Meditation is commonly used as a well-being tool by many spiritual teachers, mental health professionals and educators. But what exactly is meditation? Simply defined, it is a way of training our attention.
Meditation is practiced using a range of techniques to help focus our attention, by anchoring it to our breathing, physical sensations of our body or a particular sound, with the aim to bring one into a heightened state of awareness. There are several types of meditation and one of the most common forms of meditation that is increasingly practiced is “mindfulness meditation”.
We can think of “mindfulness” like a muscle that we all naturally possess, and can be strengthened the more we use it on a daily basis. Whenever one brings awareness to what is around them (e.g., physical surroundings) or within them (e.g., thoughts and emotions) in the present moment, they are engaging in mindfulness. Another crucial aspect of mindfulness involves the non-judgment of our experiences. For example, that could mean observing our thoughts or feelings without evaluating them as positive or negative.
Mindfulness meditation is thus a dedicated practice that aims to train up our “mindfulness” muscles. It is a common type of mental training that people can do almost anywhere. While waiting in line at a grocery store, one can notice their external environment which includes the sights, sounds and smells they experience.
Practicing mindfulness can be extremely beneficial for our mental health and well-being. While mindfulness isn’t some magic bullet that can cure mental illnesses like severe depression or anxiety, it can certainly help us buffer against daily stresses when practiced on a regular basis. It turns out that research studies have found many mental health benefits associated with mindfulness:
While you may have heard about the above common benefits produced as a result of regular mindfulness practice, are you aware of the science behind it? Over the years, research has found numerous linkages between mindfulness meditation and our brain, which serves to explain why mindfulness can be so beneficial for our mind!
Here are some interesting science-based findings of mindfulness meditation:
Studies have demonstrated that people who engage in mindfulness meditation practice for an average of 20 years have better-preserved brains, which have a higher amount of grey matter volume throughout the brain as compared to that of non-meditators. 
One of the most fascinating studies conducted by Yale University revealed that mindfulness meditation reduces brain activity associated with mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts.  As mind-wandering is often associated with more negative thinking and rumination, meditators as compared to non-meditators tend to feel happier and have fewer worries about the past or the future.
Harvard studies have found that mindfulness meditation can actually positively rewire certain parts of the brain responsible for learning. For example, it was found that engaging in eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by John Kabat- Zinn was found to increase thickness in the hippocampus which affects our learning and memory capabilities. 
Mindfulness meditation can also lead to more regulated emotional processing. Using brain scans, research has concluded that there are significant changes in brain activity of participants who meditate regularly. More specifically, there is a decrease in activity detected in the brain’s emotional regulation center, also known as the amygdala, in meditators as compared to non-meditators.
The amygdala is the part of our brain that gets activated whenever we sense a perceived stressor or threat. Mindfulness practices are able to lessen the sensitivity of our amygdala region, and thus increase our ability to feel calmer, and less aroused and see more possibilities in times of stress and challenging situations. 
While meditation is more common among adults and the older population, younger children can benefit from mindfulness practice as well. In fact, there has been growing interest from researchers when it comes to bringing simple meditation techniques to schools in order to spark interest among the younger population.
Students these days deal with an array of stressors ranging from academic struggles, and high parental expectations to peer pressure in school. Incorporating mindfulness meditation into the daily schedules of children is one way to build up their cognitive and emotional capacity to confront and deal with these challenges better.
The next question is naturally, how often do you meditate? There is no one right answer to this question. One argument is that a little meditation is better than none at all, and thus even setting a few minutes to meditate each week can make a big difference in the long run.
It can also be helpful to start slow and reach out for external guidance especially if you are completely new to meditation. When starting out, you may find yourself benefiting from the support of a professional meditation teacher in a group setting. Alternatively, listening to basic guided mindfulness meditation clips available online can also be especially beneficial for beginners. With regular practice, you will eventually be able to build up your mindfulness muscles and feel confident enough to practice on your own!
While there are more formal ways to practice mindfulness, engaging in mindfulness meditation is almost accessible to us anytime. Everyday routine and activities such as brushing your teeth or doing the dishes are perfect opportunities to engage in mindfulness practice. It is a skill that does take time to cultivate and results are often not immediate. However, if a person is patient enough to stick with the practice, the health benefits will come!
 Garrison, K. A., Zeffiro, T. A., Scheinost, D., Constable, R. T., & Brewer, J. A. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience, 15(3), 712–720. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-015-0358-3
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