The Big Chill-Out: How Meditation Can Help With Everything

Changing the way your genes express themselves, coaxing you to actually understand yourself, and finally letting you really relax: Meditation is well worth getting familiar with.

Are tweets, statuses, pins, pokes, and pixels dominating your life? This week, as part of our #unplug series, we're re-posting some of our most popular stories from the archives, with a special focus on the beauty of a tech break, the power of analog, and how a little quiet can kickstart creativity.


At the start of the monsoon season two summers ago, I was sitting cross-legged in a humid classroom in in the foothills of the Himalayas. As an aside to her laughing explanations of contemplative life, our teacher was telling us that just as Arctic people have many words for snow, Tibetans have a rich vocabulary for mental actions—and among all those words for ascertaining and understanding, the Tibetan word for meditation is göm.

Göm, she says, translates most directly as familiarization. Not stillness or clarity or insight or any of the other transcendental yearnings that I had heaped upon my meditation practice, but a simple becoming-familiar-with-ness. Just as you come to know neighborhoods by wandering around them, people by talking to them, or darkened guesthouse rooms by stumbling into their furniture, you become familiar with your mind by sitting still with it.

What is it to become familiar? A sort of intimacy, and with that, a sort of vulnerability; The sociologist Brené Brown writes of how people insulate themselves from their experiences for fear of the shame they'd feel for feeling the way they feel. The practice of meditation, then, is a becoming familiar with these layers of feeling the way that you feel in the same way you get to know a friend: like those little Russian matryoshka nesting dolls, you get to know an identity layer by layer.

Russian Matryoshka Nesting Dolls

What meditation does for you

Interestingly, the modern Western tradition of objective research is increasingly corroborating the ancient Eastern tradition of subjective research into meditation—and the results are as intuitive as they are fascinating, as intriguing as they are motivating.

We're usually not very good at reporting on our experiences: We're more racist than we care to admit; we're all sure we're plenty popular; and if we think we're good at multitasking, at least we aren't the worst. But experienced meditators are adept at introspection: As the authors of one study on the topic conclude, "the simplest interpretation ... is that subjects with greater meditation experience may provide more accurate reports of mental experience."

But perhaps even more profound than that, a Massachusetts General Hospital study found meditation changes your gene expression. How? While when we experience stress, we usually have the tense mobilization of fight-or-flight response, people with a little meditation training are able to instead bring to mind what psychologists call the relaxation response to stress, allaying anxiety and hypertension.

Meditation isn't "just relaxing," co-author Dr. Herbert Benson told Atlantic writer Lindsay Abrams. Instead, when you begin to mediate, you start to have "a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress." The genes associated with inflammation turn off; the genes involved in energy metabolism and other functions turn on.

And these microscopic changes have macro effects.

How meditation translates into work

As we've discussed, cultivating a meditation practice can help you become a better leader and more creative—it worked for Disney.

So how to begin? Therapist and meditation teacher Ron Alexander once gave us a place to start:

  1. Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position, or in a straight-backed chair with your feet on the floor, or lie down. If seated, close your eyes gently; if you lie down, keep your eyes slightly open.
  2. Set an alarm for between 12 and 20 minutes.
  3. Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils or on the rise and fall of your belly.
  4. When thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise, don't try too hard to push them away. Acknowledge them, but then refocus on your breathing.

And after enough hours of on-the-cushion familiarization, you gain a hard-to-articulate skill.

Study: How Yoga Alters Genes

[Image: Flickr user Moyan Brenn]