Over the past decade or so, there’s been a shift in the image of the modern CEO. Gone are the leaders chained to their desk, micromanaging away, obsessed with statistics and reports. In their place, a new breed, the kind that wears Birkenstocks, wanders amongst the desks of us mere mortals and periodically disappears on retreats to “reconnect” with themselves, paying a fortune for the privilege.
We’ve also witnessed the rise of the “wellness” crowd. 30+, middle class women aiming to improve themselves through hot yoga, meditation, detoxification and expensive workout leggings. You know the ones – love a brunch. Funnily enough, they’re also partial to a self-help, improvement retreat.
These retreats commonly revolve around mindfulness and meditation, allowing the participant to get the distance they need from their hectic life and come back refreshed and full of new perspectives. However inaccessible these extravagant, Insta-worthy retreats feel, the premise is basic – take some time to quiet the noise and reassess your view of the world.
As with a lot of the wellness industry – and it is a commodified industry worth $4.75 trillion globally as of 2020 – the birth of mindfulness and meditation are firmly rooted in ancient Asian traditions and religions. There’s a reason guided meditations sound like stationary yoga videos – because they have their fundamental base in the same place.
Herein lies the problem.
A lot of people are skeptical about mindfulness and meditation for a number of reasons. Foremostly it doesn’t appear like you’re doing anything and there seemingly aren’t any immediate results. We live in a fast-paced, outcome-driven world, so anything that doesn’t have instant gratification can be seen as ineffective or a waste of time.
Another reason is that it’s associated with religion. Principles of meditation and mindfulness are present in all religions in some form or another, but they’re most apparent in Hinduism and Buddhism. With Atheism on the rise across the globe, a lot of people are reluctant to believe in the power of something so deeply entwined with religion.
Further to this, it’s one of the oldest practices in the world, with an illustrious history spanning thousands of years. Having a long history might be seen as a sign that, you know, mindfulness and meditation work – after all why would it still be around if it was so ineffective? Well, as humans we’re always evolving, always coming up with new ways of doing things, improving on what’s come before. So, in 4000 years we haven’t managed to discover or engineer a better mental health or wellness practice that works as effectively? Seems unlikely. Ergo, skepticism.
Finally, there’s the image of mindfulness and meditation. That new-wave CEO, that middle-class woman who has a subscription to Goop, millennial hippies that are spending their would-be housing deposits on crystals and horoscope apps. There’s an air of self-indulgence, privilege and frivolous spending that follows any kind of wellness or self-care practice around like a bad smell.
But none of these reasons have a patch on the science.
Biologically speaking, meditation and mindfulness have a profound, calming effect on our central nervous system. The controlled breathing, the closed-eye stillness, the body scans, they all have specific biological purposes with the end goal of relaxing the participant.
The specific slow, long breaths that we’re guided to do during meditation are designed to slow our heart rate and release any tension that we hold in our body. The closed-eye stillness is designed to lessen distractions, allowing your brain to focus on one task. It does this by activating the TPN or Task Positive Network and turning off the DMN or Default Mode Network that commonly perpetuates rumination and anxiety-inducing hypothetical thinking. The body scans allow you to check in with any niggles or twinges in your joints and muscles, giving you the opportunity to relax them, releasing the stress on your joints and muscles that can lead to injuries. These kinds of body scans are also used by people suffering from poor sleep, and when done just before bed, settles and relaxes your body and mind in a way which allows you to drift off to sleep easier.
As for mindfulness, this is simply the practice of being aware of your surroundings, your emotions, thoughts, actions etc. It’s nothing fancy. It’s certainly nothing that you have to go to a retreat halfway around the world to achieve. When we’re aware of what’s going on with us, especially with our emotions and thoughts, we can check our negative thought patterns and recognise when we’re getting in over our head.
Being mindful helps us to see what situations or people trigger us in some way so we can start to understand why they make us feel the way we do. These principles of being present and being aware are core parts of tonnes of different modern therapies, especially Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT, used worldwide by healthcare professionals. Mindfulness and meditation are offered frequently by therapists, doctors and mental health experts because it has valid scientific backing.
That’s the bottom line, both mindfulness and meditation are scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, whilst simultaneously building positive habits and neural pathways in the brain. It works. That’s it.
So, with all this factual information, why are we still skeptical about it?
As humans we’re always more receptive to activities where we can see tangible results, or immediately feel like we’ve achieved something. Think about if we master a new move in yoga or dance, can remember a phrase in a new language or we fit into the jeans we’ve been trying to get into for a while. Mindfulness and meditation have a more subtle result of making you feel calmer by lowering the cortisol levels which cause stress in your body. It’s like when you exercise and you feel the benefits of the endorphins immediately after but they don’t seem to last for too long.
But the thing is, something pretty cool happens when we experience this chemical flood, whether it’s a rise in endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, or a change in your cortisol levels. The reward centre in your brain starts to take note of the changes and the apparent causes. If something makes you feel good and you get a chemical reaction, your brain takes note and categorises this as something that made you feel good and it’ll remind you to do it more often, in the same way that if something caused pain or sadness your brain would flag that and tell you to avoid similar situations.
This is why if you repeat a hobby or action over and over again, your brain will store the experience as a positive one that makes you feel happy and you’ll remember the activity in a positive way. That’s why although working out in the gym feels like a chore, once you’ve been going for a couple of weeks, you actually want to keep going back – your brain’s reward centre together with habit building positive neural pathways have created the cyclical connection between the activity and positive emotional, physical and mental results.
The same effect occurs with regular meditation or when we’re practicing mindfulness. That’s why those annoying stereotypes we mentioned at the top of this article seem almost cult-ish in their approach to wellness. They’ve found something that truly makes them feel better with, let’s be honest, minimal effort and, in its purest form, at zero financial cost. It’s what people spend their lives searching for, something accessible and simple that can be used anytime to make us feel better. No wonder they can’t stop going on about it.
So, let’s have another look at that question: why are we so skeptical about meditation and mindfulness? Well, honestly, it’s because both activities or principles have been overcomplicated, convoluted and bastardised over time to a place where they’re viewed as a specific skill that you need hours of expensive guidance and resources to do. And it’s simply not true.
Literally right now, take a second and actually take in your surroundings. Be present and use all your senses. Actively digest what you’re experiencing, be in the moment – all of this is mindfulness. Meditation is just a more structured method of practicing mindfulness, similar to how yoga or tai chi harnesses the same basic principles to lower stress and allow us to switch up our perspectives, something that helps us to rationally and logically work through our thoughts.