Maybe you’ve noticed meditation’s quietly exploding popularity. The benefits are said to be huge, and the difficulty great. There are many methods, each of its own hardcore sect, or expensive new-agey guru. The pseudoscience around it, and the hard-to-quantify results, have turned off many a rational person - maybe including you.
I am a big proponent of meditation. My own practice is about eight years old. I think it should be taught in schools from an early age. It has the potential to make you feel better and perform better in any situation. No one’s mental health is perfect; meditation is part of any real self-care plan, in my opinion. I’m aiming this post at programmers specifically because coding is a discipline that rewards good mental hygiene. We are required to hold a map of complex interactions, syntax, and business logic in our heads; and as we aren't taught how to process difficult emotions, we often have to work through the fog of those. This can be difficult, or (at worst) impossible.
Below, I’ll make a three-part appeal to you to give meditation a shot. If you’re skeptical of meditation’s benefits, Part 1 gets in the weeds about some good evidence for its efficacy. Part 2 is on physical preparation for meditation (super important!). If you want to skip to the meditation exercise itself, it’s last, in part 3.
Improvements in cortical thickness
This study (n=322; not huge, but significant) is widely cited; the team of neuroscientists looked for — and found — solid connections between meditations of different types and benefits in brain function.
|Fig 1. Your cortices are gonna get swoll.|
This experiment measured relative thickness of the brain’s cortex. (Cortical thickness is associated positively with brain function; it has been found to be a good predictor for IQ, for example). Participants practiced three categories of meditation, for three months each. At the end of each period, researchers found cortical thickening in areas of the brain that corresponded to the goal of that particular meditation. Subjects also performed better in cognitive testing after their training. Loosely: those who trained in “presence” meditation improved their attention spans; those who trained in “affect” showed improved emotional intelligence; and those who trained in “perspective” gained, well, perspective.
Improvements in bodily function
Additional studies have measured physical benefits correlated with meditation, as well. This study associated lower blood pressure in hypertensives who meditated (warning — low sample size). This one (n=60) found significant decrease in blood sugar level in meditating patients with coronary artery disease.
There are also a bunch of studies correlating meditation practice in schools leading to improvements in behavior and performance. I’ll add the complete list I looked at for this article at the bottom.
In Sanskrit, ‘yoga’ (योग) is a concept encapsulating many forms of meditation. The practice of stretching we in the West call yoga is only one. That is to say, originally, the stretching in yoga was meant as a preparation for meditation. If your body is sore, tense, unrested, badly positioned, or malnourished, it’s harder to get into a meditative state. I won’t go into proper rest and nutrition, but I will cover two easy stretches that help me relax.
If you spend all day looking at a computer, the places that are most likely to become tense are your neck, shoulders, arms, and lower back. A good way to test bad posture is to see if it's comfortable to hold in a deep breath. If you’re hunched, for example, you’ll feel tightness near your solar plexus. When your back is straight and your body is aligned, you can breathe more deeply and fully.
Hand Claspy Shoulder Stretchy Thing
I couldn’t find pictures of this or even a name for it, so I may have made it up out of sheer necessity.
- Sit or stand up straight
- Hold your arms straight out
- Hold hands with yourself
- Relax your shoulders and pull your arms apart. Move your head/neck/hands around for maximum stretchage.
This is easy to do anywhere, and gives me quick relief from tight shoulders.
|Fig 2. It's pretty much just bending in half and relaxing.|
There are a lot of nice things about “ragdoll pose”: it improves circulation to your head, stretches your lower back, and relaxes your neck and shoulders. I like to relax my neck and wiggle my head back and forth. Try taking a few deep breaths while you’re down there.
Everybody's body is different - if you want to learn stretches for other parts of your body, the internet is a great resource. If you don't have the time or money for a yoga class, there are good free ones on Youtube.
Once you find somewhere relatively peaceful to sit, check your posture.
- Sit so your back is straight-ish and your legs are relaxed.
- Wiggle your head a little and position it so it’s balanced on your neck.
- Relax your hands in your lap.
- Do the same wiggle but this time with your lower back. Move it around and let it come to rest where it feels most balanced.
(You can do these same checks to see if your posture is okay while you’re working. Here's the Mayo Clinic's guide to an ergonomic computer setup, for starters.)
Thanks for sticking with this so far!
As I touched on in the first part, meditation can have many end goals. For your first time, try one that is simply meant to give your conscious mind a little break.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to “stop thinking” to get benefits from meditation. In fact, you don’t have to do anything at all. The simplest meditation is predicated on surrender: you don’t have control over your brain, and that’s okay. You only have limited control over your body, and that’s okay, too.
I spent literal years trying to breathe and force myself to feel peaceful. It did not work for me. Here’s the exercise that finally pointed me in a productive direction. This is more aligned with the “presence” category from the first study in part 1. You’ll move your concentration from “thought-awareness” (or -unawareness) to “feeling-awareness”.
- Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes. This way you won’t have to keep track of the time while you’re meditating. Consider the time ‘blocked out’. Phone on silent, etc.
- Sit down, let your eyelids close & check your posture (see part 2).
- Maintain a regular schedule of mid-deep breaths. Don’t go crazy, but try to breathe more deeply than you would unconsciously.
- Focus on a part of your body. Every time you breathe out, let it relax. (I like to start at the top of my head and go down, to facial muscles, jaw, neck, shoulders.)
- When (not if) you get distracted, don’t worry about it. Move your concentration back to the last part of your body you were working on, or go straight to where you feel the most tension. Maybe you’ll want to stretch out a tense body part. Go ahead, that’s great — it means you’re improving awareness of your body.
- It’s likely that if you do this for long enough, you will start to feel some kind of difficult emotion. I think part of the reason we’re always doing stuff (I’m looking at you, phone) is to distract from the emotions we’re worried about having to process. That is a huge benefit of meditation — you’re prompted to experience and deal with whatever you’ve been putting off. Feel the emotion as a physical sensation. A lot of them manifest in your chest or abdomen. Maybe you’ll even feel overwhelmed. Excellent work. Keep breathing.
Bonus goal: if you keep focusing your awareness on a relaxed body part, you might be able to feel it tingling lightly. I think this is a normal sensation that our brains filter out as noise. I found it easiest to feel this in my hands.
When the timer goes off, you can shake yourself out, and see if you feel any different. Sometimes the benefits are obvious, and you'll feel clearer and more present immediately. Other times, your mind will have been racing the whole time you try to meditate, and you won't feel any better. Don't despair! I often find, when that happens to me, that the peaceful feeling comes later in the day.
After doing it regularly, I notice it when I stop for a day or two: I find my attention wandering; I feel cranky, unfocused, and mentally foggy. If 15 minutes a day seems like a lot, consider that you could be trading it for 15 hours of unhappy or suboptimal thinking. It's worth it.
|Fig 3. A still from Bojack Horseman, a cartoon for adults who have difficult emotions.|
Thanks for reading!
If you have your own meditation tips, or if this helps you in any way, please let me know! If it doesn't, and you still want to try, I'm happy to talk to you about it, and see if I can help. Good luck (=
Appendix: List of Studies
- Effect of 6 Months of Meditation on Blood Sugar, Glycosylated Hemoglobin, and Insulin Levels in Patients of Coronary Artery Disease. Sinha, S., et al.
- Specific Transcriptome Changes Associated with Blood Pressure Reduction in Hypertensive Patients After Relaxation Response Training. Bhasin, M., et al.
- Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Goldin, P.R., et al.
- Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Ortner, Catherine N.M., et al.
- Mindfulness Training for Elementary School Students: The Attention Academy. Napoli, M., et al.
- The Influence of Concentrative Meditation Training on the Development of Attention Networks during Early Adolescence. Baijal, S., et al.
- School-based mindfulness instruction: An RCT. Sibinga, E., et al.
- A low‐dose mindfulness intervention and recovery from work: Effects on psychological detachment, sleep quality, & sleep duration Hülsheger, U., et al.
- Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Goyal, M., et al.
- The effects of meditation-based interventions on the treatment of fibromyalgia. Kozasa, E.H., et al.