What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘meditation’? A lot of people see it as a way of spiritual discipline, but have you ever heard about the psychological benefits of meditation, such as increased productivity? Or physical benefits like better sleep? Or, have you been, like me, rather unclear on how to meditate, and why meditate in the first place?
In 2016 I was going through a stressful period caused by my worries about Brexit and my uncertain future in the UK as an EU citizen. I went to see the doctor about my anxiety and panic attacks, and she ‘prescribed’ me a guided meditation app. I gave it a go and quite enjoyed it, but I felt I was too fidgety to be able to practice it regularly; my mind was just too busy to fully utilize this tool. I thought I had to slow down the stream of my excessive thoughts in order to enter that deeply relaxed state of my mind, and although I wanted to, there was never the right time and space to do that.
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Why We Don’t Meditate
To my mind, the most common reasons why people don’t meditate are the following two:
1) They are simply not interested – they don’t have a reason or don’t feel the need to meditate. (If they realised what they were missing, I suspect it would be a completely different story!)
2) They are interested but are convinced that they wouldn’t be good meditators, because they are either too busy and don’t have time, or they can’t force themselves to sit still and empty their minds. I belonged to this category.
What’s Changed My Concept of Meditation
My first closer encounter with meditation was through the rock legend Arthur Brown, when I played keyboards in his band, ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’. (More in the article ‘My Musical Journey‘.) During one of our in Germany, he told me about his meditation practice. The idea that meditation and rock’n’roll could complement each other was not new to me – take George Harrison or Donovan, for example – but knowing a meditating rockstar personally motivated me to learn more about the ancient practice. This wild man, who could set a stage on fire (sometimes literally) was always full of incredible energy and inner radiance and needed to sleep less than the rest of the band. I was starting to see that his regular meditation practice somehow played a part in this, although I couldn’t yet fully figure out how exactly.
One of our wild gigs with Arthur Brown, 2009
My second (and most important) encounter with meditation happened in November 2019, when an upbeat New Yorker, a former Broadway actress Emily Fletcher, appeared in my Youtube playlist. She was giving a presentation at Google, with a provocative title ‘Why Meditation is the New Caffeine’.
The way she spoke about meditation was different than what I’ve seen around so far. To my surprise, she was describing meditation as a productivity tool rather than a monk-like discipline, best done in quiet temples or caves.
I was intrigued by the fact that a woman with an air of a highly driven entrepreneur and looks of a catwalk queen was so passionate about meditation, and that she wasn’t delivering her talk at a hippie retreat, but at Google headquarters.
The meditation technique Emily teaches is called ‘Ziva Meditation’ (Ziva is a Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’ ), and it is designed specifically for high achievers.
Her clients include executives at global corporations like Google or Barclays, NBA players, Oscar winners, CEOs, entrepreneurs, busy parents – simply anyone who wants to boost their productivity and gain more hours in the day while having more energy.
One of the things that caught my attention was when Emily mentioned that meditation gives your body with rest which is from 2 to 5 times deeper than sleep. This sounded a bit far-fetched to me at first, but when I noticed her work has been praised by a number of neurobiologists, I became more open to what she had to say. Sleep was exactly the area of my life that needed improvement; I had never felt fully rested and refreshed if I had less than nine hours of sleep, so I decided to explore her work further.
When Emily said: “We meditate to get good at life, not to get good at meditation“, I got curious: How exactly could meditation be affecting one’s life?
I thought meditation was ok for temporary relaxation, to make one feel a bit better for a while, perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app or the calming sound of Tibetan singing bowls, but how could it improve things in one’s life in general?
As I checked Emily’s website and read through the testimonials of her students, I realised that I was about to discover something powerful. Her meditation technique seemed to improve people’s lives on multiple levels.
One testimony title, written by a financial expert, read:
‘It’s like a shot of espresso without the anxious jitters and the crash.’
Another, by a nurse practitioner:
‘If I could prescribe ONE thing to every single patient who walks in my door it would be: Learn meditation.’
And finally, from a pen of CEO:
‘Ziva blows all other meditation trainings away.’
Emily’s talk ‘Why Meditation is the New Caffeine’
Harvard University Research
I checked what other sources said about meditation and found out that in the 1970s, medical researchers at Harvard University began studying the effects of meditation on human body.
They discovered that during the practice of meditation, a process called ‘the relaxation response’ starts happening in the body, and this is what gives the body deep rest that is deeper than the rest we get from sleep.
They also found that through regular meditation that deep rest accumulates in our body over time, and this deepening reservoir of rest results in the many benefits of meditation, including stronger immunity, decreased stress, healing from old traumas and a sense of inner wellbeing.
First of all, let’s clarify what meditation isn’t, and this might surprise (and hopefully encourage) quite a number of people:
Meditation is NOT about trying to clear one’s mind or stopping one’s thoughts. In Emily’s words, “the mind thinks involuntarily in the same way your heart beats involuntarily”. Having involuntary thoughts during meditating is a completely natural part of the process; in fact, the more effortless it is, the better.
So what IS meditation? Meditation, as Emily Fletcher defines it, is accessing a verifiable fourth state of consciousness. It is a state which is different than waking, sleeping or dreaming, and which can be verified (measured) by EEG equipment.
When practiced regularly, meditation will start removing long-term accumulated stress from your system, strengthening your body and mind. What’s particularly nice about meditating is that soon after you get into the state of surrender, you’ll be able to feel your body flooding with a whole range of bliss chemicals.
Get High on Your Own Supply
Amongst these main pleasurable neurochemicals, providing you with elevated emotions and higher states of mind, are:
When people use cocaine, it is not the actual drug that causes the instant high. It’s because cocaine causes a build-up of dopamine—which then gives rise to euphoria and creates a rush of energy, which at that moment seems eternal.
Similarly, THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana, stimulates neurons in the reward system, causing them to release high levels of dopamine, which causes the user to feel euphoric.
Serotonin causes a feeling of euphoria, happiness, and well-being. This feel-good hormone binds with the same receptor as psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Both serotonin and dopamine are alkaline in nature, and an alkaline body can repair itself more quickly. It is also a well-known fact that cancer thrives in an acidic environment, and can’t survive in an alkaline and well-oxygenated environment – both of which meditation provides.
Nitric oxide is a molecule responsible for vasodilation – widening of the blood vessels, which increases circulation and lowers blood pressure – the best protection against a stroke!
The name derives from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning ‘joy, bliss, one of the highest states of being’. Anandamide makes me recall the name of the legendary yogi Parahamansa Yogananda. (The name consists of Yoga = Divine union, and Ananda = Bliss.)
Yogananda is the author of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi‘, a spiritual bestseller held dear by many – i.e. Elvis Presley, George Harrison, or Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs, who ordered 500 copies of the book for his own memorial service.
Anandamide, a neurotransmitter also called the “bliss molecule” for the role it plays in happiness and mental well-being, is one of the most important endocannabinoids in our body. Endocannabinoids are biochemicals produced within the body, and they bind to cannabinoid receptors.
THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana, also binds to these same receptors, and can induce feelings of unity with all that is, elation, pure happiness and peace – but we can induce the same feelings by own internal production of anandamide.
You can increase anandamide by exercising, spending time in “the zone,” (when you are in the workflow, experiencing that slight trance sensation) eating high-quality chocolate (such as my favourite Ombar), and, of course, meditation.
Also known as ‘bonding hormone’, oxytocin is a naturally occurring compound that acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter.
It stimulates the production of the bliss molecule anandamide, so by increasing oxytocin, you’ll also increase anandamide.
Oxytocin is naturally released during giving birth, increasing the mother’s bond with her newborn baby, or sexual climax.
On a daily basis, we can increase production of oxytocin by physical touch, hugs, massage, yoga, and meditation.
Why Do People Take Drugs?
The answer couldn’t be simpler – people take drugs to feel better.
Too many of them don’t realise that they can get intoxicated with their own internal neurotransmitters and hormones.
They can evoke those high states in their brains by releasing all these highly pleasurable neurochemicals, without the side effects of addiction and physical and mental damage.
Meditation can save you both the cash and health. You’ll notice that once you’ll start meditating and experiencing all these elevated emotions, you’ll soon become less reliant on external substances to give your mood a boost.
You’ll find yourself gradually cutting down on sweets, cigarettes, coffee, alcohol etc., without making you feel restricting yourself in any way. The reduced need for all these will come completely naturally. In my case, I’ve experienced a surprisingly reduced need for caffeine and alcohol, the two substances that were such an important part of my daily life for years.
I wish all this would be taught in schools one day. The compound noun ‘high school’ would gain a new, more attractive meaning, if we learned about all the exciting neurochemistry which we can access for free.
The ‘Side Effects’ of Meditation:
Your Health Will Improve
Meditation can have a powerful effect on your physical and mental health. It is proven to reduce stress, anxiety, inflammation and help you detox your body while improving immunity, resilience, and emotional wellbeing.
Harvard researchers estimate that 80% of doctor’s visits are related to stress. And while getting stressed short term may not be too harmful to you, staying stressed is.
Adrenalin and cortisol are the main stress chemicals, which, if accumulated in your body, cause premature aging, depression, and a whole range of diseases including autoimmune diseases and cancer.
While stress causes premature aging, meditation is slowing down the premature aging of your body. This is because your body will be receiving a deep, healing rest, removing large amounts of stress, stored in our cellular memory over the years. People who meditate regularly tend to be healthier, and often look younger.
Emily likes to compare a brain to a computer. If we are using too many programs at once and running out of the storage at the same time, we will start losing our computing power. But if we clean and defragment the computer from all the trash, old files and applications, we will regain computing power again.
‘Defragmenting’ our brain and detoxing our body through meditation has the ability to facilitate healing from long-term illness and old traumas, up-levelling your overall performance and improving the quality of your sleep, which will become deeper and more effective. (Emily’s students have reported a 90% success rate with getting rid of insomnia.)
You may also, rather conveniently, notice a decrease in the hours you need to feel fully rested; I can confirm this from my own experience with The Ziva Technique. Before I started meditating, I needed at least 9 hours of sleep, while now I wake up completely rested, without an alarm clock, after 7 hours, sometimes even just 6.5. And at the same time, I have stopped experiencing those afternoon energy slumps! I’m still in a state of amazement over this fact. If any of you reading this is having doubts about meditation (like I was), please do try it for a few weeks and you’ll see for yourself!
Increased Productivity and Creativity
You will experience increased creativity as well as more focus and alertness, which will lead to better decision making and surprising growth in your productivity. Again, I can confirm this from my own experience with The Ziva Technique.
Improved Mental Wellbeing
As already mentioned, one of the most common reasons for people not to meditate is a lack of time in their already jam-packed life. But meditation shouldn’t be looked at as a spa treatment for your brain. In Emily’s words, it is ‘the most important piece of mental hygiene’ you could ever practice.
I also like her provocative statement that ‘leaving your house without meditating should be considered as rude as leaving your house without brushing your teeth.’
This might be hard to understand by people who have never experienced the positive physical and psychological effects of meditation, but for the ones who have, (and I hope that one day you’ll be one of them ) it makes complete sense. If you commit to a regular meditation practice, you can look forward to the following benefits:
Meditation will start shifting things for you internally. You’ll gain adaptation energy which will give you the ability to handle life’s challenges with more ease and grace, and you will be surprised to observe that you are becoming less reactive to people or situations that would previously drive you mad or make you fall to pieces psychologically.
You’ll experience more of the ‘Power of Now’ moments, as described by Eckhart Tolle in his book (one of the best books on modern-day spiritual enlightenment I’ve ever read).
More Time in Your Day
There is really no better usage of your time than the time you take to meditate. You will start to see this return on time investment in your life very soon after committing to regular practice. Meditation actually creates more time in your day! You will find out that one you have prioritised meditation, you will have more hours to play with.
Mindfulness Versus Meditation
It is very important to point out that mindfulness and meditation are not the same. Many people who have been listening to various ‘meditation apps’, thinking they were meditation, have actually been practicing mindfulness instead.
So what is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
When practicing mindfulness, we are directing our focus. This could include:
Drawing your attention to the present moment, directing your focus on your five senses, being aware of your breath, doing guided visualisations, feeling your body centered and grounded etc.
Both mindfulness and meditation have long been a topic of neuroscientific studies. An interesting fact has been observed during brain scans of people separately practicing mindfulness and meditation.
When they’re practising mindfulness (i.e. drawing your attention to the present moment, directing your focus on your body, etc.) a small part of the front of the brain – the Prefrontal cortex – lights up very brightly.
This reflects the fact that practicing mindfulness improves our clarity and focus, which makes us good at focusing on our tasks, reading, decision making, coming up quickly with ideas and solutions, navigating, etc.
It also helps to deal with stress in the present moment, which is very useful for staying calm during emotionally turbulent situations, from arguments or missed flights to viral pandemics.
But most of us find long practices of mindfulness almost impossible. Either boring or too challenging to keep focusing one’s attention for too long. There is a reason for this: Mindfulness has been designed for monks!
Not too many people are aware of this. Mindfulness requires discipline and concentration, and it makes sense that a modern-day person with a constantly busy mind can find it challenging to practice it for longer than a