Meditation: The Seat Belt Of Mental Health

03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I once heard a world-renowned psychiatrist pose a question to a room full of mental health experts. He asked, "What is the 'seat belt' of mental health? Seat belts save lives, they are a simple thing people can do to protect themselves from physical harm, but what is the comparable tool to protect us from the mental hazards of life? What is the seat belt to protect against the risks for unhappiness, depression, anxiety, pain, and suffering?"

We all know that the road of life is bumpy with unexpected drop-offs, accidents, and only the occasional smooth-sailing highway. I believe that meditation -- a practice for increasing awareness -- is truly a seat belt of mental health, a protection for us on the hazardous road of life. Meditation doesn't mean sitting and reciting a mantra , although one could practice that way. Meditation is a mental exercise that heightens your awareness to experience. We have a center at UCLA where we teach meditation to the public as well as investigate the science behind it. I often look at our work promoting meditation and think that it's like the early days of seat belts -- only a few people thought it was a good idea, and most people didn't want to be bothered with it.

I remember when cars started coming with seat belts, and I remember that no one wore them. In fact, I remember consciously choosing not to wear a seatbelt. Over time, more and more people started to "buckle up," then cars had to have them, and finally the laws required us to wear them. I'm not advocating that we have laws requiring us to meditate (but I wouldn't mind if all schools and workplaces offered meditation and places for people to find a little peace and quiet). The biggest shift would be that we as a society started to see the value of meditation, in taking time to discover our inner sense of awareness, to heighten awareness of our experiences.

To get there, we will likely need the science of meditation to be disseminated by some PR firm with a large scale marketing campaign, like "Buckle up for Safety, Buckle Up" was back in the day. The science is pretty convincing -- meditation can improve your health (boost your immunity) and lead to happier and more compassionate living (it is strongly associated with happiness and well-being). Given the simplicity of meditation-- it's free, easy to do, and available to everyone--I think it is likely merely a matter of time before it becomes as routine as putting on a seat belt.

Until then, take note of the little things you already do that heighten your awareness, like paying attention to a breath or two, and consider practicing a little meditation every day. Try it and see for yourself. Meditation alone won't protect you from all things hazardous to your mind, but like a seat belt, it can help!