The benefits of (not) meditating
Since Siddhartha Gautama popularised the activity around 650 BC, the practice of meditation has ebbed and flowed through the ages. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s recently been making quite a comeback into office and homes around the world.
If you’re like me, though, you know you should be doing it — it’s good for you; but you just can’t get into a routine, then here are some alternatives to mediation that don’t feel quite as restrictive.
Why does it work?
Let’s first have a look at what all the fuss is about. Why is it so good for us?
What happens when we meditate is that our brain activity changes.
Just 20 minutes is enough for you to experience a drop in beta waves, which means your brain is processing information more slowly, and you’re falling into a deep state of relaxation. It literally, quiets your mind.
And, for people who meditate frequently, this deep state of relaxation gets increasingly easier (and quicker) to reach.
The health benefits
And it’s not just about being in a state of relaxation. That relaxation state brings real, proven health benefits.
Stress relief is one that is well-known.
Meditation reduces the heart-rate and lowers blood pressure. While in themselves, these are not evidence enough for long-term health benefits, some studies do show improved outcomes for heart patients, and also for treating anxiety disorders, and also for managing the stress symptoms of cancer patients.
It makes sense — the more relaxed we are, the more resilient and able to manage both the everyday and the extraordinary stress we face.
And the benefits don’t end there. Proponents of meditation also claim it boosts our immune system, improves fertility, emotional balance, and more.
And for writers, there is one additional benefit to regular meditation that should convince even the biggest skeptic. It can help us increase our creativity.
The slowing down of activity in the frontal lobe that comes from meditation is one of the key changes in a mind that is about to become creative.
The frontal lobe slows down so our decision-making area is calm, those questioning ‘voices’ quiet down. At the same time, the medial prefrontal cortex, where we learn association, context and emotional responses, becomes extremely active. The idea-centre. Which is exactly why we have our best ideas when we’re exercising, showering, or about the drift off to sleep.
And the creative boost seems to work by making us more open to coming up with multiple ideas, and also by reducing our instinct to focus on a single solution.
So the more relaxed we are (back to those brain waves!), the more ideas we generate, and the more possible outcomes we can imagine.
Which helps us tackle ‘big’, life problems, but can also stimulate creativity at the level of words and images. Great for the writer!
Setting up our habits and creativity for a release of dopamine is part of this. We need a combination of relaxation and stimulation.
Meditation takes you to this place quickly and purposefully. At the same time, it closes down the anxiety neutrons in your brain, meaning that your creativity is not hampered because you are not constantly questioning yourself.
Alternatives to meditation?
But what if you just can’t bring yourself to try it?
It’s something I’ve battled with for a while now. I’m adventurous enough when it comes to new experiences, travel, food, exercise. (All good cures for writers’ block by the way.) But meditation…
Even though I know at an intellectual level that meditation increases creativity, creates insights and connections, reduces anxiety, and fosters ‘flow’, I’m just not convinced it is for me.
Am I the only one who just can’t bring myself to sit very still and foster my flow for longer than three minutes?
So, I did some research and it seems there are alternatives to meditation that bring about very similar benefits. Without having to sit still.
1. Dance your mind out
As far away from sitting as you could imagine! Dancing can be a full body workout and also functions as a great meditative activity.
By letting go of your ego and dancing like a crazy person, alone in your room, you lose all regard for how you look, what you’re wearing, and what people might think of you.
This kind of intense dancing has similar effects to meditation. It releases your tension, easing any ego or artistic anxiety that left your creativity open to self-criticism and doubt, leaving you free to experiment without holding back.
And this means you become present, and you experience those same reductions in your anxiety centres as you do when you meditate. You simply lose yourself in the music.
Let yourself boogie-on down to a song or two, and you’ll end up feeling refreshed and invigorated; both mentally and physically.
2. Have a belly laugh
If you laugh, you’ll be happy!
A smile can stimulate well-being, but a laugh takes it further. It’s the best kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and one you shouldn’t ignore just because it feels slightly self-indulgent and not quite ascetic enough.
Like meditation, laughter improves your mood, reduces stress and even strengthens your immune system.
The emotional balance that you receive from laughing is fantastic for writers’ block because an emotionally balanced mind is the perfect place for creative insight.
The change in perception that comes when your mood shifts is key to creativity, and is something that can get from laughing.
So spend time with your funniest friends, watch some stand up, or simply laugh at yourself for a few minutes – you’ll be surprised how entertaining you can be.
Once you’ll start you’ll find it hard to stop, and you’ll find yourself feeling cheerful and relaxed for hours.
3. A gratitude habit
This is a very simple habit to implement, and has much the same effects as mediation. Higher levels of alertness and enthusiasm follow, along with lower levels of depression and stress. And people who keep a gratitude habit tend to make greater progress towards personal goals.
According to studies at Berkley, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved. A fantastic recipe for well-being if ever I heard one!
The easiest way to incorporate this into your routine is to keep a gratitude diary. As a writer we probably have more notebooks in the house than we know what to do with. Keep one by your bedside and make it your night-time habit. And don’t stop there, Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, gives ten ideas for incorporating gratitude into your day. Even going through the motions before you really feel grateful can be beneficial. Sending a note, or making a call.
Much like smiling, what we do determines how we feel.
4. Scrub your mind clean
Do you wash the car? Vacuum the floor? Mow the lawn? You could be getting a lot more out of it then a tidy home.
The things you do around the house everyday can work in the same as meditation if you approach them in the right way.
Repetitive tasks take very little brainpower, so your brain takes over to stimulate your senses. This is why we might daydream, chat, or pump the music when as you do the chores.
If you resist the urge to stimulate your brain, just keep your mind empty and focus on the task at hand, then your brain reacts in a similar way to when you meditate. Even if you can’t sit, then consciously quiet the stimulation in your mind by doing something repetitive and mind-less. Allow your body to connect to the inner self, and you find yourself better able to express it.
So, to feel some joy, or to stimulate ideas, grab a broom, tidy up and re-connect with the body, and then go back to pour out your self-expression on the screen.
5. Movement meditation
With a similar effect to the mindless movement of doing chores, mind-ful movement is something that comes with a long history.
Early practitioners of meditation would often forgo the tranquil room for the outdoors — and relax within themselves while doing their daily exercise.
From Tai Chi, to Qigong, focused movement, done in a mindful way, is a form of movement meditation. As you focus on the slow hand gestures, and controlled actions, it becomes a process that relaxes the mind while stimulating the body.
Movement can make it easier to focus as you get into a rhythm and concentrate on being, allowing your mind to connect with your creative and imaginative deeper self.
This explains why we love a ‘walk in the park’ to clear our head – simply walking at a constant pace can bring you into a deep relaxation. And if you focus on the movement of walking, it becomes more of a meditation than an exercise.
Willing to give it a go?
The archetype of standard meditation is as restrictive as its benefits are limitless.
You don’t need to sit on the ground and look inside yourself to connect with your creativity, relieve your stress and throw away your artistic anxiety. The benefits of meditation come from just being, naturally, and you can find them in everyday activities.
It just takes a little focus.
If, like me, you have some resistance to sitting in the quiet, trying desperately to concentrate on breathing, then it’s time to take a different — perhaps easier — approach.
If you’re willing to be flexible in your definition of meditation, try a few alternatives, then you might be surprised at the results.
And, who knows, we might even graduate to the real thing!