Can meditation help boost brain power?
New research shows that daily meditation improves memory and diminishes stress. John Hearne looks at the evidence
Think meditation and you probably think hippies with long hair and sandals, sitting cross-legged somewhere chanting mantras and smelling of patchouli oil.
A legion of stars, such as Russell Brand and Gisele Bundchen, swear by meditation, and now scientific research seems to be backing them up.
A medical team from Massachusetts General Hospital found that participation in an eight-week 'mindfulness meditation' programme produced measurable changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
For those who've been meditating for years, this isn't news. Dublin-based Siobhan McKenna teaches meditation as part of the Ayurvedic lifestyle, developed by Californian guru Deepak Chopra.
"When you get into a particular meditation practice, you start to make better choices for yourself, you're less stressed and life just starts to flow better," she says. "You find yourself eating more healthy foods and toxic relationships and habits start to fall away. Meditation is the foundation on which to build a healthy, more stress-free lifestyle."
Dr John Duffy is a Galway-based cardiologist who has been practising transcendental meditation, or TM, for the past 30 years. He believes daily meditation is a highly effective means of preventing disease. "We waste our money treating problems that have already arisen, whereas if we could prevent all these problems, all the hospitals would very rapidly empty out and society would be much happier and better off."
To make it all happen, you don't have to go to India or spend 10 years on a mountain in Tibet. "It's quite easy to incorporate into your daily life," says McKenna. "You start to see the benefits quickly."
One myth she's quick to dispel is that meditation is about making your mind go blank. "You're never going to clear your mind and once you know that thoughts are a natural part of meditation, it gets rid of the stress," she says.
"When I started, I thought I wasn't meditating properly because as soon as I sat down to meditate it was like every single insignificant thought would start bombarding my head."
You do need alone time and also a quiet space to meditate, but if you do get interrupted, it's no big deal. "You can minimise interruptions," says McKenna. "Tell people you're taking quiet time, and turn off your mobile, but if you are interrupted, just deal with it and resume meditating."
The key, says McKenna, is to make it part of your daily routine -- at least once a day, and preferably first thing in the morning. "It's RPM: Rise, Pee, Meditate. It sets your day up. Commit to just 15 minutes per day and you will see real benefits in your life."
McKenna offers two types of course: an hour-and-a-half session, where you learn stress management and basic meditation, costs €80; and a two-day 'primordial sound' course for €350. This is a much deeper experience, which includes follow-up support and mantra-based meditation. There's no belief system involved in meditation. TM teacher Ann Brennan says: "We teach people who don't have any religion at all and those who are quite religious."
She recommends practising twice a day and says benefits flow almost immediately. Her TM courses include an introductory lecture, a day of learning and a series of follow-ups. The courses cost €600 for a working adult, and €300 for students and the unemployed. There are also group deals for families and special prices for children.
Dr Duffy concludes: "Meditation has had remarkable effects on people that I know. I can tell you about it all day but until you experience it, you won't know what I'm talking about."