Meditate Like a Marine to Pump Up Your Mental Muscles

Marines waiting to be deployed showed better memory after participating in a mindfulness meditation program, and so can you.

February 25, 2010

Marines in a study benefited from meditation technqiues; it works for civilians, too.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The moments just before deployment can be highly stressful for those in the military, but a study published in the journal Emotion finds that meditation improved mood and bolstered working memory during this period. Working memory is the short-term memory system we tap into for managing information, controlling emotions, problem solving, and complex thought—sometimes in crisis situations. You can gain the same benefits when faced with stressful situations, whether planning your wedding, having your first child, preparing to undergo surgery, or getting ready to change jobs, according to lead study author Amishi P. Jha, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.


THE DETAILS: Jha and fellow researchers divided 48 male Marines into two groups before they deployed to war. Thirty-one participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation course, while the other 17 Marines did not practice mindfulness and were used as a control group. The soldiers' average age was 25 years old. The concept of mindfulness involves focusing on the present, such as the physical sensations you experience while breathing, without judging them or allowing your thoughts to wander. The study used the mindfulness program developed by the Mind Fitness Training Institute. During the study period, Marines spent an average of 12 minutes a day engaged in mindfulness meditation. Researchers discovered a dose response to the meditation: Those Marines who meditated more scored better on mood and working memory evaluations.

WHAT IT MEANS: A number of mindfulness protocols call for 30 to 45 minutes a day of meditation, which is unrealistic for many busy people. But Jha says the results of her study found that much shorter meditation sessions could still improve mood and mental clarity. She compares mental training to exercise. The more you do it, the better you get at it. "And as with physical fitness, there are benefits to it," says Jha. "The trickier problem is taking the first step to start it."

But there's plenty of scientific evidence out there to persuade you to give mindfulness meditation a try. Other studies have shown that mindfulness lowers stress, decreases obsessive thinking, and even improves immunity.

Read on to learn how you can give mindfulness a try.

Use these beginner meditation techniques to start thinking more clearly.

• Just do it. Some days, it's tough to get out the door for a run. Same goes for meditation. Occasionally, you just don’t feel like doing it. But as the Marine example shows, just a few minutes a day will produce results in a few weeks’ time. "It's not always easy. The thing is, the benefits don’t come from being good at it," says John Schaldach, curriculum and training coordinator at Mind Fitness Training Institute in Alexandria, VA. "They don't come from perfecting it. They come just from doing it."

• Find a spot and focus on the present. Find a relatively quiet spot in your house or apartment, sit down, and, if you want, close your eyes. A classic meditation technique for beginners involves simply focusing on your breath and observing it. "Our minds are normally all over the place, so do your best to focus your attention on the experience of breathing," says Schaldach. "When you notice your attention wandering off, bring it back to the breath. Pick where you feel the sensations of the breath the most. For some people, that's in the belly or chest, or air in their nose or on their upper lip. Pay attention to the physical sensations. If you start to have thoughts about it, notice the thoughts, then return your attention to the physical sensations."

Over time you'll get to where your attention will stay focused longer, and not wander off onto things like your next meeting or when your car payment is due. (Don't worry, that's normal in the beginning.) You can also focus on how the ground feels beneath your feet as you walk, or how your butt feels touching the chair you’re sitting in. As Schaldach says, it's about noticing physical sensations you're experiencing at that very moment in time.

• Not relaxed? Don't stress. "You may become relaxed when you practice mindfulness, but you may not every time," explains Schaldach. "The cumulative affects of practicing regularly over time will eventually provide the benefits."

• Stick with it. "People try it and they get discouraged because we live in a culture that often demands immediate results without much effort," says Schaldach. Even if it's just five minutes every morning, taking the time for mindfulness meditation can eventually sharpen your mind, lower your stress, and help you feel happier. Also, mindfulness requires no equipment, and it’s totally free of charge. All you need are your thoughts, and a quiet place to let them focus.