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Meditation-more productive than we think
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Meditation-more productive than we think 

In today’s busy world it’s hard for me to remember to take time out. There is so much incoming stimuli—from screens to traffic to airplanes overhead. I’m so accustomed to multi-tasking that even when there is free time, I fall into habits of distraction that keep me from truly engaging in the activities that I really want to get to. Science is abuzz with new studies supporting some of the simplest tools to manage stress; exercise, a good night’s sleep, and a healthy diet all impact our overall well-being. We’ve all heard of the benefits of mindfulness, but in our efforts to unwind, we often seek a mindless escape instead. In addition to relaxation, we are trying to turn off that persistent inner voice: the one that evaluates all we do, the one that measures our worth by how productive we are. I’ve had bouts of a meditation practice, but more often than not, it gets back-burnered for something that feels pressing… or more productive. This constant focus on productivity had me wondering: what is produced when we take the time to meditate? What are the physical products of quieting the mind? 

Our inner voice is largely coordinated by the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is the part of our brain that engages in rumination and thoughts about the past and future. The network is made up of several areas of the brain that get active when we are not focused on a task, when our mind is left to wander—it’s our default mode. That inner voice can be a positive supporter or it can be harsh and unforgiving. Today, we are less commonly confronted with real-time stressors, like the predators our ancestors had to face. Instead, we tend toward chronic, slow-moving, low-level stress, such as financial or existential stress. Regrets of the past and worries about the future dominate much of our thinking. This chronic state can cause anxiety and depression, but we are usually more safe in the present moment than we realize. 

Meditation is one way to disengage from our DMN. Meditation allows us to stop the wild ride inside, get out of the car, and watch the cars go by. Achieving this mental state of observing our mind has psychological benefits that can be measured by physiological changes. During meditation, our central nervous system releases neurochemicals and hormones that change the quality of our blood. It increases levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine (associated with pleasure), serotonin (associated with happiness), and GABA (associated with calm). 

During five minutes of meditation, the average human heart contracts about 400 times, pumping about five liters of blood throughout all the vessels in the body, some the size of your index finger and some, as delicate as a strand of hair. This blood is a nutrient-rich river of plasma carrying billions of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. These cells travel through about 60,000 miles of veins, arteries, and capillaries spanning from the tips of your pinkie toes all the way to the delicate skin of each eyelid and back again. On their way, our red blood cells disperse hundreds of millions of oxygen molecules throughout our tissue and organs, while trillions of antibodies scan for signs of intruders. 

We have billions of nerve cells in our body, each firing anywhere from 5-50 neurochemicals per second. These chemicals allow for rapid communication between our central nervous system and the rest of our body to coordinate movement, assess risk, and interpret everything around us. Other chemical substances, such as hormones, are released into our bloodstream by our endocrine system. There is much overlap and interplay between our hormones and neurotransmitters; both are chemical messengers that influence our thoughts and motivations. It works both ways, however; thoughts can also influence neurotransmitter  release and hormone levels in our plasma. Once we are skilled at watching the cars (our thoughts) roll by, we can learn to steer them in the direction of positive internal chemical change.

Inside the nucleus of each cell is genetic material that we inherit from our parents: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In addition to the blueprint we are born with, the balance of proteins, hormones, and neurochemicals in the plasma that surrounds our cells has much to say about how our DNA is expressed. The study of epigenetics tells us that certain genes are activated or “turned on” while others can be silenced or unexpressed, depending on the medium surrounding our cells. While the quality of the medium—our blood—is impacted by environmental factors, it is also affected by neurophysiological and psychosocial changes. Chronic stress states can actually change our internal chemistry, creating the conditions to awaken certain genetic predispositions we might have otherwise been able to live life without. 

In addition to the chemical changes that can come from disengaging from the DMN, during a five minute meditation, roughly five hundred million cells die. Cell death, or apoptosis, is a vital, ongoing cleaning out of any unnecessary or harmful cells, or of those infected by a virus. As those cells die, the double helix of genetic material in healthy cells splits in two through mitosis, and during that same five minutes, another five hundred million cells are born. This death and rebirth is happening continuously inside of us, whether we are meditating or stuck in traffic. In fact, new cells equal to our body weight are created every year and a half, reminding us that we are always both new and the same. 

A five minute meditation gives us the opportunity to ensure the healthy birth of those 500 million cells. By improving our state of mind, calming our nervous system, and increasing levels of positive neurotransmitters, we create the best epigenetic conditions for this new life. From moment to moment, we are reborn. This never ending state of transition is how our body integrates new information to adapt to our surroundings. Meditation reels in the DMN, keeping the information free of the spin from that inner voice, and gives those 500 million new cells their best shot. 

The prospect of stopping all we are doing to meditate—to interrupt life, to sit still, and get quiet—feels unproductive, but the mental, emotional, and physical impacts can be profound. The studied benefits are numerous, from lowering blood pressure and reducing pain, to regulating mood and enhancing creativity. While there are many different methods of meditation, I have found that the best meditation is the one that I will actually do. A five minute mindfulness meditation is rather short, but it feels approachable and realistic to fit into each day, no matter how busy I am. It can be done sitting on the floor cross-legged, in a chair, lying back on a bed or yoga mat—even walking. Quiet is nice, but not required. The goal is to try to focus on my breath, and relieve my mind of its incessant thinking. Quieting a busy mind is not always easy, but I have found that it does get easier with practice. I know that the benefits will increase with consistency, but for now, I can feel a clearing of the mind and a calming of my nervous system after a mere five minutes. I’m finding that taking the time for this small practice may just be the simplest expression of hope for the future—and I think it’s downright productive.

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