As a Gerontologist I always get asked the secret to living longer. Most people will assume that I’ll say something like; exercise frequently, drink water, breathe well, keep stress low, don’t smoke and drink moderately. That is all brilliant advice for living healthily and adding more years to your expected lifespan. However there is a much easier way to live longer but it doesn’t add years to your life.
We need to start reframing what it means to live longer. Rather than trying to add years to your life, why not instead focus on slowing down the years that have been gifted to you. So, what’s the secret? Regular meditation.
If you don’t think meditation is for you, please keep reading. A lot of people can be intimidated or put off by the term “meditation”. It does not mean sitting cross-legged (in discomfort) for hours in complete silence. Meditation is simply about training your awareness and taking time to pause and be still. You also don’t need to clear your head of thoughts or feelings. It’s about training your awareness to recognise when the mind has wondered off and to observe thoughts and feelings that arise without judgment. This can be done sitting down, lying down, walking – whatever works for you. Carving out even a couple of minutes a day will bring benefits and you can work up to longer periods if and when this feels right for you.
My epiphany on the secret to living longer came to me when I was preparing for my last Wisdom Space event called “Meditations on Wisdom” in the Ton Boon Buddhist Temple in Bradford on Avon. I was reflecting back on the Wednesday meditation sessions that I had been attending for the past 6 months and the impact they’d had on my life. I realised that I experienced a sense of time slowing down after these sessions and had begun to detach more from my emotions, giving me time to pause before reacting to events as they unfolded. This pause has been priceless.
When I looked into this, I realised that my experiences have been backed up by evidence-based studies such as that by Driot-Violet et al, 2019. These researchers found that mindfulness meditation, a type of focused awareness, affects how we perceive time and how deeply we experience the passing of time each day. If are present and draw upon the skills of focus, awareness and alertness that we build up through meditation, we make each second more meaningful and experience a fuller and richer sense of the day.
By developing more regular meditation, we are also laying one of the key foundations for developing wisdom according to Buddhist practice. The reason I first came to a meditation session in the temple was after seeing a book for sale in their window by His Holiness the Dalai Lama called; “How to practice the way to a meaningful life”. In this, he talks about three steps to a meaningful life. The first being morality, the second being concentrated meditation and the third being wisdom. When I first read this, I thought “I’m doing ok with morality despite there being room for improvement because I genuinely try to be of service and to live by the principle of “do no harm”. However, when it came to concentrated meditation, I realised I had no daily practice and yet, this is a necessary foundation for wisdom. The Dalai Lama uses a beautiful analogy to illustrate this saying;
“wisdom has no force without concentrated meditation, just as the flame of a candle in a breeze does not give off much illumination“
Concentrated meditation enables the flame of wisdom to burn brightly. So I’m now going to light a candle, pause and meditate. I invite you to join me.