to too much mind-wandering.

Set an intention

This is often one of the most forgotten aspects of meditation. People get so caught up with what not to do that they forget to make a clear conscious intention of what they want to do.

As cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Newberg explains in his book How Enlightenment Changes the Brain even just anticipating a peak experience leads to dopamine release, so anticipating a meditation session to go well will facilitate the process. He also suggests that the thoughts and feelings that are sparked from conscious intentionality can have a ripple effect that impacts the entire brain.

In fact, Newberg even believes that the brain states caused by ritual dance and running could lead to enlightenment experiences if there was a strong intention for spiritual change before and during the practice.

In addition to this, John Yates (Culadasa), a Buddhist teacher and neuroscientist, in his book The Mind Illuminated, emphasises the importance of setting and holding a consciousness intention in practice:

“Willpower can’t prevent the mind from forgetting the breath. Nor can you force yourself to become aware that the mind is wandering. Instead, just hold the intention to appreciate the “aha” moment that recognizes mind-wandering, while gently but firmly redirecting attention back to the breath. Then, intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness. In time, the simple actions flowing from these three intentions will become mental habits. Periods of mind-wandering will become shorter, periods of attention to the breath will grow longer, and you’ll have achieved your goal.”

To set an intention, simply state out loud or write down, as clearly as possible, the state of mind you would like to experience during your meditation such as clarity, quiet, peace, focus etc.

Sit in a comfortable, upright position

There are a number of postures you can choose to use for meditation, but again, this is not something you should get hung up on.

Simply sit down comfortably, either with your legs crossed or in a chair with your feet firmly on the floor. The most important aspect of posture is that you keep your spine erect, with your shoulders back and your head pointed forward, directly above your spine.

Your tongue should rest on the top of your mouth, the tip pressing softly against your front two teeth. Your eyes may be open or closed but always relaxed. Having them closed makes it easier to achieve deep meditative states but having them open will help keep you more alert and awake.

It’s up to you how you’d like to place your hands. No complicated mudras are absolutely necessary to start with, but they can help in the later stages of practice. For beginners either rest your palms in your lap, face up, or bring your index fingers to your thumbs in the traditional ‘gian mudra.’

Set a timer

If you don’t set a timer then you’ll often find that your mind starts to wonder how long you’ve been meditating, and how long you have to go. To eliminate this problem, simply set a timer for the length you want to meditate.

Insight timer is my favourite app for this, I use it daily. It allows you to customise the length of your sessions with meditation bells and symbols and can help bring you out of your meditation without shocking you with an alarm.

Focus on your meditation object

As you start your practice, take a couple of deep breaths to calm your mind and center your attention. When you start to relax, point your attention towards the object that you’ve chosen.

When mind-wandering occurs, which it inevitably will, use an anchor to bring yourself back to the focus. This anchor may be a motivational mantra or just a couple of words to remind you to redirect your attention. Some sayings that can be used are “back to the breath,” “focus” “come back.” Experiment with a couple and see what works best for you.

Remember that the attitude that you want to have is one of firmness but not aggression. Be peripherally aware of the intention you set at the start of your meditation and allow it to redirect you back to the object.

If you’ve never meditated before, start with 5-10 minutes of absolute concentration. You can then add 2 minutes every week until you’re able to do 30-minute sessions or longer.

Leave the meditation gently

When you finish meditating sometimes the monkey mind will instinctively want to ramp back up again. You may feel a pull to complete whatever you were doing before the meditation or to start frantically planning what you’re going to do next.

It’s best that you resist this urge, and take a while to bathe in the feeling that you have after the practice. Try and move slowly for a short while and stretch out the feeling of relaxation and calm as long as you can. Over time you’ll see that the longer you do this, the more you’ll be able to take this feeling off the meditation mat and into the real world.

Other useful tips

Don’t flick back and forth between objects. Though it can be tempting when you’re struggling to focus on one object, to concentrate on another, and another, and another, this defeats the point of the practice. The meditation itself is not chiefly concerned with focusing, which your brain is naturally good at, but with redirecting attention once it has wandered, which we aren’t generally very good at.

Don’t aggressively bring your attention back. When you first start concentration meditation it can be frustrating to realise how little control you truly have. This can cause some of us to take an aggressive attitude towards our mind. However, what you’re looking for is a mindstate that is like a calm lake, and this aggression will only create more waves, so to speak. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says that treating the mind as you would a new puppy, gently but firmly ushering it back to the object of focus, is the right attitude to hold.

Journal afterwards. Finishing your meditation by consolidating your insights with a journal is a fast track to improvement. Simply ask yourself “What is the one thing I can take away from this meditation session?” Don’t worry about the individual answers, just write whatever comes to mind and in time you’ll start to see patterns emerge that give you valuable advice for your concentration practice.

Choose the time you are most alert to meditate. This can be tough when you first start to meditate because you naturally get tired and may only have a limited amount of time in the day. However, there are a number of ways you can prevent sleepiness when meditating. Stretch or walk before your session to make sure the blood is flowing, change your diet to something that is light on carbs and high in nutrition, open your eyes during your meditations, or simply meditate when you know you have the most energy.

Conclusion

Concentration meditation is not an easy practice, which is why not very many people stick with it in the long term. But you need to put in the work to get the rewards. And the rewards here are huge for anyone who’s willing to stick to the practice long term.

Once you have a strong foundational practice of concentration meditation, you’ll see exponential growth in all areas of your life as you save energy that would’ve been spent on procrastination and you’re able to do what you want, when you want, pretty much at will.

What experience have you had with concentration meditation? Let me know in the comments!

 

What Happens to Your Brain on Meditation? (Infographic)

 

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How to Concentrate on Studies for Long Hours (Like a Zen Master)

How to Concentrate on Studies for Long Hours

Have you ever wished you could control your mind better?

I’ve definitely felt that way before. Heck, there’s a reason this blog is called Project Monkey Mind.

It’s frustrating, because you know that you really need to concentrate on something, and you’re trying your best, but you just keep on getting distracted.

To be fair, you’re not alone. Focus has become a huge topic in recent years, largely because technology related interruptions have been making it harder for us to sustain concentration for long periods of time.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t see significant improvements to our attentional-control. Our ability to do so is a puzzle. We don’t need to solve all of it at once, we simply need to figure out which pieces will make the difference for us.

One primary issue we have is that we come across advice about concentration, most people fail to take into consideration the scope of factors that impact our ability to focus, instead opting for a one-dimensional approach. Maybe they say it’s your diet, or your willpower, that you need to be more organised with study materials, or that you should “try meditation.”

This is why in this article I’m attempting to cover everything!

To maximise our ability to concentrate on our studies for longer hours, we need to consider how we can:

  • Improve our baseline ability to concentrate
  • Decide on the best time of day for us to study
  • Eat the right foods before studying
  • Create the best environment for us to study in
  • Clear brain fog
  • Approach work with the right mindset
  • Create an effective study plan and set goals
  • Avoid distractions while studying
  • Remember what we study
  • Safely take supplements or nootropics that optimize our brain for study

But first, we need to ask an important question.

What is concentration?

Put simply, concentration is the ability of an individual to direct their attention towards a desired object of focus. In psychological research, this is also referred to as attentional control. The ability to concentrate is an executive function, mediated by the frontal areas of the brain. There are a number of reasons why your attentional control may be limited, many of which we’ll cover here. From a clinical perspective, autism, ADHD and anxiety are some disorders that may limit our attentional control.

It’s often said that modern society has eroded our ability to focus on a single object at a time. This is because of an overwhelming amount of stimulus, typically in the form of marketing, implicitly conditions us to jump from one thing to another. Fortunately, the brain is largely a creature of habit, so by retraining it, we can mitigate some of these maladaptive patterns of attention.

How can I improve my concentration?

Here are a few effective practices for improving your concentration. Remember that your brain is like a muscle, you want to train it, then allow it to rest, and you can see significant gains, but they will generally take persistence and time.

Meditation

The most effective way to improve your concentration is undoubtedly through meditation. However, not all types of meditation will serve this purpose in the same way or to the same degree, you need to make sure you’re doing the correct meditation. When studying meditation, scientists generally place practices under two broad categories. These are open-monitoring and focused-attention, the second of which is most effective at improving your ability to concentrate.

In open-monitoring meditation, the practitioner is instructed to place their attention on the thoughts and feelings that arise, and simply observe them as they pass, without judgement. The most well-known form of this meditation is mindfulness, which has not been shown to directly improve our ability to concentrate.

The second form of meditation, focused-attention, has us direct our awareness toward a single object, be that a sensation, mantra, or the feeling of the breath. While this meditation is incredibly effective, and long-term meditators have been shown to have superhuman levels of focus, it can sometimes take hundreds of hours of sustained practice before you will notice significant changes in yourself.

Further Reading: The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind – B. Alan Wallace

Read out of your comfort zone

There are a huge number of benefits to reading. Not only will it improve your vocabulary and general knowledge, but it can also sharpen your memory, imagination and communication skills. What is most relevant, however, is that reading dense content that you can’t completely comprehend can condition your mind to become used to focusing on study topics.

The longer you are able to read through this content without getting distracted, the easier it is going to be to study for long periods of time. You don’t need to constantly be knee deep in abstract philosophical texts, but if you can spend fifteen minutes every day reading something that you have to pay close attention to, this will be a huge help when it’s time to study for exams.

Work in chunks

Both the body and brain work best when they are required to exert high amounts of energy and then given rest periods to recover. We see this in athletes who train in short bursts with intervals in between. Known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) it helps with mental focus and dopamine production. The same approach can be taken when we are trying to train the mind.

If we follow a regime whereby we give 100% of our concentration for a specific period, with rest intervals in between, we avoid burn out and maximise productivity. One of these methods is called the Pomodoro technique which is 25 minutes of deep work followed by 5 minutes of rest.

Strengthen your willpower

By now you’ve probably heard the cliche, willpower is like a muscle. Well, fortunately, this cliche is actually quite useful. While focused-attention will help you become immersed in the study, it is willpower that will help you to not fall into the temptation of distractions when they inevitably come up.

There are any number of ways willpower can be strengthened, but typically, repetitively engaging in any activity where there is a degree of psychological resistance will do the trick.

Some examples include:

  • Setting your alarm earlier than you want to wake up (when there is no external pressure)
  • Taking a freezing cold shower 5 minutes a day.
  • Pushing your comfort zone with physical exercise
  • Doing things that make you feel socially uncomfortable e.g. public speaking

Further Reading: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy F. Baumeister

Choosing the best time of day to study

This is potentially the most important factor when it comes to concentrating on your studies. We all run on a circadian rhythm, which means that your energy goes through peaks and valleys throughout the day. This will vary person to person. As a general example, while to a certain extent we can change when we get up and go to sleep, the reality is that some of us are wired to be morning people, and others night owls.

What’s important is that we find the most effective time for us to use our mental energy.

Here’s a simple experiment that I have used to increase my work output. Set an alarm on your watch and phone that goes off on the hour every hour that you are studying. When the alarm goes off, note the time and give yourself a score out of ten in terms of how much energy you have and how productive you’ve been.

Do this for two weeks and you will start to see when you peak concentration times are. For me, my energy is highest from 9am to  2pm, however before 10am and after about 12.30pm my productivity is lower. This means that 10am to 12pm is the best time for me to put the most important tasks of the day.

Further Reading: The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy

 

Eating the right food before studying

Food and nutrition is such a fundamental need that when we are too hungry, or our blood sugar is low, it becomes incredibly difficult to focus.

Eating the right foods before you start to study is as important as choosing the right time of day. Make sure that you eat natural foods that aren’t difficult to digest, such as a lot of fat or protein. You also want to avoid anything that spikes your blood sugar, such as gluten, and potentially dairy (even if you don’t have an intolerance).

Snacks are better than large meals, as the latter can take a lot of your body’s energy and leave you sleepy.

Grains, seeds, nuts, and dried fruits are all good snacks to keep you focused while you’ll study.

Another important point is to stay hydrated, so if you have been drinking caffeine, make sure you are drinking more water than you usually would.

Creating the right environment

Having a clear and distraction-free work environment will aid in creating a clear and distraction-free mind.

The human brain is a pattern making machine, so rituals and symbols can be incredibly powerful in guiding us towards specific psychological states. When you have a study environment that is conducive to deep work, it will become easier and easier to concentrate as time goes on, because your mind will start to associate that space with deep focus.

Try and make sure you have a place that is:

  • Well lit, preferably with natural light
  • Has fresh air (you may want to invest in some plants)
  • Has a comfortable chair or standing desk
  • Is free of noise
  • Is clear and clutter-free

Further Reading: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo

Clear brain fog

Brain fog is a state whereby you commonly feel mental confusion, and you rarely feel mental clarity. It is also described as having a cloudy mind, and can occur as a result of overworking, overstimulation, poor diet, and substance abuse such as marijuana or alcohol.

To clear brain fog you should:

  • Get adequate exercise
  • Get adequate and regular sleep
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarettes
  • Go to a sauna
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol intake
  • Stop eating any foods to which you may have allergies
  • Stop consuming processed sugar
  • Take supplements such as a multivitamin

Further Reading: The Brain Fog Fix: Reclaim Your Focus, Memory, and Joy in Just 3 Weeks

Studying with the right mindset

The attitude with which you approach your studies is the next important piece of the concentration puzzle. Many people find it hard to get motivated, and while the other topics I’ve touched on in the post will help you be more able to study for longer periods of time, it is your mindset that will inevitably determine your willingness to do so.

To approach your work with the right mindset, you need to get in touch with why you are doing what you are doing.

Keep a motivation list. It can be effective to use both positive and negative motivation. Write down five good things that you’ll get out of doing this work, and five potential repercussions for not doing the work. Make sure the list is close by so you can glance over it whenever you’re getting distracted. This exercise won’t be effective, however, if the negative motivation makes you too anxious to focus on the tasks at hand.

Surround yourself with the right voices. You’ve probably heard the cliche, surround yourself with the right people. The problem with this is that not everyone has access to a social circle that is hard working, driven, and compassionate. Maybe your fellow students are overly competitive, or you’re completing a distance learning degree. You can counteract this by listening to podcasts and watching youtube videos that are motivating you to do the work.

Celebrate small wins. Being mindful of little victories can help give you the momentum to get through long study sessions. This is another reason setting goals is so effective. We need a reward system, no matter how trivial, in order to keep the dopamine flowing and ensure our engagement in the task at hand.

Take it seriously, but try to see the humour. Humour is very effective when it comes to any difficult activity. This is because it keeps us relaxed, and prevents us from being overwhelmed by worries and anxieties. When we’re studying, our brains get tired, which means two things. Firstly, we can take what we’re doing far too seriously, and secondly, we can make mistakes. So if you make a mistake, try not to get frustrated, take a moment to put things in perspective and see that whatever you’re doing is not the be all end all.

Be as curious as a child. Children approach new stimuli with curiosity and focus because their brains are wired to take in new information. We can see this clearly with movies, while adults will often want to wait months or even years between watching the same film again, children will often be happy to immediately rewatch a movie because they can absorb new details every time. Make sure that you’re focused on what you’re going to enjoy about learning this material, as opposed to thinking about where you’d rather be.

Enjoy some of your failures. Failure doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In fact, although we don’t talk about it, it’s a very natural part of being human. It’s only a problem if you’re coming from a place of hyper-competitiveness whereby anything less than absolute success isn’t good enough. Getting something wrong means that there is an opportunity for learning and growth. This is obviously hard to keep in mind when you’re emotionally invested in something that doesn’t seem to be paying off, but try anyway, and see how the perspective shift improves your ability to study.



Creating a plan and setting goals

When doing any study, it’s vital that you have a clear plan in mind if you want to make the most of your time. Sitting down without goals and objectives is the quickest way to spend your study time distracted and confused.

  1. Figure out what you need to study. This means you are completely sure about all the textbooks you’ll need and that you have everything ready and within reach beforehand. You don’t want to be constantly disrupting your concentration by looking for other study materials or trying to decide one what snack you want.
  2. List topics in order of importance. By creating priorities beforehand, you minimise the likelihood that you’ll get stuck trying to figure out what to focus on. If you’d like you can use a matrix and rank tasks in terms of importance (1-4) and urgency (A-D). This gives you a visual perspective on what needs to be done. This will help you make quick decisions and prevent you from ruminating while you study.
  3. Divide your time effectively. You can divide your time however you’d like, but make sure you’re placing the most important material in the space where you believe you’ll be the most productive. Another strategy to consider is doing what you like least, first. This way you’ve got something to look forward to in the second half of the study session, and you’re not wasting any mental energy thinking about how you’ll soon need to do what you don’t like.
  4. Set micro-goals and rewards. Using carrots and sticks is the most simple way to motivate yourself during long study sessions. Make sure your goals are realistically attainable, which is why the smaller the better. The dopamine hit we get from achieving our aims can keep us alert and positive. Likewise, make sure the reward is conducive to studying, such as a coffee, a walk or a healthy snack. Things such as sugary treats or social media may not be the best way to go.

Further Reading: First Things First – Stephen Covey

Avoiding distractions while studying

When we stop what we’re doing to take a look at Facebook, we never think we’re going to waste time. But we always do. In fact, one study out of the University of California Irvine found that following an interruption at work by an irrelevant topic, it took people an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand.

Now imagine you’re being interrupted just once an hour.

That’s 39% of your time going straight down the drain from a single Facebook check!

Here are four quick ways to avoid distractions while studying.

Keep a distraction journal. This is the most effective technique for someone who is prone to getting a thousand ideas. Keep a blank journal next to you, and when an idea or distracting thought comes up, even if it appears to be somewhat related to the topic at hand, simply write it down and come back to it in your break. Surprisingly, you’ll find that as you revisit this list later in the day, the ideas that seemed to so persistently occupy your mind’s eye when you were trying to study, don’t feel that important anymore.

Turn your electronics on airplane mode. Electronics are by far the biggest distraction when it comes to studying. Though you may need them for research, is best that you organise all that is required beforehand, so you’re not tempted to take a quick Facebook break. The best option is to switch off all wifi access until you’ve finished studying unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Choose the right music. Experiment with different types of study music to see which helps you concentrate the best. Usually, lyrics will be distracting, so anything with white noise or ambient sounds can help you to stay calm and alert.

Study with the right people. Studying with other people can be motivating and drastically improve your focus, however only if they’re the right people. If you’re with someone who gets distracted easily themselves, it’s likely that you too will become distracted.

Remembering what you study

Remembering what you study is obviously a huge part of concentration. It not only has the practical application of allowing you to the most benefit from your study time, but it also gives you the confidence and motivation to know that the hours you’re putting in are worth it.

Generally, improving your memory is a matter of using techniques that complement your learning style, and ensuring your brain is healthy. However, while the way we retain information may be different from person to person – some of us are more hands-on, while others visual or auditory – at the end of the day everyone can benefit from an approach that uses more of their senses.

Memory Palaces

Memory Palaces, also known as the Method of loci, are a way by which we store information using visualization and our spatial memory. This technique is relatively easy to learn, though it takes diligence, and it is how some people are able to store seemingly superhuman amounts of information. My buddy Anthony Metiever teaches memory palaces and has found that these techniques can take you as far as remembering a whole textbook.

Mind Maps

Mind Mapping is a technique whereby you use colours and shapes to create a visual representation of the connection between complex themes. Again, this is a way by which you can condense information and cross-train your mind with visual (colour, shapes) and auditory (words) prompts, in order to better remember what you’re studying. Tony Buzan is one of the more well-known mind map teachers, check out this video to see you how you can use them for yourself.

Teach what you’ve learned

This allows you to embody the content, using language and physical gestures to encode it in your long-term memory. If you can find a study partner and practice teaching each other different concepts, this will be beneficial for the memory recall of both of you.

Walk before you study

Doing light exercise before you engage in mental activity is a prime way to warm up the brain. In fact, one study found that students who spent 20 minutes walking on a treadmill at 60% of maximum heart rate, showed a marked improvement on response accuracy and better performance on an academic achievement test.  

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Speak out loud

You can do this by teaching others, or simply by talking out loud to yourself. Take this a step further by recording what you say and listening back to it again, or trying to explain what you’ve said using different words.

Should I use nootropics and supplements for concentration?

It’s fair to say that many of us are attracted to the idea of being able to concentrate like Bradley Cooper in the movie limitless. Unfortunately in the real world there are always trade-offs for taking these kinds of drugs. There are however a number of supplements and nootropics that can boost our concentration, and if we do research and experiment safely, we can see some great benefits from their use.

Multivitamins

A balanced diet will ensure that we stay mentally sharp and are able to concentrate for long periods of time. However, with busy lives and high organic food prices, it can be difficult for most of us to find that equilibrium. If you have the luxury of doing blood tests to see which supplements you may see the most benefit from, which is great. However, for most of us, a multivitamin is the most straightforward way to cover all ground.

Omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for mental function, particularly if you’re not getting it in your diet through foods such as salmon, avocados and olive oil. Taking a daily supplement, such as fish oil, promotes mental clarity and focus, and may be able to prevent the onset of age-related neurological disorders.

Caffeine

Most people take caffeine to study, many do so daily. Simply be aware that the effectiveness of caffeine works on a bell curve, so in this case, you can have too much of it and it can impede your ability to concentrate.

L-Theanine

L-theanine (found in green tea) has been shown to counteract the jitters that you can sometimes get from too much caffeine. In doing so it can improve cognitive performance, so it’s recommended that you take both together. It’s recommended that you take it at a ratio of 2:1, so 80 milligrams of caffeine should be combined with 160 milligrams of L-theanine.

Smart Drugs
These are cognitive enhancers also know as smart drugs that vary in legality, price, and side-effects. Below I listed some of the most commonly used cognitive enhancers. Make sure you do your research and consult a doctor before deciding to use any of these.

Conclusion

And there you have it, that’s how to concentrate on your studies like a Zen master!

As you can see there are a huge number of things that go into your attentional control.

Challenges are going to arise depending on your baseline motivation, focus ability, organization skills, mental clarity and physical health. If you take a holistic approach, you’ll see a much more drastic improvement than if you simply attack one area.

If you liked this post, share it with your friends and anyone else you feel may need it!

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What is Ego Death? (and How Can I Achieve it)

What is Ego Death?

There are many reasons people start a spiritual practice.

We may begin meditation, prayer or worship because of cultural obligations and family traditions, or traumatic life events that drive us to seek refuge from suffering. Some of us simply want more meaning in our lives, and others may even be looking for a subtle way to improve our financial, social standing or sense of self-worth.

But regardless of the motives, the end game for all authentic spiritual paths, whether we’re talking Buddhism or Christianity, Sufism or Kabbalistic, Occultist or Shamanic, is the same. It’s the death of the ego for a cause or spirit greater than one’s self.

This experience is known as Ego Death.

But to truly understand just exactly what Ego Death is, we first have to ask the question;

What is the Ego?

Understanding the ego can often be a difficult task, partly because there are a number of definitions for ego, as well as contexts within which each is used. While it’s not necessary to go into detail for each of these, I’ll briefly cover some of the main applications for the term.

In the West, there are typically three ways in which the term ego is used.

Ego in the Freudian sense is one of the three constructs of Sigmund Freud’s model of the psyche. Here, the Ego is the part of the psyche which is organized, and which mediates the (often conflicting) drives of the id and super-ego.

In the colloquial sense in the west, ego is used to denote egotism, an inflated self-concept, which is often considered unhealthy or unsociable. For example, you may have heard someone say: “I don’t like to work with him, he has a big ego.”

In the modern psychological sense, the term ego is sometimes used to denote a more broad view of self-concept. This may include personal achievements, personal narrative, and any identification with gender, race, or sexual identity.

In the East, the term is used more cohesively, though there are occasionally subtle differences between Eastern Spiritual views of the ego. It can broadly be defined as ‘the self’, or more specifically, the conditioned habits of an inherited body-mind. This may include the self-concept as described above, which is principally made up of all conscious or unconscious attachments or aversions.

When translated for a Western audience, this is commonly referred to as this “the feeling of I.” The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, for example, translates the word ego from ahamkara in Sanskrit, which can, in English, be slightly more accurately described as “the maker of the I.”

Because the Eastern view is a lot more all encompassing, some confusions may come into play when Westerners believe they have experienced an ego death during the temporary dropping of certain aspects of their self-concept.

To give an example, imagine John takes psychedelics with some friends. He has the feeling that the name John, and a lot of the memories he has of ‘John’ are not really his. However, during the experience, one of John’s friends says something that gets under his skin. “He always does this” John thinks, a little annoyed.

In this instance, while John has temporary loosened his grip on his identity, his emotions and behaviour are still largely being dictated by what we may consider ‘psychological karma’ or past imprints. Because the attachment to these ideas and this conditioning (i.e. ego), it’s not true to say that John was experiencing ego death.

For the sake of simplicity, for the rest of this article I’ll stick to the definition of ego as “the feeling of I.

 

What is Ego Death?

The concept of Ego Death emerged as a result of a number of schools of thought in the West, many of which had eastern influences.

In Western mysticism, the idea is seen as the point at which the soul dies and merges with God’s consciousness.

In many teachings, particularly those of Eastern Religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, permanent ego death is equated with enlightenment.

An important distinction should be made, however, as the idea of ego death as developed by Timothy Leary was influenced by LSD-induced mystical experiences. These experiences, while in some ways neurologically similar to those of long term meditators, are considered by many as fundamentally different, because of their impermanence.

To this end, we should recognise that the term ego-death may only be a momentary experience, though the ultimate goal of many traditions is a permanent experience.



Ego Death and the Default Mode Network

Science has been unable to pin down why or how we have a sense of self in the brain. It doesn’t appear to be located in any particular area.

Robin Carhart-Harris, a researcher with Imperial College’s Center for Neuropsychopharmacology, explains that the default mode network (DMN) “seems to be the best candidate that we have for the biological underpinnings of the sense of self.” As far as we can tell, the DMN is key for self-referential processing, which also explains why an over active DMN has been found to be correlated with depression and anxiety.

However, if and when different areas of this network are working together to create the illusion of self, it means that the reduction of activity in the DMN would result in the loss of the sense of self, or ‘ego death’ and as a result unhealthy anxiety or rumination.

This appears to have been confirmed by a study that Carhart-Harris and colleagues published in 2012, which found that taking intravenous doses of psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms, reduced activity in the DMN.

American meditation teacher Gary Weber explains this in more depth in the following video with reference to his own personal story of more than 10,000 hours of meditation.

How to Experience Ego Death

Psychedelics

As I’ve touched on, psychedelics, despite their criticism, are the fastest and most consistent way to have an ego-death experience.

Notably, spiritual teacher and former Harvard professor Ram Dass, who wrote The Psychedelic Experience with Timothy Leary, changed his views towards psychedelic use on the path towards Enlightenment as he deepened his practice.

In a lecture in 1976, Ram Dass said that “psychedelic chemicals have a capacity to cut through places where you are attached and clinging, to set them aside and show you a possibility. The problem is that they don’t allow you to become the possibility, they only show you the possibility.”

Popular psychedelics that have been purported to cause ego death experiences include psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and Ayahuasca.

Spiritual Practices: The Four Yogas

There are a number of spiritual practices that claim to ultimately result in ego death. For clarity, I’ll characterize them under the three Yogas mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and the fourth as included in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Obviously keep in mind that while emphasis on each of these paths will vary depending on the individual and traditional, they are not mutually exclusive, and there is a degree of overlap.

 

  • Karma Yoga (The Path of Action)

 

Karma Yoga believes that right action, doing the morally right thing, is a form of prayer or spiritual practice and can result in the dissolution of the ego. This practice is all about making your daily actions aligned with your spiritual philosophy. This may be living a life of service or selflessness, such as providing for others.

 

  • Bhakti Yoga (The Path of Loving Devotion)

 

Because we come from an individualist culture, Bhakti Yoga, which is focused on worship, is often the most difficult path for Westerners to grasp. It can however, be the one that leads to the most fundamental change with regard to sense of self. In this path, practitioners are committed to cultivating the highest love for god in any form that may be culturally appropriate. Another way to consider this is the act of seeing the divine in everything around them.

In Hindu culture, any deity is a manifestation of Brahman (the Absolute), which is why they are generally more tolerant to the worship of many gods. Bhakti Yoga is commonly done through prayer, meditation, chanting, and surrender.

 

  • Jnana Yoga (The Path of Knowledge)

 

The path of knowledge, Jnana Yoga, is focused on pursuing the ego with self-inquiry questions such as “Who am I” and “To whom do these thoughts arise?”

This yoga was introduced to the West by the Indian sage Ramana Maharashi in the 20th century and is heavily geared towards meditation and contemplation. Different forms of Jnana Yoga have been further popularised by non-dual teachers such as Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, Mooji and Rupert Spira.

 

  • Raja Yoga (The Path of Meditation)

 

The use of the Raja Yoga can sometimes be confusing as in some contexts it is used to refer to the goal of yoga, as opposed to a path of yoga. I’ll include it here as Raja Yoga is explicitly focused on the control over mind and emotions, and can therefore to some degree be considered a prerequisite to the other three paths of yoga.

This is because concentration is required for deep practice of either action, devotion or knowledge. Most schools of thought will emphasise the necessity for concentration practice as the foundation of any spiritual path.

To practice Raja Yoga, any form of single-point focused meditation, whether on a physical object such as a sight or sound or an abstract object such as the idea of god, is required.

Ego Death Symptomns

  • Feeling of unity or connectedness with everything
  • Sense of self drops away
  • Intense experience of joy
  • Deep feeling of stillness
  • Deep feeling of love
  • Mystical experience of reality

Ego Death Warnings

There are some strong overlaps between Ego Death and the Western idea of Depersonalization, though the difference appears to be a matter of identity, ability to function, and self-reported measures of meaning and wellbeing.

For this reason it’s important to consider what Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young, who has worked with the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says about depersonalization. Young calls depersonalization “Enlightenments evil twin” and states that the difference between the two is determined by feelings of connection to the universe and the richness of experience.

When people are experiencing depersonalization, their world is typically dull and they feel incredibly disconnected, and even lonely. When someone is undergoing an enlightenment experience, the opposite is true – they feel more connected, more alive, and subtle experiences are much richer and fuller than they previous where.

To see more about what Shinzen Young says about distinguishing between the two experiences, and how to mindfully ensure that an intense practice doesn’t begin to learn toward depersonalization, check out this video.

If you feel like you are undergoing either Ego Death or Depersonalisation, it’s highly recommended that you get in touch with either a psychiatrist or a well-respected meditation teacher, preferably both!

What are your experiences with Ego Death? Let me know in the comments!

What is Spiritual Meditation?

I bet you’ve heard it somewhere.

Maybe you’ve even said it before.

The dismissive tone that comes straight from the inner skeptic.

“Isn’t meditation just, you know, a bunch of ‘woo woo’.”

Anyone who has meditated consistently for longer periods of time knows how silly the statement is. But we get it. Meditation is tough. And simply trusting the practice of meditation, let alone getting started, can be difficult for anyone, particularly if you’re scientifically minded.

With a culture that commercialises anything exotic, and one in which there is a strong rift in the public dialogue between science and religion, taking the side of meditation can seem a little, well, irrational.

But that begs a couple of important questions.

Do we need to be spiritual or religious to meditate? Can we be both scientifically minded and spiritual? What is spiritual meditation?

To some of us they may seem a little redundant; isn’t meditation an inherently spiritual exercise?

Is meditation a spiritual practice?

The word meditation, at least in English, is derived from the Latin verb meditari, which roughly means to think, contemplate, or ponder.

However, in spiritual circles, it has been translated from the word dhyāna in Buddhism and Hinduism. In this setting, the root of the word was a little more complex. It is more akin to a sustained focused attention on a chosen object.

More broadly in a modern context, it refers to a number of practices that are designed to achieve any number of aims. This may include relaxation, improving focus, developing love, building internal energy, and character building.

To this end, the answer to the question ‘what is meditation’, is almost as broad as the number of reasons one may choose to meditate.

So while the roots of meditation are clearly for spiritual development, this doesn’t make the act of meditating an exclusively spiritual practice.

Western meditators often equate the spiritual aspects of meditation, such as devotion, to religious fanaticism. While it’s fair to say that in some cases there is a correlation, this doesn’t mean that engaging in worship based practice is a surefire cause for destructive fanatic behaviour.

As Swami Vivekananda describes in his book on Bhakti (devotional) Yoga:

“The one great advantage of Bhakti is that it is the easiest and the most natural way to reach the great divine end in view; its great disadvantage is that in its lower form its oftentimes degenerates into hideous fanaticism. The fanatical crew in Hinduism, or Mohammedanism, or Christianity, have always been almost exclusively recruited from these worshippers on the lower planes of Bhakti…..All the weak and undeveloped minds in every religion or country have only one way of loving their own ideal, i.e. by hating every other ideal.”

When are we doing ‘spiritual meditation?’

The term spiritual meditation is actually not often used, but we’ll use it here for simplicities sake.

With regards to the large number of practices that meditation encompasses, we could separate them into secular, i.e. those without any religious context, and spiritual, those with a religious or spiritual context.

Spiritual meditation is anything where the context of practice is based on spirit i.e. non-material objects or abstractions.

Secular meditation is anything where beliefs about non-material realities (i.e. god, qi, prana etc.) are not involved in the practice.

Examples of spiritual meditation

Examples of secular meditation

Note: It’s also important to say that you can still engage in spiritual meditation, such as meditating on the idea of god, without necessarily accepting the scientific validity of the reality of god.


 



What are the benefits of spiritual meditation?

There are a number of benefits to a spiritually focused meditation practice.

Firstly, the spiritual aspect of meditation, particularly with regards to areas like devotion, are key to opening up your mind to new possibilities. We could say that psychological development as a result of meditation is a combination of both structural changes in the brain and the introduction of new experiences to the mind. 

While the changes that happen within the brain will generally come with practice, the new perceptions as experienced in the mind are largely dependent on the psychology of the individual. For example, they may be mediated through attitudes such as openness to new experiences and surrender to the infinite.

This is why the spiritual aspect of meditation is so important. It is necessary, maybe even vital, to unlock the true potential of meditation for the individual.

While secular meditations may be very effective, certain spiritual precepts have to be accepted on some level for the individual to transcend their monkey mind in any long-term sustainable way. This is why devotion, surrender, and humility have played such an important part in spiritual traditions over the years – they have a significant pragmatic benefit from the perspective of the seeker.

For the average skeptic or scientific thinker, who is unable to engage in spiritual meditation, there are a lot of benefits that are being left out.

If you’d like a more in depth look at a secular approach to meditation, I highly recommend you check out the following books:

Happiness Beyond Thought: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Gary Weber

Waking Up: Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

 

What’s your experience with different types of meditation? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

21 Benefits of Deep Breathing (Based on Groundbreaking Research!)

“Just take a deep breath.”

We all know the mantra. It’s been adopted by everyone from parents to friends to high school sports coaches, all the way to medical doctors and new age gurus. And for good reason, the health benefits of deep breathing are overwhelming, and science has proven it.

In the 1970’s, Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute considered the impact of relaxation techniques, particularly breathing techniques, on the natural release of neurochemicals for physiological health.

He coined the term the “Relaxation Response,” to describe his findings, which echoed the wisdom of thousands of years of meditative practices.

Deep breathing and the training of the Relaxation Response, is now used to treat a number of stress-related disorders.

So without further ado here are:

21 Benefits of Deep Breathing 

Well here I’ve composed 21 benefits, all backed by Scientific Studies. I hope I can convince you to incorporate some form of deep breathing practices into your own life!

  1. Relieves Emotional Stress and Anxiety

There are dozens of studies that support the use of deep breathing for stress and anxiety management. One notable piece of research in particular took 60 pregnant women in preterm labour and taught them a modified abdominal breathing technique. This was practiced 3 times a day for 3 days in order to reduce stress and state anxiety. The research found that those in the experimental group had significantly lower emotional stress and anxiety, indicating that deep breathing could be an effective nursing intervention for pregnant women in preterm labour. The study also found that the doses of labour represent drugs, ritodrine and atosiban, were also reduced as a result.

Source:

Effects of abdominal breathing on state anxiety, stress, and tocolytic dosage for pregnant women in preterm labor.

  1. Relieves Pain

One study found that implementing deep breathing exercises as a relaxation technique was effective in managing pain for patients who had recently undergone coronary artery bypass graft surgery. 73.3% of the subjects found that deep-breathing was helpful in their pain management.

Another study found that deep and slow breathing (DSB) techniques were effective in managing chronic pain, as measured by pain thresholds for hot and cold stimuli and their impact on mood states.

Sources:

Relaxation technique and postoperative pain in patients undergoing cardiac surgery.

The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing—an experimental study.

  1. Improves mood

A deep breathing technique was taught to students between the ages of 18 and 28 years in an attempt to improve mood and reduce stress. The study used both subjective (self-reported) and objective parameters such as heart rate and salivary cortisol levels, and found that deep breathing was an effective way to improve mood.

Source:

The role of deep breathing on stress

  1. Improves symptoms of depression

Those who have suffered from depression know that sleep quality can often be significantly reduced as a side effect. A study which looked at the impact of deep breathing relaxation exercises, when combined with cognitive breathing therapy, over a four-week period, found that the quality of sleep in depressives significantly improved. Heart rate variability, another biomarker often correlated with depression and anxiety, also saw positive changes.

Source:

Breathing exercise combined with cognitive behavioural intervention improves sleep quality and heart rate variability in major depression.

  1. Improves focus, attention and general psychomotor function

The Purdue pegboard task is used as an indicator of fine motor speed and focused attention because it requires a degree of visuo-motor co-ordination. In one study the task was given after 10 minutes of nostril yoga breathing, a deep breathing technique, and there was an immediate improvement in task scores. This was also accompanied by a decrease in blood pressure.

Another study found that ten minutes of deep breathing techniques, six days a week for six weeks, resulted in an improvement in scores on a rapid fire arithmetic deviation test and a playing card test.

Sources:

Blood pressure and purdue pegboard scores in individuals with hypertension after alternate nostril breathing, breath awareness, and no intervention.

Effect of controlled deep breathing on psychomotor and higher mental functions in moral individuals.

  1. Improves symptoms of Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

As OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder, it may not come as that much of a surprise that deep breathing can be of benefit. A yogic deep breathing technique was taught to a group of adults with OCD, followed by a one year course of therapy. Assessments of the group at three, six, nine, and 12 month periods found that means of OCD and stress were both significantly reduced. There was also a significant reduction of OCD medication use, following the treatment.

Source:

Efficacy of yogic techniques in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorders.

  1. Improves symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS effects millions of people worldwide, and there are a number of believed causes. It’s significantly correlated with stress related illnesses, but can often occur as a standalone issue. In one study, a deep breathing technique, as well as a set of 12 asanas (yoga poses) was taught to a group who had diarrhea predominant IBS. The control group were not taught the yoga techniques and were instead given loperamide, a standard IBS drug. Results found the yogic group to have both less IBS symptoms and less anxiety than the control group.

Source:

Yogic versus conventional treatment in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized control study.

  1. Increases energy

There are a few of reasons that deep breathing can increase vitality. One is because it relieves stress, which obviously frees up a lot of energy that otherwise would have been lost in that way. Another is because it has been shown to produce increases in Growth Hormone (GH) and Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) two key hormones that are important for the body and associated with aging. Research found that 12 weeks of daily yogic training practices successfully increased GH and DHEAS in both males and females.

Source:

Effect of Regular Yogic Training on Growth Hormone and Dehydroepiandrostereone Suflate as an Endocrine Marker of Aging.




  1. Can help curb hung pangs from fasting and low-caloric diets

Obesity is a significantly problem worldwide, so many people turn to diets for weight loss. However, an issue that is often difficult to overcome is that of hunger pangs, whereby contractions occur in the stomach. Typically, these happen 12-24 hours after the last meal, which is tricky for those who are fasting or undergoing low-caloric diets which they need to stick to rigorously. A recent study found that when given a deep breathing exercise, participants were able to significantly reduce, or even suppress the feelings of hunger on an empty stomach.

Source:

Modified Qigong Breathing Exercise for Reducing the Sense of Hunger on an Empty Stomach.

  1. Reduces physiological tension

It is known that deep breathing relaxes the mind, but there have been little studies into the physiological effects of deep breaths. A 2016 study found that deep breathing techniques were effective at relieving both psychological and physiological tension in anxiety sensitive individuals.

Source:

A sigh of relief or a sigh to relieve: The psychological and physiological relief effect of deep breaths.

  1. Improves heart function

It has long since been known that deep breathing exercises can be used to influence respiratory rate in healthy individuals. What we haven’t known is to what extent this can improve heart rate variability and other biomarkers of heart function. A study of 36 participants found that one month of deep breathing caused positive changes in heart rate variability, an indicator of cardiac autonomic control.

Source:

Influence of deep breathing exercise on spontaneous respiratory rate and heart rate variability.

  1. Improves Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can be incredibly damaging to the lives of those who are unfortunate enough to be effected by it. Deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, were all found to be effective in alleviating associated symptoms such as sleep disturbance, irritability, anger, sleep disturbance and problems with focus.

Source:

Relaxation Techniques for Trauma.

  1. Can benefit diabetics

Since 1980 the global prevalence of diabetes has risen from 4.7% to 8.5% (2014), and it continues to do so. Therapeutic intervention can be complicated and may require a number of treatments. Fortunately, a 2012 study looked at the impact of diaphragmatic breathing as a complimentary care method and found some positive results. It was shown that these breathing techniques were effective in reducing the oxidative stress in diabetics, and the anthropometry and glycemic parameters in type 2 diabetes.

Source:

Diaphragmatic breathing exercise as a therapy.

  1. Can assist in prevention and treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

There are a number of causes of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). One of these is when the surrounding structures around the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) such as the diaphragmatic muscle, become incompetent. One study found that a 4-week breathing training program significantly improved quality of life measures in GERD sufferers and decreased their usage of proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), the drugs used to reduce gastric acid production.

Source:

Positive effect of abdominal breathing exercise on gastroesophageal reflux disease.

  1. Improves resilience and recovery in athletes following exercise

Deep breathing and meditation is known to correlate with lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of melatonin. For this reason, it’s interesting to consider to what degree these types of techniques can influence oxidative stress, particularly in athletes who require adequate relaxation for recovery. A 2011 study found that one hour of diaphragmatic breathing in a quiet, relaxing place, was successful in improving antioxidant defence following exhaustive exercise. It was also directly correlated with a decrease in cortisol and an increase in melatonin. This study may suggest that these types of breathing exercises can protect athletes against the long-term adverse effects of exercise-related stress.

Source:

Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress.

  1. Improves quality of life in cancer patients

Cancer treatment can have a number of long-term negative effects on the quality of life for those who are in the middle of treatment. A six-week intervention with elderly patients undergoing either breast or prostate cancer treatment, found that deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and guided imagery, significantly improved the quality of life of the sufferers.

Source:

Effectives of progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery and deep diaphragmatic breathing on quality of life in elderly with breast or prostate cancer.

  1. Can help manage addictions

Deep breathing exercises have also been proposed as a low-cost method for managing cravings. A study that looked into using yogic breathing exercises as a way to assist smokers in abstaining from cigarettes found that the techniques could successfully help curb cravings. The participants were either shown a video of breathing exercises or instructed to do so for 10 minutes. Both groups had notably reduced cravings.

Source:

The acute effects of yogic breathing exercises on craving and withdrawal symptoms in abstaining smokers.

  1. Controls glycemic response

Glycemic response is incredibly important in the management of weight and energy. Modern diets often have excessive sugar content and this can be very damaging to our health. One particular study looked at the impact of deep breathing exercises on glycemic response and found that there was a positive change, which suggests that breathing could play a role in weight management.

Source:

Relaxation breathing improves human glycemic response.

 

  1. Improves memory

Memory is typically a very useful gauge of overall brain health. A 2016 study, in which participants were taught deep, alternate-nostril breathing, found that after a 30-minute session, and at a 24 hour follow up, memory recall was significantly improved.

Source:

Deep Breathing Practice Facilitates Retention of Newly Learned Motor Skills.

  1. Improves lung function

Breathing is a fundamental component of physical health, so it’s unsurprising that lung function is so important to our own vitality and fitness. A study in 2011 found that deep breathing exercises, when performed for 2, 5 and 10 minutes, were able to notably enhance lung function in healthy young individuals.

Source:

Acute effect of deep breathing for a short duration (2-10 minutes) on pulmonary functions in healthy young volunteers.

  1. Reduces inflammation

We know that deep breathing can relax our minds, but it’s interesting to consider in what way it can have a direct impact on our physiology. A 2016 study found that after performing 20 minutes of breathing exercises and having their saliva tested at 5-minute intervals, participants had significant changes in the salivary cytokines, which serve as biomarkers for inflammation. This means that deep breathing influences our physiology on a molecular level, almost immediately.

Source:

Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva: a pilot randomized control trial.

 

You don’t have to be spiritual to reap the benefits of meditation or deep breathing. All you need is an open mind and an acceptance of the scientific validity of the techniques.

If you’d like to learn more about deep breathing, check out these books:

 

Beginner: The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work – Donna Farhi

 

Advanced: Light on Pranayama – B.K.S. Iyengar