Omie Robin Berzin, M.D., is a functional medicine physician and the founder of Parsley Health. Here she addresses the common reasons we fail to meditate daily and how to overcome each of them.
At Parsley we prescribe meditation to almost every member as part of their treatment plan. This makes us radically different than any medical practice I have ever seen or heard of.
We are doctors and health coaches using testing, nutrition, supplements, and medication to help people heal from chronic disease and create more vitality. So why are we so convinced meditation is an essential part of treatment?
Scientifically speaking, the reasons are clear:
- Meditation lowers inflammation by signalling the brain to lower inflammatory cytokines, specifically interleukin-6.
- Meditation rebuilds gray matter in the brain, which smartphones destroy.
- Meditation reduces stress, which reduces cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol imbalances blood sugar and hormones, and leads to weight gain. It also may lead to Alzheimer’s disease, which is now understood to be a metabolic disease, meaning it’s one we can modify with diet and lifestyle. Hence meditation was included in a treatment protocol recently studied by the Cleveland Clinic that showed reversal of memory loss in 9 out of 10 Alzheimer’s patients.
- Meditation stimulates the vagus nerve, which modulates proper digestion from the stomach to the intestines.
Practically speaking, the reason I tell many of my patients to meditate is this: You can follow the perfect diet, you can take the right supplements, and you can take all the tests, but if you don’t get your brain on board with your body, you won’t achieve your goals.
I see it over and over: People will take drastic measures to cut out foods like gluten, dairy, and grains on an autoimmune diet, take 10 supplements a day, and spend hours at the gym. But when it comes to sitting still and quieting their minds, they come back visit after visit and say, “I haven’t gotten there yet.”
I understand, meditation is hard. The 10-day silent meditation called Vipassana that I did in 2008 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life—and that says a lot given I went to medical school at Columbia. It was also the most profound and life-changing thing I’ve ever done because it reframed my perspective on the nature of reality and who I am as a person. Meditation taught me a tool set I have for life that works to heal my mind and body.
The truth is, you don’t have to go away for 10 days to see meditation work for you. Here are the top 7 reasons why you’re still not meditating, and how to hack them.
1. You try it and it feels terrible, so you assume you failed
This is wrong. Meditation will not feel like it “went well” or was “successful.” You will sit down and watch the whirling of your brain go haywire. You will realize how hard it is to focus on something like your own breathing, and you will get frustrated. The key is to realize that just by trying to meditate, you are already successful. Monks spend their lives working toward a perfectly clear zen-like state. Guess what? You won’t get there in 10 minutes! You don’t have to. Simply the act of observing your thoughts is healing to the brain.
2. You think you need to be alone in a dark quiet room
Not even close. Meditate as you cook. Meditate as you walk to work. Meditate as you drive or take the train on your commute. Meditation is just bringing your attention to the present moment, usually using a specific point of focus like the breath as a tool to keep your attention present, and noticing (without self judgement) when you’ve fallen into thoughts of the past or the future. Then from there, you can bring your attention back to the present when you realize your mind is wondering.
3. You’re too busy
The funny thing is, if you think you’re too busy to meditate for 5 minutes a day, you probably really need to meditate for 5 minutes a day. We are all busy. Busy is never going away these days. But if you take a few minutes to come into the present, get out of your head, and still your mind, research shows you will be more productive. Which is why meditation has become the top tool of some of our most powerful and successful CEOs.
4. You’re addicted to social media
What would happen if you cut your time scrolling through fantasy versions of other people’s lives by 5 minutes a day, saved your poor thumb, and meditated? I guarantee you would be happier. Is the time you spend scrolling making you or your life better?
5. You don’t understand it
This one is fair. I highly recommend reading a book like A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle or Mind Over Medicine by Lisa Rankin M.D., or taking a class at your local meditation center. Meditation never made sense to me at all. I was a yogi and a runner. For me, if it didn’t involve sweat and intense physical exertion, it was a total waste of time. I had to learn about meditation and then experience it for myself to get it. It’s not something you can intellectualize. It’s something you can contextualize by reading about it, and then you need to just try. It can’t hurt you, so there is literally no reason not to.
6. You think you need a lot of time
You don’t. A few minutes a day can be life-changing. At Parsley we recommend apps like Headspace to get you started. We also share a breathing exercise that I wrote about years ago on MindBodyGreen that people find really accessible.
7. It seems woo-woo and weird
Also fair. But today’s meditators aren’t hippies with beads or out-there yoga nuts. They are CEOs, athletes, moms, and millennials. Join them.