How many times have you been told: "Don't just sit there, do something." In today's frenetic, smartphone wielding society, we have become hard-wired to multitask, often harbouring the belief that sitting still with one pointed focus is counterproductive. It's easy to see why many of us are more stressed out and "mind full" than ever before.
With daily lives that are all too frequently set to the tune of beeping horns and constant chatter, coupled with the ability to flick from one social-media account to another, silence has become an increasingly rare commodity. Compared to how society lived hundreds of years ago, there’s now more to stimulate the brain (and fry our nervous systems) in one single day, than our predecessors may have experienced in an entire year.
“Our minds have become like popcorn machines, constantly producing thoughts,” says Sona Bahri, the director of Inner Space Abu Dhabi, a centre dedicated to meditation and self development. “In a world that is full of inner and outer noise, it is extremely important to give our minds time to rest – this means peaceful, slower thinking, which only comes from practicing inner silence and stillness. This constant inner noise, coupled with our outer fast-paced, busy lives, can be a recipe for disaster.”
“Disaster” can include everything from high blood pressure, chronic stress and anxiety through to depression, weight gain and attention deficit disorders.
So can all this be alleviated through the practise of meditation? Science has certainly been sitting up and taking an interest. In the past decade, research has been stacking the odds in meditation’s favour. In a study published in 2014, researchers at the University of California and the Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn concluded that just 12 minutes of daily meditation for eight weeks increased telomerase activity by 43 per cent, potentially helping to reduce stress-induced ageing. Telomeres are the little caps at the end of each strand of DNA that help protect our chromosomes.
In that same year, another study from the International College of Thailand found that meditators have lower rates of burnout, and cope better with job-related stress, while researchers in Amsterdam connected meditation with heightened creative ability.
“Sitting silently, focusing on one thing like the breath or a simple mantra, allows you to see things in a clear, unpolluted way,” says Bahri. “It can show you more-creative ways to deal with old habits and work around difficult challenges. Silence is oxygen for the mind; it allows it to rejuvenate and reset itself.”
Transcendental meditation is a practice that was popularised by The Beatles, and has become a favourite among celebrities including Katy Perry and the popular American radio host Howard Stern, who credits the practice for helping him beat depression.
This form of meditation has developed a presence in the UAE in recent years, and requires those who practise it to meditate two times per day for 20 minutes at a time.
"Transcendental meditation is different from other forms of meditation, which either involve a focus of some kind, or are based around being 'mindful' or attentive to one's surroundings or inner feelings," says the UAE-based -transcendental meditation teacher Ged Valente. "It is a simple, effortless technique that allows mental activity to be systematically 'transcended' until one arrives at the mind's most restful, expanded and happy state – of pure awareness or inner wakefulness. By transcending mental activity, twice a day for 20 minutes, our mind is allowed the precious opportunity to 'de-stimulate' and recovers its natural state of balance, peace and harmony."
Valente says that more than 600 studies verify transcendental meditation’s effectiveness in developing creativity, memory and learning ability, and suggest a clinical applicability in areas of physical and psychological health.
Research also suggests that incorporating a little silent meditation into your day could actually boost your grey matter. A study published in the Brain, Structure and Function journal in 2013 discovered that up to two hours of silence could help to create new brain cells, specifically in the hippocampus region – the area dedicated to our ability to learn and remember. And if you don't have two hours to spare, then advocates insist starting with just two minutes is enough to make a positive change.
So where to begin? “Resting silently and simply listening to your own thoughts for a few minutes a day may be the best move you can make for yourself. It allows your body to shift from a fight-and-flight into a rest-and-digest mode,” explains Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, the founder of Illuminations, a holistic healing and well-being centre in Dubai. “Meditation is not about stopping your mind from thinking. The goal is to keep bringing your mind back to the present when it wanders by focusing on one focal point, such as the breath – this in itself is called mindfulness. Practice this regularly and you will soon start to feel the difference.”
Perhaps we could all do ourselves a favour, and turn that age-old saying on its head. Instead, why not try: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Your body and mind will probably thank you for it.
We counter some popular reasons given to avoid meditation:
I can’t sit cross-legged
Contrary to popular belief, meditation doesn’t have to be done in a lotus position. Sitting upright supported on a chair or lying on a comfortable surface is perfectly acceptable.
I don’t have time
If you were to swap a few of the minutes you spend unnecessary delving through social media, you would probably find that you suddenly have some time to spare.
I don’t want to get up at the crack of dawn
While first thing in the morning is traditionally the most optimal time to practise, meditation can be done anytime, anywhere.
I find it boring and have more important things to do
Ironically, a crazy schedule is exactly the reason why you should stop, drop and turn in – as the old Zen adage goes: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” You will come back to your agenda feeling refreshed and much more focused.
I can still hear noise when I try it
True silence is very difficult to achieve. We’re nearly always surrounded by noise, whether it’s the sound of the wind blowing or the hum of a passing car. Meditation is about cultivating and holding on to a sense of inner peace, regardless of outside stimulation.