Most Eagle County residents are always trying to get more in shape and eat healthier. But many of us don’t often think about, well, improving our own thoughts. When it comes to our brains, we can be a bit mindless, not realizing the impact our thoughts have on our physical health, our emotions and our organizational skills. We think of our brains as being on autopilot, but in fact we have more control over our minds than we’re aware.
Mike Christenberry, meditation instructor at Body & Mindworx in Edwards, said even at a young age we can start training our minds to be more focused.
“People have told you your whole life, ‘Pay attention,’” Christenberry said. “But they’ve never told you how.”
Using meditation to change Your brain
Christenberry believes the “how” is through meditation, a practice going back much further than the study of the brain itself. By quieting the chaos in our heads, our minds can experience remarkable change. Regular meditation can affect everything from remembering to pay our bills on time to leading a calmer, happier life overall. While many people turn to meditation in times of stress or crisis, it can also be beneficial for people who most doctors would deem to be in good mental health.
“People ask, “If everything’s good, why should I meditate?,” Christenberry said. “(You meditate) to notice why everything’s good, how you can make things better, make things a little less irritating, fewer bumps on the road or understanding that the bumps are just going to happen.”
While the whole “stop and smell the roses” mantra is one we’ve heard before, the act of becoming more aware and mindful of our surroundings through meditation goes much deeper than that. Christenberry said there are two main divisions of meditation — analytical and non-analytical. Analytical meditation involves thinking about one thing deeply, while non-analytical meditation attempts to not think about anything for an extended period of time. These approaches have different intentions, but they both help bring us back to the present moment. Meditation is not about trying to stop thinking, but about organizing your thoughts so they’re more in line with what we’re actually trying to focus on.
“(It’s) about not letting your mind be swayed or strayed by deep thought or emotional ties to incidents that have no bearing,” Christenberry said. “We’re trying to filter the unnecessary things.”
Studying the effect deep breathing and mindfulness has on the brain is complicated, but there’s evidence to suggest that our minds can start to change after we start meditating. Elena Georgouses, a clinical social worker who teaches yoga and meditation at Dogma Athletica in Edwards, said studies have shown that over time, meditation helps to build the neural substrates (sets of brain structures that cause a specific behavior or emotional state) associated with calm, well-being, resilience and compassion. Like a taxi driver whose brain shows a greater awareness of spacial and visual cues, a more meditated mind shows a more active firing of neurons in the part of the brain that’s associated with contentment and happy thoughts. Georgouses said science can now backup what those practicing meditation have known for centuries.
“Mystics and sages have been talking about the benefits of meditation for thousands of years,” Georgouses said. “(Now) with science we have the capacity to study the brain and (how meditation effects it).”
Delving deeper for profound results
Meditation is often promoted as a tool to relieve stress, as though the practice is akin to a relaxing afternoon at the beach soaking up the sun. It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t feel more at ease after a few minutes of sitting silently and inhaling deeply, but it often takes more time and dedication to really feel meditation’s full effects. Edwards resident Sarah Walker, 54, began meditating after going through cancer treatments. Walker said she didn’t really notice any significant changes for the first six months of attending guided meditation sessions.
“Honestly it took me a little while because there’s a lot to it,” Walker said. “I started learning from day one, but to actually put it into motion took a little longer. ... It is a process; it does take some time and some work. It’s not just like you go in there and meditate a few times and all of a sudden you’re a changed person.”
Now a cancer survivor, Walker has been meditating six days a week for five years. In addition to feeling happier and more at peace, Walker finds it easier to manage life’s ups and downs.
“It does help you realize that when you’re stressed, you (can) take a breath and realize that nothing’s quite that important,” Walker said. “There’s not too many things that are worth getting all worked up about ... Now you’re so much more in tune to what’s happening, you’re more in tune to your self and your surroundings and feelings; everything has more meaning to you.”
Thinking better, not less
Those who teach or practice meditation understand that new-agey words like “meaning” and “purpose” can sometimes dissuade people from the idea becoming more mindful.
Christenberry likes to describe it as taking a moment to turn off the left side of the brain, which is often telling us “what to do, how to do it and that we’re not doing it well enough,” and switching on the right side of the brain, which merely asks “What if?”
For locals who teach and practice meditation, using the technique to improve our minds is more of a “Why not?” than a “What if.”
“Once you get your mind straight, the rest will follow,” Walker said. “We always want to work on our bodies and looking good, why not do the same thing with the mind? It may take a little while to understand and embrace it because it’s a learning process. But I think it’s more important than exercising the body, because the rest will follow.”
To think or not to think? That is the question. We’re capable of having as many as 50,000 thoughts per day, so it’s nearly impossible for our brains to stop the mental chatter with the ease in which we turn off our cell phones to avoid unwanted calls. The truth is there is no such thing as not thinking at all, but we can guide our brains to think in new ways. As we take stock of our physical health at the beginning of the year, let’s also try not to think less but think better by using tools like meditation in order to improve our mental health as well.