We are living through a time of uncertainty, a sky-high pile of question marks. It has become increasingly difficult to make plans because the state of our world today is so volatile due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some people are adapting to their homes becoming their offices indefinitely, or in danger of losing their jobs, while others long to embrace loved ones they are stuck six feet away from.
In a time when emotions like stress, anxiety, boredom, and anger are hard to avoid, a new study suggests that a particular meditation practice can help us face them.
Catherine Juneau, of Clermont Auvergne University in France, and her colleagues examined how meditation practice affects equanimity, the ability to maintain a calm and balanced state of mind even in the face of difficult situations.
Eighty-nine college students with minimal meditation experience were split into groups who either did a body scan meditation, did a breathing meditation, or listened to poems. All participants practiced daily at home for a week and then came into the lab for a 30-minute session. They completed surveys at the beginning, right before the final practice, and at the end. Although the week of practice didn’t have much effect, the 30-minute session did: Even through this short exercise, body scan meditation made people more even-minded, or stable and composed under stress. The breathing exercise and poetry didn’t have the same effects.
In other words, a body scan can provide us with an immediate, temporary sense of calm and balance. But the second part of Juneau’s study suggests that meditation may have more lasting effects on our mental habits, too.
Here, 106 adult participants with previous mindfulness meditation experience answered questions about their practice, such as their frequency and total hours of meditation. They then completed an equanimity survey, which consisted of statements such as “I am not easily disturbed by something unexpected” and “I often wish to prolong moments that are very pleasurable.”
The more hours people had spent practicing meditation, the higher their equanimity in life in general. They tended to be more even-minded, and they didn’t let their emotions rule their reaction to situations. This was true for people with more experience in both formal and informal mindfulness practices—for example, just taking a pause to breathe or be aware of feelings in everyday life.
“Buddhist practices, [such] as mindfulness meditations, aim to bring about a stable state of well-being that is not dependent on stimuli,” write the authors. “Mindfulness practice teaches how to attain this state of equanimity.”
Lots of research suggests that meditating can help us experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. But increasing our equanimity is different: It doesn’t necessarily mean changing our emotions, but changing the way we relate to them. This study suggests that even for those new to the practice of mindfulness, they can experience short-term increases in emotional stability with a body scan.
Cultivating this state could possibly help us cope with the current chaos we are living through, at least a little bit better. The connection between meditation and equanimity may be a solace for those looking to find peace with the unknown. If you are able to go about your life with a more even-minded state of mind, you’ll be in better shape to take care of yourself and others.
– Sophie McMullen is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in psychology with a double minor in Spanish and public policy, with academic interests including cognitive and developmental psychology in children. She is a research and editorial assistant for Greater Good magazine. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.
To learn more:
- On Stress, Yoga Meditation, and The Evolution Revolution
- Three tips for wise minds to calm coronavirus anxiety
- Study finds a key ingredient in mindfulness training: Acceptance (not acquiescence)
- New study reinforces the importance of walking through forests for mental and general health
- Six tips to build resilience and prevent brain-damaging stress
- To harness neuroplasticity, start with enthusiasm
- Three ways to protect your mental health during –and after– COVID-19