"If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place." -- Lao Tzu
Let's have a moment of silent appreciation for meditation. It seems to be having quite the year.
Media attention, such as Time magazine's recent "Mindful Revolution" cover story, has placed it firmly in the pop-culture zeitgeist. Findings from recent studies, like this one from the Association for Psychological Science, show that mindfulness meditation, which cultivates awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts, improves your mental, physical, and emotional condition. Increasingly, doctors support prayer/meditation as a powerful tool for senior health.
This is especially good news for older adults facing fear and anxiety, health concerns, and social isolation, all of which challenge your ability to cultivate your purpose, which, in turn, drives the quality of your life.
Why Meditation Helps Older Adults Find Purpose
On the surface, meditating to find your purpose seems like an oxymoron. Why would you engage in something so seemingly passive to ignite passion for living?
Based on recent news and scientific studies demonstrating its benefits, meditation isn't passive at all. Far from it.
"Studies show that body chemistry and brain waves change," says Rabbi Richard Address, founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging. "We've learned that meditation reduces how much older people focus on the past and future, and this psychological shift leads to less negative emotion. They make better decisions and choices and feel more settled."
A Cultural Shift: Meditation Is More Mainstream
They're also more open to the idea than they once were. There's been a cultural shift, making the idea of meditation more palatable to seniors.
"Twenty-five years ago, if you talked about mindfulness, people looked at you like you were crazy," he says. "Now it's more accepted. This interest in meditation and purpose seems to be a wave driven by the baby boomers, who have this desire to control their own lives and embrace aspects of health and wellness and longevity, and wanting to avoid as much as possible the mental and physical deterioration they've seen with their parents."
Taking First Steps Toward Spirituality
Reaping the purposeful benefits of prayer and meditation for older adults takes more than sitting in a lotus position while chanting Om. First, you use meditation to manage the fear, anxiety, and health issues that often accompany aging.
"When you're in physical pain, you can't have a purpose," says Christian author and speaker Shelly Beach. "You're just trying to get through it. It's the same with fear and anxiety. When you're more physically and mentally able to cope, then you can focus on your children and friends, and muster the energy to rediscover the interests that may have fallen beyond the wayside."
5 Specific Ways That Meditation Helps
Of all meditation benefits, these five are best suited to helping older adults quiet and focus their minds, so that they can then reconnect to a sense of purpose:
1. Reduce Stress and Anxiety
So many stressors face older adults, often in combination: losing partners/spouses and social networks, managing health crises and chronic conditions, and confronting cognitive challenges.
"Stress is a very powerful and destructive tool, especially for older people," says Address.
Meditation helps turn off the mind noise and limit negative internal dialogue. Through rhythmic breathing, letting go, and reducing anxiety, you can get a break from the steady stream of negativity.
2. Find Focus
Many older people I know live in reactive mode. There are too many challenges hurled their way for them to take the wheel as they might have in years past. Meditation helps put them back in the driver's seat and sharpen their minds' ability to focus. By setting their intentions, they can create a proactive and empowering approach to life.
"To find purpose, it's very important to focus on things that supersede the chaos of the moment," says Beach. "I can go beyond what I see in this present moment, behind the limited grasp of what's in front of me."
3. Feel Comfort
Some meditative rituals, even if they aren't what we think of as meditation per se, help an older person feel comfort. It's easier to connect to purpose when you feel a sense of well-being.
"For my cognitively challenged mother, playing music was a powerful way for her to connect at a level that talking couldn't convey," says Beach. "Music was a form of meditation for her, soothing and comforting. Thinking through deep significance wasn't possible, but comfort helped her gain a sense of purpose. Looking at pictures of children also helped her and, while not a typical form of meditation, it served a meditative purpose."
4. Create Connection
Meditation can create connection by decreasing loneliness. How can you feel a sense of purpose when you feel overwhelmingly isolated?
A UCLA study found that meditation not only decreased rates of self-reported loneliness among seniors but also significantly boosted their immune systems (specifically, reducing gene inflammation) as well.
5. Get in Touch With the Big Picture
Focusing on meditation and purpose later in life makes sense because, for many, it may be the first time they have to contemplate mortality and big life questions.
"Everyone thinks that the purpose of meditation is to handle stress, to tune out, to get away from it all," says physician and author Deepak Chopra. "While that's partially true, the real purpose of meditation is actually to tune in, not to get away from it all but to get in touch with it all."
That could mean considering what they'll leave behind when they die, as well as what awaits. Why was I here? What impact did I make? Where am I going?
"Meditation helps people focus on their legacies," says Beach. "For others, it helps them envision positive views of what they may expect from the afterlife."
Meditation Is Inclusive for People of All Faiths
One positive aspect of meditation is that it's compatible with all faiths and denominations.
"It has everything to do with the individual," says Address. "This is private, people seeking their own rituals, taking a little from this group or that group to create their own paths. Every denomination, every faith has some sort of internal mechanism through prayer that is designed to quiet the soul. Sometimes it's chanting, which, if you think about it, might be the most ancient form of prayer. Or it's a meditative Latin mass with Gregorian chants, which are repetitive for the purpose of quieting the soul."
If you're a caregiver working with older adults who still might flinch at the term meditation, help them see the basic concept in a more familiar light. "If meditation seems like a stretch, then encourage prayer, or whatever silent spaces you can create, or other forms of communication with God," says Beach. "You can create a context that encourages meditation through simple, accessible means such as having moments of silence and sitting in meditation gardens."
Keep in Mind That Purpose Is Typically Unique to the Individual
"Fostering purpose in adults depends on how you approach it," says Address. "It really depends on the individual. Everyone wants the magic ten steps, but you really have to consider each individual. What made him happy? What can she do now? What did they used to love that perhaps you can help them rediscover? While encouraging meditation, keep trying to lead older adults to the things that will help them rediscover their purpose. Encourage them to remember that we are all part of something greater than ourselves -- the stream flows into the river, which flows into the sea."
How Meditation Really Helps Older Adults Find Purpose
In the end, the way meditation really helps older adults find purpose is by giving them a way to cut through all the clutter and clear out all the feelings and conditions -- fear, anxiety, inability to focus -- that are keeping them from finding their purpose.
Before you can take the wheel and get there, you have to remove the roadblocks.