I don't know anyone over 50 who does not complain about his/her memory. Former poet laureate Billy Collins' poem "Forgetfulness" comes to mind. The first stanza convinces me that my friends and I are not alone:
"The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of."
Recently, I noticed that I wasn't having as much trouble accessing my memory. When I do have a slip and can't immediately recall why I'm leaving one room of my house for another, I find that if I stop for a moment, the reason comes back to me. This is a departure from many previous experiences of having to retrace my steps, ask someone what I was doing, or simply giving up.
I believe the improvement has to do with meditation. There is ample research to support the idea that meditating regularly helps memory by changing the brain itself. Besides the physical changes, I theorize that meditation also helps improve memory in the following ways:
1. We pay better attention. Instead of daydreaming, worrying or strategizing about the future or reflecting or agonizing about the past, in meditation we learn how to be aware and alert in the present moment. This means our focus is on what we are doing. We notice details that give us help when we want to recall something. Have you had the experience of driving somewhere and not being able to remember anything about the drive? Maybe not even the route you took? That's because your attention wasn't on the activity of driving but somewhere else instead.
2. The increased mental capacity allows us to find new ways to store and retrieve information. I used to have a powerful photographic memory. During a test at school, I could recall the page and paragraph where I saw the answer in the textbook. Although I still have some of that ability, I find I'm now able to remember easily through association as well.
3. Simply the discipline of sitting quietly, sometimes being uncomfortable in our bodies or with our thoughts, creates patience. This is very helpful to our memory retrieval. What do you do when you forget something? Do you get impatient, frustrated? If you do, you've added another barrier -- tension -- between you and the information you are after.
Although there has been evidence to support the link between meditation and memory for many years, I don't know anyone who started to meditate for this reason. The payoff probably seems too far off, like training for an ultra marathon run. The subjects in one study meditated 40 minutes a day for an average of eight years. This may seem like a long time however, like with a long, slow run, there's a lot to learn and see on the trail.
I've had many delightful surprises during my meditations -- releases of pain, anxiety and gifts of new insights and ideas. Each meditation is like taking a journey, a vacation to a place I've never been.
I believe any meditation technique can be effective, however here is a simple meditation method for you to try:
Sit comfortably, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Release the breath slowly. Now return your breathing to normal. Notice where in your body the breath originates. Does your upper chest rise? Do you feel an expansion in your diaphragm or lower abs? Without judging the process, simply be aware of where the breath begins and ends. There is no effort. The body naturally breathes itself. As you continue observe this, also notice how the breath moves other parts of your body. Perhaps you'll sense your shoulders rising and your back expanding. You may even feel a slight movement in your hands or feet. Stay open to learning how the breath moves naturally within you.
If your thoughts begin to intrude, simply return your focus to how you are experiencing your breath. Let this lead you into meditation, where peace and serenity spreads throughout your mind and body.
For more by Susan Morales, M.S.W., click here.
For more on meditation, click here.
For more than 20 years, Susan Morales, M.S.W. has explored human behavior through her work as a psychotherapist, and as a student/practitioner of meditation. In addition to using meditation as a device to help clients with issues of anxiety and depression, she offers classes and retreats to women in substance abuse recovery. She developed Be Who You Love Meditation as a method to teach people how to find greater depth of satisfaction in their lives. She blogs on meditation for annarbor.com and Red Room, and was on the editorial board for "The Voice of Social Workers: Poets and Writers," a journal recently published by the Michigan chapter of NASW. Visit her on Red Room, where you can buy her books.