The Case for Meditation & Practice Tips with Researcher Ashok Gupta
Neuroscience research has revealed and continues to show the wide-ranging health benefits of meditation. These benefits range from lower inflammation in the body to emotional resilience to increased compassion. A small investment of time daily, just 10-20 minutes, can yield many returns on effectiveness in multiple areas of one’s life. But it can sometimes be challenging for beginners to figure out what to do or what the process even looks like. Researcher and meditation teacher Ashok Gupta shares his recommendations for getting started, by becoming an observer of your thoughts and feelings.
Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. Today we have Ashok Gupta back with us, and we’re going to be going into some of the evidence and reasons why meditation can be so health-promoting. Ashok, welcome back to the show.
Ashok Gupta: Yes, great to be back with you.
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Dr. R’s Fast Facts Summary
- Reduces the need for medical care
- Less sick days at work
- One study showed a 48% drop in heart attack and stroke rate, in a 5 year follow up
- The brain becomes more efficient
- Focus and concentration become more readily available
- Prefrontal cortex development, helps you think and reason better
- Helps you out of a constant fight or flight mode
- There are two aspects of emotion
- The thought in the mind
- The visceral physical emotion
- Practice disidentification – still be with the feeling but no longer identify with it
- Relationships improve and we become less reactive
- Guided meditation is a great place to start
- Take regular deep breaths before you meditate
Where to learn more about Ashok Gupta
- Get help using this information to become healthier.
- Get your personalized plan for optimizing your gut health with my new book.
- Healthcare providers looking to sharpen their clinical skills, check out the Future of Functional Medicine Review Clinical Newsletter.
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DrMR: It’s good to have you back. I wanted to expand upon meditation specifically. I know we talked more about your conditioned defense response theory, which was a fantastic episode. If people haven’t listened to Ashok’s first episode on the podcast, please do so. But I wanted to expand more upon meditation in and of itself. Before we do that, in case people didn’t catch the last episode, can you give people the 30-second spiel on your background and what you’re currently doing?
AG: Sure. I specialize in treating stress-related conditions or conditions that might have been triggered by stress. So especially chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, any chemical sensitivities. And other kinds of illnesses where there seems to be an overreaction of the nervous system, an overreaction of the immune system bordering on autoimmune conditions, where doctors don’t really understand or haven’t really got a solid theory as to what’s causing the symptoms. There’s a vague collection of symptoms, which don’t seem to have an obvious organic cause. Even chronic pain conditions.
I think the last time we talked about the hypothesis about what I think causes those conditions. I believe it’s abnormalities in the brain. And then how those conditions can actually be reversed using brain retraining, and as an adjunct, meditation combined with that. I think that’s a brief summary of what we spoke about last time.
As I mentioned last time, I call these conditions neuro-immune-conditioned syndromes. Often when we go through some kind of experience under stress, the body reacts in a certain way, and then even once we’ve recovered from that particular illness, the body keeps reacting as if that illness is still there. I believe that it’s the modern disease, as it were, that there are so many new conditions, or conditions which were always around but are now increasing in the population, which doctors find very difficult to treat.
DrMR: I was thinking about this the other day, how your body can get into this hyper-reactive loop. I have a problem, certain air conditioning seems to bother me. I think this happened after some of my graduate work. I think there was mold in the building that I performed my graduate studies in, and that made me, for the first time, notice how I felt in some large buildings with recirculated air compared to others. It only seems to be a problem when it’s a really large building, the A/C is pumping, and I have to be in that building for an extended period of time. But I do notice that. I was recently speaking in New York City. It was either mold, or just a ton of flame retardants and perfumes in this building, but certainly I did not feel well. But there’s that little voice in your head that goes, “Oh gosh, is just going to be another one of those situations where it sucks because you don’t feel well?”
And when you get that initial sense, I can see how the body falls into this, “Oh my God, is this going to happen again? It’s going to be a huge pain in the a**. I remember last time how I felt, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you go into this whole spiral downward. So I could see if someone was reacting to something very pervasive in their environment, it would be much more damaging to fall into this hyper-reactive—as you said—neuro-immune overreaction. I definitely see there being a lot of merit in this retraining (part of which meditation can be used to effectuate) to get them out of this loop. I do think for someone listening to this or reading this who’s been through chronic illness, this is definitely something to consider to get your brain out of this bad pattern.
If there was someone who’s sitting too much at a desk and has some muscular imbalances, they may need to do some strengthening exercises and corresponding stretches that get them rebalanced so they no longer have hip pain, knee pain, or what have you. I look at this in a similar way.
AG: Yes. What you’ve described is exactly what we call a conditioned loop. In many different areas of medicine, we might talk about muscle memory, or trauma memory. And essentially, they’re all linked. I think an analogy that most people understand is when someone goes to a war zone—like people fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan—they often come back quite traumatized. Because what happens is they’re under such severe stress that, in that moment, their brain makes this decision that they’re in danger. Even when they come back to civilian life in the US or Europe, they are still exhibiting signs of trauma and being in a dangerous environment, because the brain remembers the situation it was in and starts reacting as if those situations are occurring now.
Any small trigger which reminds the brain of its previous experiences can be enough to trigger a defense response. So these things are definitely not in the mind, but they are in the unconscious brain. And that little voice that you get, “Oh no, what happens if this happens again?” is the small window of awareness that we have on a deep unconscious response. Retraining that is what we do in the Gupta Programme.
DrMR: Right. Again, this is kind of rehashing something we’ve talked about before, I just wanted to touch on it to emphasize the importance of it. So we’ll defer to that other conversation for the deeper dive there. That’s just a touch point.
Let’s now go into meditation specifically, which is used as part of the Gupta Programme. Let me start with a high-level question, for someone who may be saying, “Well, I tried meditation. But I can’t sit still and I’m kind of a fidgety person, so it didn’t work for me.” Why even meditate to begin with? How would you answer the question, why meditate? Is it really that helpful? Is it really that beneficial? Why even bother?
AG: It’s so interesting that there have been over 2,000 studies now done on meditation, the vast majority showing its incredible effects. The mental, physical, emotional benefits of meditation are now pretty established, and quite dramatic. So in terms of why meditate, I believe that whatever challenges someone’s going through in their lives—it might be physical illness, the inability to concentrate at work, emotional challenges people are facing, depression, anxiety, whatever someone is experiencing—meditation has been shown to have an impact. From a physical perspective, we know that there’s less inflammation in the body, lower blood pressure.
One of the main studies I think I quoted last time we spoke was a Harvard study that showed that people who meditated—when they followed them for a year before meditation, then taught the meditation, and then followed them for a year afterwards—found their visits to medical facilities (to a doctor or hospital) halved. It actually halved. That’s just incredible in and of itself. If that was a pill, it would be a miracle pill. There are also studies done by the Transcendental Meditation group. In the journal called Circulation, their study found a 48% drop in heart attacks and strokes. Which in and of itself was incredible. People followed up for five years after the meditation, so this wasn’t just a flash in the pan. We can see that on the physical side, there are so many benefits. On the mental side, there are increases in concentration and focus, and the ability to work without stress. I think the main benefits are not only the physical but the emotional side.
We’re all living in an environment in a modern society where we’re more stressed, more stimulated, more often staring at screens. And actually what our brains need is a break. They need to charge up. We take our phones out and charge them overnight, and charge them during the day when they run out of battery, yet we don’t allow ourselves to have a recharge. Actually, studies show that anxiety and depression, and all of these kinds of mental and emotional conditions, are radically improved with regular meditation. It makes us happier, at the end of the day. If people really got into the science of it, it would be a no-brainer. I know a lot of people who actually work in the sciences, and started looking at psychology. Once they actually read the research, they became regular meditators, because it’s just the obvious thing to do given the research.
I think in 20-30 years time, we’ll look back and think, “Do you remember that time when we didn’t really meditate, and the evidence was there?” And I think that’s where we’re at right now. There will be a big increase in the numbers of people meditating over the next 10 years or so. It will become as mainstream as yoga.
DrMR: Well, good, I certainly hope that is the case.
Evidence for Meditation’s Benefits
Let me ask a few questions for those who are a bit persnickety about references. Beyond the two main references that you cited—the Harvard study, and the study published in Circulation—I’m assuming there’s even more than those. So for the person who’s saying, “Well, is there just one anomalous finding?” I’m assuming that there’s a broader breadth of evidence that’s still supporting those same types of claims, correct?
AG: Absolutely. And we here at the clinic always make sure that everything we do is backed up. So I can actually send you a summary of research that we’ve done, an overview of the clinical evidence with all the citations and references. And that’s something perhaps you can share with your listeners as well.
DrMR: Yeah. I think some of our practitioner listeners would appreciate that for trying to present some compelling evidence to their patients. I’m sure the clinicians listening to this are trying to find the path of least resistance for motivating their patients and clients to make these changes. And I think that would be really helpful for some of them.
AG: Yeah, absolutely. We all need the intellectual proof before we take that step. But once we start meditating, most people find that just the emotional benefits, the happier feeling people get, is enough to keep them going.
DrMR: Ironically, or I guess probably as you would expect it to be actually, those who gravitate most toward meditation probably need the least selling on it, but those who are least prone to meditate probably need the most selling on it. My speculation would be that if someone was constitutionally more of your type-A scientific type, they would probably require a bit more coaxing into meditation because it may just seem a bit airy-fairy, even though that’s not the case. That may be just an erroneous bias they’re carrying forward. So I think having that documentation, for the clinicians especially, will be helpful.
AG: Definitely. I think meditation in the past has been associated or identified with the hippie movement, the happy-clappies, that kind of thing. Whereas actually modern science is telling us that this is something that’s beneficial for us as human beings. It’s nothing to do necessarily with spirituality, yoga, or anything like that. Just sitting down with our eyes closed and focusing on something is incredibly therapeutic for the brain, and trains the brain to become less reactive. So from that perspective, as you say, the objective evidence is definitely there.
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Now, keeping within that theme of how to convince someone who maybe doesn’t gravitate toward this of their own desires or interests: cognition. Cognition, cognitive function, executive function… these for me have been ways to convince type-A people to take action. Type-A always wants to be able to do better. You could argue during a meditation you’re doing much less, so the type-A person may say, “Well, I don’t have 10 minutes.”
The way to get them to sometimes do less is if you can explain to them, “Well, overall you actually may make better decisions, have better memory, have better recall, be more effective. So this 10 minutes may actually allow you to achieve more in the course of a day or a week, even though you’re investing some time in this ‘non-productive’ task.” Can you speak more to cognition, memory focus, some of these other facilities or faculties of the brain that may be improved from meditation?
AG: Yes, absolutely. The paper, or the summary of the evidence that I’ll send to you, includes evidence on focus and concentration. It also includes evidence on absenteeism. So absenteeism from work was rapidly reduced in organizations which introduced meditation. You can see, from a type-A go-getter aspect, if you’ve got less sick days and you’re able to concentrate and focus for longer, and you’re able to focus at work without getting so stressed, these are all efficiency gains. We know that the brain becomes more efficient when it meditates. And you might say, “Well, what’s an inefficient brain?” If you’re having a task that you want to focus on, and you’re moving towards that task, if you have an emotional vulnerability to that task—which we all have, right, those fears, “I’m not going to have enough time to do it, the deadline is approaching. I don’t think I have the right information, how am I going to get this done?” we often feel overwhelmed with the amount of things that we’ve got to do—then that makes you more prone to procrastination. It makes you more prone to the negative aspects of stress.
Whereas meditation fine-tunes the brain to be less reactive, more conscious, and more reflective. When we have that five o’clock deadline, instead of wasting energy worrying and being less efficient, we actually are able to deal with the situation in a calm way. I’m sure we’ve all had those days where, for whatever reason, we’re very calm and the day just flows. We get into that flow state. Everything just seems to happen when it needs to happen, and we get far more done than we expected. And there can be days where we’ve rushed, rushed, rushed through the day, stressed ourselves out, and actually we’ve been really unproductive. This idea that the more action we take and the more time we spend on the action translates into results is a misconception.
It’s actually about making the right decisions and having a calmer, more balanced mind. I often coach CEOs and people who run large organizations. Inevitably they feel overwhelmed, not only with the responsibility they have, but also the amount of things they have to do. When I teach them meditation, they find it a godsend. And they say, “I cannot be CEO or chairman of this company without meditating, because it’s just been a revelation in terms of how much I can do without getting stressed, and how calm I can feel, on top of things.” So there’s a psychological benefit, but also an efficiency gain in terms of what we’re doing. A lot of these type-As that you’re talking about often say to me, “Oh, Ashok, I can’t meditate. I have too many thoughts. I close my eyes, and all I can think of is thoughts.” And I say to them, “Well, it’s good you’re having thoughts because if you didn’t have thoughts, you might be dead. You’re having thoughts, that’s okay.”
Meditation Doesn’t Mean Lack of Thoughts
This misconception, the way that meditation is often taught, is this idea that you close your eyes, you don’t have any thoughts, and that’s meditation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The purpose of meditation—certainly for someone who’s beginning meditation—is not to silence the mind, but to change the identification with the mind. And if I may, if we can just do a short exercise, I can demonstrate this very clearly because otherwise we’re talking very theoretically.
DrMR: Yeah, let’s do it.
AG: If I can ask all our listeners now to simply close their eyes.
Okay, we can take a slow deep breath in. And breathe out and just open our eyes. Now, I wonder what we noticed during that moment that we had our eyes closed? Well, let me ask you, Dr. Ruscio, what did you notice? I just asked you to close your eyes. What were the thoughts that were going on in your head at that moment?
DrMR: Well, the first thing I thought was, because there was that moment of silence, “Oh, boy, did our recording just crash? Did our connection crash?”
AG: I thought you might think that.
DrMR: And then I thought, “Well, everyone else is probably thinking that same thing.” And then I thought, “Hopefully Ashok says something here soon to let us know that the recording didn’t just go south on us.” Then for a moment, I felt a bit relaxed because as you can probably imagine, my mind was always racing during these conversations, thinking about what to ask next, and where to steer the conversation. But I had a nice moment of reprieve from that when you said, “Take the breath,” and there was a momentary lapse in my frenetic thinking about the next few questions, and just a moment of stillness there.
AG: So, very interesting, isn’t it? When we think, what is the nature of the mind? The nature of the mind is to default to the negative or to worry. As soon as we closed our eyes there, the thought was, “What could be going wrong now?” And naturally, often for the people who find it difficult to meditate, it’s because they close their eyes and their brain is still whizzing away thinking of what could go wrong or the things they still haven’t sorted out yet. So the nature of the mind is the default to the negative.
The second nature of the mind, we just noticed there, is that it goes to the past and the future. It’s never in the present moment. It was thinking about, “Well, what about the questions I ask next?” And, “Where’s this interview going?” And all of those kinds of thoughts. The mind is constantly thinking about the past and the future. The key thing there is the mind is supposed to be a tool. And yet the tool has overtaken the person, the being, so that we are so identified with these thoughts, we’re just churning out thoughts without an awareness.
So let’s now repeat that exercise. But this time, let’s be aware of what the mind is thinking about. So rather than being our thoughts and engaged with our thoughts, we take a step back, and we watch the mind. It’s called a thought parade. We imagine the thoughts are just around us, and we’re watching them.
AG: So let’s just close our eyes again, let’s take a slow deep breath in. And let’s breathe out slowly. And this time, let’s become aware of what thoughts pop into our minds.
And notice them without judgment.
Let’s take a slow deep breath in, and breathe out slowly with a smile. When we’re ready, we can just gently open our eyes. Okay, good. So what did you notice there?
DrMR: This time I was actually much more relaxed because I wasn’t worried about the recording. I was a bit more ready for the pause. I think this is maybe where the past six months of my somewhat diligent meditation is paying off, because I was able to drop into this relaxed state really, with only one or two thoughts that entire time. One or two thoughts in that time gap I think is actually pretty darn still (depending on how quick your mind goes). The first thought I had was, my window is open and a nice spring breeze came through. I just enjoyed that feeling of warm air, birds chirping, and just really being in the now. And then there was a nice moment of stillness. I had a quick flicker of meeting up with a friend later today, then I had a quick flicker of, “Make sure to call John after.” And I let that kind of fade away.
I had a quick flicker back to Austin, just a quick flash from the Paleo FX Conference I was recently at, let that thought fade away. Another breeze came in, got caught in that moment. And pretty much, here we are now.
Observe Your Thoughts
AG: So obviously you’re someone who has meditated recently. Now, most people who perhaps aren’t regular meditators or are coming to it for the first time, when asked to do this exercise, notice that because they’ve now been asked to watch their thoughts without judgment, it’s a completely new experience to jump into the witness state. Normally we’re engrossed in our minds, but to step away from our minds and to observe our minds, they find that they have temporarily less thoughts. Because now it’s like when you see an insect crawling across the ground, or like a spider. As soon as you put the lights on and watch it, it suddenly pauses, because it knows it’s being watched. In the same way, when we take that witness position, we may still have many thoughts happening. But the difference is we are no longer identified with those thoughts. We are simply observing them and thinking, “Oh, how interesting that my mind is thinking about this. Ah, there goes my mind thinking about this.”
DrMR: Allow me to chime in. I found that to be very, very helpful. That was something that I didn’t realize at the start of my meditation practice here from a few months ago. I didn’t realize how normal that was to have all those thoughts. When I went through this series of guided meditations, (and in this case, I was using Sam Harris’s meditation app) Sam talks you through how that’s normal, and to first just become an observer of those thoughts. Just like you said, instead of me feeling like “I’ve got to make a mental note of all these things that pop up and try to track them in the back of my mind,” I just observe them. And like you said, once you turn your focus to a thought, it has a tendency to fade away much more quickly. That has been very, very helpful for me. Just to throw my own experience relative to this.
AG: Absolutely. It’s about labeling thoughts as well. Sometimes we can label them and go, like a curious observer, “There’s a thought that I’m having about dinner. Oh, there’s another thought I’m having about such and such.” The practice of meditation is—by staying in the witness position and just observing what’s going on—strengthening your ability to no longer be so identified and so reactive to your thoughts, and instead being the observer.
For people who find it hard to meditate, or they think they find it hard to meditate, initially it is a training course. It’s like, when you first go to the gym, you don’t expect to be able to lift the largest weights in the gym, right? You work your way up to it. What happens is, when we first start meditating, there’ll be lots of thoughts, and that’s okay. And as we practice and practice, the number and frequency of those thoughts gently, gently begins to reduce.
“Meditation can reduce the incidence of heart attack and stroke by 48% (shown in a 5 year follow up study). A Harvard study showed medical facility visits by people in the group were reduced by half!”
Even for someone who’s beginning meditation, the benefits will still be there. They might be sitting there and having thoughts for 20 minutes, but it still is strengthening the prefrontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex’s ability to no longer be reactive to the limbic system. There’ve certainly been a lot of studies showing that regular meditators eventually have a less reactive amygdala (the fear center, the emotional center of our brains). Also, with regular meditation, the volume of the prefrontal cortex can increase by 10 to 15%. So there’s actually an increase in gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as a result of regular meditation, which is impressive.
Meditating Can Decrease Reactivity
DrMR: And there’s one thing there, really quick, I just want to chime in on because I think that’s really salient for anyone’s work, really. I look at this through the lens of a clinician. I think it can be easy when confronted with a thought or an idea that is counter to what you feel or believe, to get an emotional reaction to that. And that makes it much more difficult to think. It just totally drains any degree of equanimity that you have, and you become reactive. I think this is one of the reasons why many clinicians or people in other areas have a hard time thinking objectively, because they’re too emotionally involved and emotionally reactive to data that counters what they think, feel, or believe. And certainly, I have found meditation to be helpful in this regard.
There’s a certain exercise… and I’m sure this is something you’ve probably talked about, actually. I’m sure this is not something unique to one guru. But you were supposed to picture a recent event that was irritating or insulting, picture that and relive that as vividly in your mind as you could, and feel your body have this response. And observe it in such a way where you understand you can feel offended, irritated, or frustrated, but it doesn’t mean that you have to react to that. You can be, as you said, an observer of that, and not let it dictate how you’re thinking. I think this is definitely something that’s worth highlighting.
AG: Absolutely. What you’re describing there is what I call insight meditation, which is that when we have an emotion, there are two aspects to the emotion. There are the thoughts in the mind, and then the visceral physical feeling of the emotion. We tend to feel those emotions in the center of the body. So we feel fear in the heart/stomach area. We tend to feel sadness and guilt in the throat area. There’s a physical reaction and a mental reaction in terms of emotion, and they have a feedback loop. When you have that initial emotional thought, it creates a physical visceral feeling in your body, which then feeds back to the brain that “I must be justified in this emotional reaction because this is how I physically feel.”
And what we’re doing with meditation, exactly how you described it, is to objectively observe those emotions—those visceral feelings—in the body and to let them go, which breaks the feedback loop. Then it’s much faster to actually come out of an emotional reaction by just observing the physical sensations in the body. So it’s breaking the mind-body link there.
DrMR: Yeah. And I suppose that has a tie-in not only for more professional endeavors, but also if you’re sick and you’re typically having that kind of reaction wind-up, if you can disassociate from that wind-up. I guess the bottom line here is, disassociating from a visceral response can help you both from a health perspective and also from a professional perspective. Also from a personal perspective. I’m sure it’s not good to be easily offended as a friend, a parent, or a sibling. This, across the board, seems to have a degree of applicability. I’m sure people here are nodding their heads in agreement, thinking of someone they know who is just so easily offended that it’s very difficult to get anywhere with them in conversation because they just get so reactive. Then once they go off, it’s very hard to think with them or work through anything.
AG: Absolutely. You mentioned the word dissociation. I would describe it as disidentification because I think dissociation can have some connotations around repressing our emotions, which I’m sure is not what you meant anyway. But I find the word disidentification means that we can still be with the feeling and fully own it, but we are no longer ruled by it. We’re no longer identified with it. When we learn to do that, actually, relationships improve. We become less emotionally reactive. If you think about it, what are the problems in the world? Most of the problems in the world are down to our unconscious emotional reactions to people of different color, different races, different religions, our reactions to our family, our friends. If we’re able to become more calm and objective in our responses, then that would solve a lot of the interpersonal problems that we have on our planet.
AG: That’s one benefit.
Increase Empathy and Connection
Then, for those who are Trekkies, if we start saying that meditation reduces our emotions, people say, “Well, hang on, do I do it then and end up becoming like Spock from Star Trek, or Data from Star Trek, where I don’t have any emotions, and therefore I’m soulless and dry?”
The second benefit is that, ironically, what meditation does is reduce the negative emotions—those more reactive emotions—but it also increases the heartfelt emotions. So love, forgiveness, empathy, sympathy, connection, actually grow within us. It doesn’t make us dry unemotional beings, it actually makes us more inclusive, warm beings. Nicer people to be around essentially. This is for those people who were thinking, “Will I become unemotional?” We’re differentiating between emotions and reactive emotions that are driven by the mind, and the more heartfelt feelings driven by the heart. And certainly certain clinical studies have shown that empathy is actually increased when people are able to calm the mind and meditate.
DrMR: Yep. I mean, that makes complete sense. Certainly someone who’s easy to set off when they’re in that state, they’re clearly not the most empathetic.
AG: Most of our thoughts, 80, 90% are conditioned. They’re the same reactions, the same thoughts, we had the day before. Let me give an example. If I were to ask you and the audience to think of a fast food restaurant, and now, think of a soft drink… Let me ask you, Dr. Ruscio, what was the fast food restaurant you thought of?
DrMR: There are many. Probably McDonald’s, and Coke.
AG: McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, exactly. These companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year programming, training, and conditioning our brain to react. When we think of food, of drinks, those are the brands that we will see in our brains. In the same way, the vast majority of our thoughts are conditioned. They’re not really our thoughts, they are thoughts that have been conditioned by our experiences in life. Then we realize that we’re living unconsciously. Whereas when we meditate, we become more of a witness awareness and we’re less identified with those reactive thoughts. Therefore, it opens up a whole new aspect of life. It’s like watching television on a small black and white monitor, versus watching television on a big, bright 50-inch LED TV. There’s a whole new aspect of life that opens up when we regularly meditate.
Getting Started: Guided Meditation
DrMR: Now, there are different types of meditation, and I clearly am not an expert here. But I think one of the things that holds some people back is thinking that “I’ve got to sit there with my eyes closed, and not think for 10 minutes.” And I have found a guided meditation where, yes, there is some sitting there quietly. But there’s also someone giving you little exercises to do, like the one I described, where you picture something that happened recently where someone really offended you and relive that moment vividly, and observe how your body is feeling while you’re reliving that experience. Then you spend maybe a minute or two doing that, and then they come back in and give you some more coaching. Now you can try to picture someone you love smiling at you, and feel how your body changes in terms of what you’re experiencing. Guided meditation I’ve found to be very helpful.
Can you speak to the person who’s going, “Well, I can’t just sit there for 10 minutes, I have too many thoughts.” What options are there, in terms of forms or types of meditation, to help get them started?
AG: Okay, so there are different types of meditation. I think for the beginner, a gentle guided meditation is a great start. As you listen to guided meditations, eventually you get to the stage where you no longer need someone to guide you through it. Because simply by closing your eyes and breathing for a couple of minutes, you’re able to gradually sink into that meditative state. Also what helps is breathing. If we do some regular, deep breaths before we meditate for a few minutes, that makes the meditation easier as well. Some of the breathing techniques that I’ve learned on the Art of Living course have been very beneficial in helping myself and my clients go into a deeper state of meditation. The Art of Living Foundation runs those. I would say for the beginner, trying to sit there by yourself and just close your eyes and meditate is a big challenge. But to actually have a guided meditation is a good start.
It’s a bit like going to the gym. When you first go to the gym, let’s say you’ve never been and you walk in. You have no idea what it is that you should be doing. But you have some training sessions with a personal coach to help you through that. In the same way, actually reading a bit more about meditation is helpful. In fact, we have a 20-minute video that goes through what meditation is and how to meditate. Obviously, we have lots of meditations. Perhaps I can share a couple of free meditations with you for your listeners as well, where you can put that on the page and then they can have something to start off with.
DrMR: Oh, yeah. That would be great.
AG: There are insight meditations like you described where you’re focusing on experience and then moving through it. The meditations which I use are about ones where we have something to focus on.
Generally, when we focus on our sensations and on parts of the body initially, that becomes a precursor for the brain to stop being so disparate in its thoughts and thinking lots of different things. Bring the thoughts and the mind to aspects of the body. We’re then able to, with a more focused mind, have periods of silence. There are periods of me talking very briefly and giving an instruction on what to focus on, and then periods of silence.
Meditation Is Seeing Between Our Thoughts
It is those gaps between the thoughts which is the stillness. So imagine, thoughts are like clouds. So the clouds are coming in and out of the sky. Normally we’re identified with that cloud, and we’re saying, “Oh, that’s a big cloud. That’s a small cloud. That’s an annoying cloud. That’s a dark cloud.” And those moments of stillness are when we identify with the entire sky.
So we’re no longer thinking about the thoughts. We identify with the sky itself, a much more expansive experience. We allow the thoughts to come in and out of the mind, we allow the clouds to come in and out of the sky without judgment. So there’s an expansive feeling there. That’s what we’re doing with these gaps between what I say on the actual meditations.
Each meditation has a different theme. So you can have a body meditation where you’re focusing on parts of the body. There can be meditations where you focus on a word, which might be peace or contentment. You can have meditations where you’re focusing on a particular, what they call, mantra, which is essentially a word that you’re focusing on. As I said, the mind is thinking lots of different things. All of these are about, what can we get it to focus initially? And then once it’s focused, we allow the mind to de-focus and become the entire sky.
DrMR: That’s great. And hopefully this is resonating for people who may have been a little bit tenuous about meditating. It’s not something where you just sit there and you’re on your own. Especially nowadays, with cellphones and these apps like you have. There’s a ton of resources there. So please don’t feel like you’re just going to have to sit there all on your own without any coaching or guidance.
Ashok, will you tell people your website and your app? Anything else that you’d want to point people to who are looking for a little bit of help?
AG: Yes, absolutely. I have a free not-for-profit meditation app called The Meaning of Life Experiment. You can go onto App Store and Play Store and download it for free. On this particular app, there are 30 meditations. And there are 10-minute versions and 20-minute versions. So you pick whatever works for you. And there are also lots of videos. The first video talks about what meditation is and how to meditate. The rest of the videos are optional. They’re a whole self-development course on the science of happiness and the science of discovering our life purpose. There’s lots of great content there in terms of videos. But if someone just wants to learn meditation, the meditations are there in the timeline. Each meditation slightly increases in sophistication, or the depth of the meditation gradually increases, as you go through that 30-day program.
So we don’t think of brushing our teeth in the morning, do we? We don’t think of having a shower. It’s just something that we do, because we know it’s good for us and it’s become a regular habit. We shower the physical dirt from our bodies every day. Just investing that 10 minutes (ideally 20 minutes) each day, to wash away the mental dirt, the emotional dirt, that we accumulate, is actually even more important than the physical dirt that we wash away. Because that’s dirt that we can’t see that’s in our mind. When I say dirt, it’s all the accumulated little stresses, worries, and negativity that we’ve accumulated each day.
What I would encourage people to do is not to think of meditation as a Band-Aid where “I’m feeling bad, I’m going to do a meditation.” Because we don’t really get into regularity that way. Instead, it’s something where, if we persevere just for a few weeks, we will begin to notice the incredible benefits that will come. It is like how you can’t just go to the gym in the first day or the first couple of days and suddenly have ripped abs. That’s not going to happen.
It takes time to train the mind to get into that state. And once you have more of that, you enjoy it more, you see the benefits more, and then you can’t live without it. Just like if I asked you, “Don’t brush your teeth for a week.” You’d feel, “Oh, that’s terrible. How could I not do that?” In the same way, once you practice meditation, it becomes your best friend, and it has so many amazing benefits in your life. I just encourage people to not just do one or two and think, “Oh well, I’ve done it. Not really for me.” To persevere for a few weeks, and then you really see how it integrates into your personality, your lifestyle, and see the benefits that you get from it.
DrMR: Agreed. I have to say that for me, it’s been very helpful. It’s easy to get pulled into a scenario where you’re always doing, doing, doing, doing. And some of those things may look very healthy. Like, you work for a few hours, you have lunch. While you’re eating lunch, you listen to a podcast. You go back to a few hours of work, you eat dinner, and you’re watching a documentary. This is what I was doing. I was always on, the mind was never still. There were moments when I had that stillness-like effect, exercise and music would be two of them. But certainly I needed more to counterbalance how on I was all day.
As you said earlier, that helped me from an executive faculty position in a multitude of ways. Being better able to maintain composure during challenging situations, more able to step back from life and see the big picture and make sure not to get wrapped up in the minutia at the expense of the more macro view. Memory, I think, was improved, as was word recall.
So certainly, it’s been something that’s been very helpful for me, albeit hard to get over that initial hump of “I just want to get on with my day.” Sometimes 10 minutes first thing in the morning, or part of your morning routine before you launch in, seems like a lot. But I would notice after I got about two minutes in, I’d feel things slow down. And almost every time, that voice inside my head would say, “Gosh, I’m so glad we did this.”
AG: We have 1,440 minutes in a day, right? So if we dedicate just that 10 minutes—which is less than 1% of our day—then the rest of our day becomes more efficient. It pays itself back. If you meditate for 10 or 20 minutes, I guarantee to people that it will pay itself back in efficiency savings, benefits in better decision-making, better creativity, better relationships. All those benefits will come just from that little investment of time.
When we think of it, we are, as you said, addicted to screens, addicted to stimulation, addicted to media, because we can have it 24/7 in our pockets. We as human beings are not evolutionarily designed to be that stimulated, which is why we’re seeing rocketing levels of mental health problems, anxiety, depression, stress and all the other things related to it. Now in a modern society, meditation or whatever relaxation response people choose to enjoy is a must-have. It’s not even a nice-to-have as it probably was before the era of smartphones. It’s now incredibly important to have just 10 minutes to still our minds.
I forgot to mention the website. If people want to download the app, they can go to our website, which is themeaningoflife.tv. And if people have more problems in terms of challenges in life—in terms of illness or chronic illness—for that we have our new online program, which is guptaprogramme.com.
DrMR: Great. Hopefully, everyone, we’ve made a compelling case and convinced you to take the meditation plunge if you have not yet. There are, of course, a number of resources available to you. And Ashok, I really appreciate you coming on and doing those few short meditations there, and just helping everyone understand that this is something that can be helpful from a multitude of perspectives and has some good evidence to support it. That’s something that we really should be doing, to counterbalance the fact that we’re not living like hunter-gatherers anymore (where we’re hanging out under a tree, taking a nap after lunch, and relaxing). So again, thank you for what you’re doing. I really appreciate it. Keep me in the loop if anything new and exciting comes across your desk.
AG: Yes, absolutely. So I’ll keep you informed of some of the latest research on this. Certainly for your listeners, I’d love to share a couple of free meditations that they can then stream from your site. That might be a great introduction for people.
DrMR: Absolutely. So people listening to this, the link will be in the transcript. We’ll make that really easy, high on the page there in the summary notes. That’s a great place to get started, folks. So if you haven’t done it yet, please do it. It’s only going to help you. And as Ashok pointed out, it’s less than 1% of your time in the day, which may make the other 99% of your day more filled with happiness and more effective from a performance perspective.
AG: Yes, absolutely.
DrMR: Awesome. Ashok, thanks again, I appreciate it.
AG: Yeah, thank you so much. Take care.
What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.
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