“I cannot say this frequently enough. The goal of meditation is not to clear your mind but instead to focus your mind for a few nanoseconds at a time and whenever you become distracted just start again. Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding.” (Harris, 2017)
Meditation can change your brain!
If a drug outperforms a placebo in two independent clinical trials and meets guidelines for side effects, the FDA will approve it. The problem is that the placebo effect becomes stronger over time and there is no adjustment for inflation, as it were. Modern studies of the placebo effect show it to be on the rise across the board for reasons not totally understood. Once a drug beats out a placebo in a controlled study, the FDA does not require the pharmaceutical company to demonstrate its ability to do so year after year. It is true that in 1987 when Prozac was introduced to the world it beat a placebo in multiple controlled clinical trials (albeit by a modest margin). It is still prescribed today as if it were as effective as it was in 1987. One of the reasons for this is that Prozac is a common household name in 2018. One in six Americans use some form of psychiatric medication. Because of its ubiquity, there is an inherent placebo effect that comes with a medication like Prozac. So, when you pick up the prescription you have at least a general idea of what you’re supposed to experience from taking it.
It’s important to keep in mind that there really isn’t any biochemical marker for depression. It won’t show up on your annual blood work and it definitely won’t be caught on an X-ray or a throat culture when you get strep. The only way we know it’s there is when it shows up to the party and announces itself.
There is another way: Meditation can change your brain!
A consistent meditation practice can contribute to white matter changes in areas of your brain that directly impact self-regulation. Some of the most common feedback I hear from clients when we talk about mindfulness meditation is, “If meditation is your suggestion, I’m screwed.” Or my favorite one, “I’ve already tried this, I can’t clear my mind!” I’m always excited to deliver the good news when I hear this kind of feedback. The goal of meditation is not to clear your mind. It’s about getting lost then coming back to center over and over! We already know that happiness is more of a skill you can learn and cultivate rather than something that just happens to you while you’re walking down the street one day.
One of the best ways to cultivate this variety of happiness, that at the neurological level grows on its own once the seeds have been planted, is to start a daily meditation practice.
It can be helpful to attach a reward to this daily practice. For example, you are about to watch your favorite show that you have been looking forward to all day. You might say to yourself, ok I will do a quick 4-5-minute meditation then watch my show, as a way to attach a reward to mediation. It also works well to begin thinking somewhat more strategically about your daily schedule. For example, you might decide that whenever you park your car is a time to do a quick 3 minutes of meditation, or maybe every time you get in your car in the evening. Momentarily shifting attention from mental preoccupations to your breath for seconds at a time is the goal here. The final thing to keep in mind is to give yourself permission to fail. Remember that our brains are primarily hardwired for survival and reproduction, not long-term mental health planning.
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