It’s January 2020, and I’m sitting at the breakfast table. A day like any other, except today is the first day of a new year, and a single thought ricochets around my head. How do I better myself this year? Naturally, the thought splinters: I need to get fitter. I need to be more productive. I need to be a better parent. I crunch on my cornflakes and then realise my five-year-old has been trying to get my attention, for I don’t know how long, with little success. My phone pings, and I fight the urge to pick it up while my son talks to me, his eyes wide with excitement. The thoughts crystallise.
I need to be more present… How do you be more present? Popular opinion says meditation. So when I go upstairs and sit at my desk, I download a guided meditation app on my phone, and tap ‘Start’.
Meditation was first developed in India, thousands of years ago, to help those on their path to enlightenment. In the 21st century, it is perhaps more commonly associated with boosting business performance. Steve Jobs, for example, practised Zen mindfulness. ‘There’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly,’ he told his biographer Walter Isaacson. ‘Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.’ World-changing products like the iPhone were the result.
More recently, entrepreneur Tim Ferriss interviewed 140 people at the top of their (distinctly varied) fields for his book Tribe of Mentors. One thing that 90 per cent had in common? A meditation or mindfulness practice. What is it, then, that meditation does for these hyper-creative, hyper-productive people?
Look on your app store of choice and you’ll find an array of meditation apps – whether it’s Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up. And millions of people are turning to meditation to quieten always-on lives filled with distraction and stress, both professional and personal. Headspace alone has more than 31 million users. But the one thing that has made meditation a viable balm for our collective discontent is that it’s no longer the preserve of Buddhist monks or New Age hippies. Today, it’s a practice with an almost too-good-to-be-true range of benefits backed by science, in a time when the importance of good mental health has never been more pressing.
There are two large-scale networks in our brains: the task-positive network, and the default mode network (DMN). The areas of the brain in the task-positive network increase in activity when we’re doing things that require a lot of attention – reading a book, or playing sports, for instance. The DMN becomes active when we’re letting our minds wander – thinking about ourselves, the past, the future, or what other people might be thinking based on our own understanding of them.
‘These two networks are anti-correlated – meaning they operate like a seesaw,’ says Dr Elena Antonova, a senior lecturer in psychology at Brunel University who specialises in the neuroscience of mindfulness. ‘When one goes up in activity, the other goes down.’ There are four stages to Buddhist meditation, she tells me: mindfulness of the object (like your breath); mindfulness of the subject (body sensations, for example); mindfulness of your mind (your thoughts and feelings); and mindfulness of phenomena (anything external to you, like the sound of rain outside).
What meditation or mindfulness practice can do as we work through the first three stages, says Dr Antonova, is reconfigure our brains so that our task-positive and DMN aren’t so separated – resulting in a ‘fluid attention’. Practise enough and eventually you’re no longer fixating on the object of your awareness, or identifying with feelings and thoughts running rampant through your mind – a state she calls ‘open non-preferential awareness’. It’s this state that athletes might refer to as ‘flow’ – when they’re able to separate their focus without fixating on, and being distracted by, outside stimuli or internal thoughts.
It’s a powerful proposition, but Dr Antonova is quick to point out that there is a tendency for people to reduce mindfulness to a way in which we can strengthen our attention networks. ‘You could just do working memory tasks and train your network, but it misses the point of mindfulness,’ she says.
The point being to embrace the holistic benefits of the practice. Mindfulness, says Dr Antonova, also increases the volume of the hippocampus, which means our memory, motivation, emotions and learning all benefit. The hippocampus also regulates the release of cortisol in our body, which is our response to stress. Non-judgmental attention in the present moment can lower the levels of cortisol pumping around our brain, and keep stress and anxiety at bay. A lot of stress and anxiety is caused by fixating on negative things that have happened in the past, or running negative scenarios that could occur in the future.
And as if that wasn’t enough motivation to start practising meditation regularly, Dr Antonova says it can preserve our energy levels, too. ‘Brains are metabolically very hungry organs,’ she says. ‘They use about 20 per cent of all metabolic energy. When you deactivate the DMN when you don’t need it, the release of energy feels very different.’ Crucially, there’s more of it. ‘You have the energy to respond rather than react. People become much more reactive when they feel run down, therefore self-defence mode kicks in. Your coping capacity and your resilience is diminished.’
We could all benefit from an energy boost – especially those in high-pressure jobs. Siri Thomas is a Bristol-based production journalist working in regional television news. She started meditating as a teenager, thanks to a persistent grandmother who taught meditation and mindfulness. Thomas’s days are stressful – writing and editing articles, producing news bulletins to tight deadlines, and getting up at 3:30am if she’s on the early shift. And in times of global crisis? The pressure increases exponentially.
Meditation, says the 23-year-old, has reduced her anxiety levels ‘dramatically’. She explains: 'The variables in my life have never been so stressful, and at times that would get on top of me. I’ve finally managed to control my anxieties through meditation. I’ve learnt that only I can control these things.’