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Science Shows Meditation Can Keep the Brain Young (and Guide for Beginnners)

Science Shows Meditation Can Keep the Brain Young (and Guide for Beginnners)

Plenty of scientific studies have shown that physical exercise is a powerful tool to slow down the effects of aging. Among other benefits, regular exercise helps us maintain our strength, endurance, and flexibility as we age.

Now it turns out that there’s an easy way to slow down the aging in our brains! An exciting new study from Harvard University shows that a simple practice, if done regularly, can prevent aging in the brain. The tool? Meditation. We’ve all heard that it produces feelings of relaxation and peace, and is good for stress reduction. Now, for the first time, scientists have actual proof that meditation can actually reverse the aging process in the brain. Using sophisticated medical technology, Harvard researchers have shown that meditation produces measurable changes in crucial parts of the brain that control emotion, memory, and learning.

The Study

In the 8-week study, Harvard researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of two groups. One group practiced mindfulness meditation exercises for 27 minutes per day during the 8-week period, and the other group did not meditate during the study. Both groups also filled out questionnaires before and after the study that measured participants’ levels of stress and anxiety. MRI scans of participant’s brain were taken both before and after the study. At the end of the study, the MRI images showed striking differences between the two groups in crucial areas of the brain that control emotion and thought.

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The Results

The researchers found that the hippocampus, which usually shrinks with age, was thicker in the meditators after the 8 weeks, and unchanged in the nonmeditators. The hippocampus controls memory, learning, self-awareness, and compassion; functions associated with mindfulness meditation.  The amygdala, which controls emotions such as stress and anxiety, showed a decrease in density in the meditators. The researchers associated this decrease with the reduction reported by the meditators, but not by the other group.

Benefits of Meditation in Daily Life

So, how would these brain changes brought about by meditation translate into real life? The meditators reported feeling less stress and anxiety than the control group. Meditation causes you to slow down repeatedly and to practice focusing on your breath (or a mantra or image, depending on what kind of meditation you are doing). This can build the habit of stopping before you react, instead of just reacting without thinking. Say an angry coworker approaches you with an angry comment, accusing you of making a mistake. If you aren’t prepared, your instincts would probably be to go on the defensive, and you might find yourself in an argument. If you stopped and took a breath before you began your conversation, however, you could approach the conversation in a way that would help your coworker to relax and to release his or her anger. If someone cuts you off on the highway, your habit of pausing to breathe before reacting might stop you from reacting with a loud honk or an angry gesture.   Feeling less angry and stressed can enhance your life and the lives of those around you, as well. In addition, your brain will remain active and retain the ability to learn and remember, functions that we tend to lose as we age.

How to Meditate

If you’ve never meditated, but would like to start, there are many resources available. If you’re interested in meditating with a group, just Google “meditation groups” and see what you can find near you. Many excellent books and tapes with meditation instructions and guided meditations are available on Amazon. Tara Brach and Pema Chodron are two widely popular teachers who have published books and tapes on meditation. There are many other wonderful teachers in addition to those two.

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A Meditation for Beginners

Here’s a very simple meditation you can do anywhere,  anytime – in your living room, your office, even your car.

1. Take a comfortable position: you can sit cross-legged on a cushion, or upright on a chair, whichever is most comfortable. Your spine should be upright but not stiff, shoulders relaxed. Keep your head up, as if lifted by a invisible string. Place your hands firmly on your thighs, palms down or upright, whichever feels more comfortable.

2. Direct your gaze a few feet in front of you. Hold a soft, steady gaze.

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3. As you breathe in and out, taking deep, natural breaths, keep your attention on your breath. When your mind wanders (and it will) gently bring your attention back to your breath. In the beginning your mind will be very busy and full of chatter; don’t worry! Just let your thoughts rise and fall and keep coming back to the breath.

4. Start with 10 minutes per day. Gradually increase your time as you feel more comfortable with the practice.

Again, if you want to go further, seek out some of the resources mentioned in this article.  As you go along, know that not only are you reducing your stress and anxiety, but you are keeping your brain young and healthy, too!

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Featured photo credit: Pray by belgian chocolate via imcreator.com

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

Creating a vision for your life might seem like a frivolous, fantastical waste of time, but it’s not: creating a compelling vision of the life you want is actually one of the most effective strategies for achieving the life of your dreams. Perhaps the best way to look at the concept of a life vision is as a compass to help guide you to take the best actions and make the right choices that help propel you toward your best life.

your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have

    Why You Need a Vision

    Experts and life success stories support the idea that with a vision in mind, you are more likely to succeed far beyond what you could otherwise achieve without a clear vision. Think of crafting your life vision as mapping a path to your personal and professional dreams. Life satisfaction and personal happiness are within reach. The harsh reality is that if you don’t develop your own vision, you’ll allow other people and circumstances to direct the course of your life.

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    How to Create Your Life Vision

    Don’t expect a clear and well-defined vision overnight—envisioning your life and determining the course you will follow requires time, and reflection. You need to cultivate vision and perspective, and you also need to apply logic and planning for the practical application of your vision. Your best vision blossoms from your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. It will resonate with your values and ideals, and will generate energy and enthusiasm to help strengthen your commitment to explore the possibilities of your life.

    What Do You Want?

    The question sounds deceptively simple, but it’s often the most difficult to answer. Allowing yourself to explore your deepest desires can be very frightening. You may also not think you have the time to consider something as fanciful as what you want out of life, but it’s important to remind yourself that a life of fulfillment does not usually happen by chance, but by design.

    It’s helpful to ask some thought-provoking questions to help you discover the possibilities of what you want out of life. Consider every aspect of your life, personal and professional, tangible and intangible. Contemplate all the important areas, family and friends, career and success, health and quality of life, spiritual connection and personal growth, and don’t forget about fun and enjoyment.

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    Some tips to guide you:

    • Remember to ask why you want certain things
    • Think about what you want, not on what you don’t want.
    • Give yourself permission to dream.
    • Be creative. Consider ideas that you never thought possible.
    • Focus on your wishes, not what others expect of you.

    Some questions to start your exploration:

    • What really matters to you in life? Not what should matter, what does matter.
    • What would you like to have more of in your life?
    • Set aside money for a moment; what do you want in your career?
    • What are your secret passions and dreams?
    • What would bring more joy and happiness into your life?
    • What do you want your relationships to be like?
    • What qualities would you like to develop?
    • What are your values? What issues do you care about?
    • What are your talents? What’s special about you?
    • What would you most like to accomplish?
    • What would legacy would you like to leave behind?

    It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal or creative vision board if you’re the creative type. Add your own questions, and ask others what they want out of life. Relax and make this exercise fun. You may want to set your answers aside for a while and come back to them later to see if any have changed or if you have anything to add.

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    What Would Your Best Life Look Like?

    Describe your ideal life in detail. Allow yourself to dream and imagine, and create a vivid picture. If you can’t visualize a picture, focus on how your best life would feel. If you find it difficult to envision your life 20 or 30 years from now, start with five years—even a few years into the future will give you a place to start. What you see may surprise you. Set aside preconceived notions. This is your chance to dream and fantasize.

    A few prompts to get you started:

    • What will you have accomplished already?
    • How will you feel about yourself?
    • What kind of people are in your life? How do you feel about them?
    • What does your ideal day look like?
    • Where are you? Where do you live? Think specifics, what city, state, or country, type of community, house or an apartment, style and atmosphere.
    • What would you be doing?
    • Are you with another person, a group of people, or are you by yourself?
    • How are you dressed?
    • What’s your state of mind? Happy or sad? Contented or frustrated?
    • What does your physical body look like? How do you feel about that?
    • Does your best life make you smile and make your heart sing? If it doesn’t, dig deeper, dream bigger.

    It’s important to focus on the result, or at least a way-point in your life. Don’t think about the process for getting there yet—that’s the next stepGive yourself permission to revisit this vision every day, even if only for a few minutes. Keep your vision alive and in the front of your mind.

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    Plan Backwards

    It may sound counter-intuitive to plan backwards rather than forwards, but when you’re planning your life from the end result, it’s often more useful to consider the last step and work your way back to the first. This is actually a valuable and practical strategy for making your vision a reality.

    • What’s the last thing that would’ve had to happen to achieve your best life?
    • What’s the most important choice you would’ve had to make?
    • What would you have needed to learn along the way?
    • What important actions would you have had to take?
    • What beliefs would you have needed to change?
    • What habits or behaviors would you have had to cultivate?
    • What type of support would you have had to enlist?
    • How long will it have taken you to realize your best life?
    • What steps or milestones would you have needed to reach along the way?

    Now it’s time to think about your first step, and the next step after that. Ponder the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It may seem impossible, but it’s quite achievable if you take it step-by-step.

    It’s important to revisit this vision from time to time. Don’t be surprised if your answers to the questions, your technicolor vision, and the resulting plans change. That can actually be a very good thing; as you change in unforeseeable ways, the best life you envision will change as well. For now, it’s important to use the process, create your vision, and take the first step towards making that vision a reality.

    Featured photo credit: Matt Noble via unsplash.com

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