“Hi John*, are you busy?”
“Oh no, I was just meditating in-between engagements. I have been meditating an hour a day for decades. I sit and let my mind go blank. At first, it was hard, but over the years it has gotten easier.”
Most times when I went to find John he was meditating. He was quick to praise the benefits of meditation.
His ‘1 hour a day practice’ increased to at least 4-5 hours daily, a result of his forgetfulness. If you ask me, there are worse ways to spend excess time than meditating.
“I don’t want to interrupt. I wanted to see if you were interested in coming to our mythology reading and discussion today.”
“Oh, yes that sounds nice.”
As we made our way across the community, I asked, “How was music?” I had seen John earlier in the day at a music group, and I knew he had a deep love of music.
“Music? Was I at music?”
“I thought you were, but I could be mistaken.”
“Hold on.” John took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. He opened his eyes and said, “I feel good. I must have been at music.”
John taught me many things during our time together. This day he showed me you don’t have to remember something for it to have a lasting positive effect. John had a positive attitude toward aging, dementia and life in an assisted living community. He suffered less than his neighbors who rejected the experience. I believe meditation played a significant role in this. Meditation teaches us to be in the moment, to experience the world from a place of observation versus judgment. The skills gained in meditation offer benefit throughout our life.
14 Benefits of Meditating as We Age
- Reduce Suffering. Meditation teaches us to be in the moment. When our awareness is in the present moment in a non-judgemental way, we suffer less. John showed me this benefit of meditation and centuries of tradition confirm it.
- It’s Free. It is one of the very few things in our capitalistic culture that is free. You do not need any fancy gadgets or training.
- No Negative Side Effects. Meditation helps reduce stress, pain, anxiety, and depression among other things. Pharmacological interventions for these same ills come with a host of nasty side-effects. This lack of side-effects makes meditation very appealing. Primarily, as a first or adjunctive intervention.
- Protect Your Brain. Meditating slows decreases in the volume of gray and white matter in the brain as we age. Meditation may “reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal aging.” One remarkable study found that at age fifty, brains of meditators appeared to be 7.5 years younger and that the benefits compounded with time.
- Stay Focused. Our world is chock full of distractions. We have become obsessed with multi-tasking. Meditation helps us focus our attention.
- Get More Done. In a study of older people, a regular meditation practice resulted in the increased performance of tasks.
- It Doesn’t Take Much. 10 minutes five times a week can yield significant results. Most studies show some effects persisting even after meditation stopped. However, results are better for those who have a continued meditation practice.
- Cardiovascular Health. While modest, there are some cardiovascular benefits to meditation. Cardiovascular health helps prevent and slow dementia as well.
- Improve Sleep. Dr. Bill Thomas extols the importance of MESH (move, eat, sleep, heal) if we want to keep the highest quality of life as we age. As we age, it is normal and natural for our sleep to become more fragmented. We need to have good sleep hygiene. A benefit of meditation is better sleep to have better days and nights.
- Decrease Dementia Risk. Mediation may decrease your chances of getting dementia or slow its progression. John’s story shows us meditation can also shape how you experience dementia. In his mid-90s John was planning to live to 100 with joy and contentment.
- The Worse off You are, the Better it Works. “Those with worse mental health at baseline were more likely to improve.” with a meditation intervention.
- Reduce Pain. Meditation can help reduce chronic pain and associated depression. Longtime meditators’ brains appear to learn new ways to process pain.
- Improve Body Image. Meditation resulted in "reductions in body dissatisfaction, body shame, and contingent self-worth based on appearance, as well as greater gains in self-compassion and body appreciation." Loving-kindness meditation yielded these results.
- Reduce Ageism. Preliminary findings show a reduction in ageism with a meditation intervention. From the work of Dr. Becca Levy, we know that combating ageism can increase our longevity by as many as seven years.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is an umbrella term for different mindfulness practices. All meditation works to train one's mind and body to be conscious, still and focused. Meditation teaches us to notice and be able to shift our awareness.
Different Types of Meditation
Wisdom and religious traditions have incorporated meditation or prayer for thousands of years. Recently neuroscientists have begun to study the benefits of meditation. There are three types of meditation used most often in research. There are countless varieties in the world.
Focused Attention Meditation. The practitioner focuses on something such as a mantra, breath, or an object. This focus helps calm their mind to be able to notice when attention has swayed from the point of focus. In the beginning be gentle with yourself as your attention will stray often.
Open Monitoring Meditation. One begins to notice where awareness is and watch it. Metaphors such as ‘watch your thoughts float by like clouds in the sky’ can be helpful. In OMM your attention is on the awareness that is noticing your thoughts. Rather than following the thoughts that pop up, I need to do the laundry, how will my meeting go later, etc., you observe.
Loving-Kindness (or Compassion) Meditation. LKM combines techniques from FAM and OMM. LKM focuses on developing loving kindness for every part of ourselves. After self-compassion comes sending this love out to others in the world.
How do You Meditate?
Meditation can be as simple as John described it. You sit comfortably and make your mind go blank. One can meditate in a community or alone. Many organizations offer classes and group meditations.
If you wish to explore the brain-health benefits of meditation, here are five tips that we recommend to get the most out of your practice as a beginner:
- Set aside a specific time and place. Pick a specific room in your home dedicated to meditation – preferably not one where you work, sleep or will be disturbed – and play calming music or light candles to set the tone. Make meditation a habit by setting aside 3-5 minutes every day to practice.
- Experiment. Try different ways of practicing so that you find what is most comfortable for you. You may want to start off your practice with light stretches, try different seated positions or meditate with your eyes both open and closed.
- Breathe deeply. Take rhythmic, deep breaths that will help you focus. If you find yourself feeling unsettled, try counting your breath by breathing in for two counts and out for two counts.
- Meditate with purpose. Remember that meditation is an active practice for the mind. For beginners, a simple way to practice mindfulness is by concentrating on your feet, then legs, moving your focus around the body.
- Align your mind and body. Maintain your posture by keeping your back straight and your head up – slumping can lead to wandering thoughts, whereas good posture will help you concentrate.
Remember that it is normal to get frustrated in the beginning – simply take a deep breath and exhale the frustration.
How to Create a Meditation Practice
When creating a meditation practice, you want to think about what will fit into your life. Where do you have time and space to integrate something new? Do you commute via train or bus to work? Or are you willing to get up a little bit earlier each day? Or replace TV with mediation before you go to sleep? At first, it can be helpful to meditate at the same time and in the same place each day. As the practice becomes part of your life, you can integrate it, as John did, in the quiet moments of any given day.
Using Technology to Meditate
There are a host of apps to help you meditate and access the benefits of meditation. I encourage you to explore the app store, read reviews and find on that works for you.
Non. I use this app (most) every day. Non is an unstructured meditation platform. It uses sounds to allow you to practice focused attention meditation. “Every session, Non will produce a unique soundscape." say founders John Soat and Eric Rieper. They offer some tips on how to interact with the soundscape. “Try and pace your breath with the cadence of the sound. Allow the extended length of each note to encourage deep breathing gradually." Non help us to “create a point of focus. This point of focus could be; the fluctuation in volume, the texture of an instrument, the movement of a note between different keys, the space between notes.” I like Non because it doesn't let my inner critic get in the way. There is no right or wrong way to do it. The app is always there if I need it but it is not gamified, so if I miss a few days there is no guilt. Interacting with Non is pleasing. The visuals are calming and the soundscapes are transcendent.
Tara Brach. If you are interested in Loving Kindness Meditation listen to the podcasts of Tara Brach. She has hundreds of free podcasts. Some are of talks about loving kindness, and many are guided meditations. I have found her meditations to be gentle and kind. She offers enough guidance to bring your mind back when it has wandered. Tara also offers enough spaciousness to cultivate your focus and awareness.
Headspace. Arguably the most trendy meditation app is Headspace. Headspace is the most robust of the apps I mention here. It is an entire program to help you learn how to meditate. It offers you different instructions and keeps track of your practice. Many people have had great success with it.
There are lots of options. Read the reviews and find one that best fits your life and practice.
When is the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. The second best time? Today - Chinese Proverb
This Chinese proverb holds for meditation. The longer you have a practice, the better results you will see AND the best time to start it today. Be gentle with yourself. Any meditation is better than no meditation. Celebrate your victories.
*names changed to protect identity