Why mindfulness can be a teen’s superpower

Saamya Mungamuru

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A few months ago, I started meditating. The first time I sat down to meditate under the benevolent shade of the Redwood trees at Muir Woods, legs crisscrossed and eyes closed, I entered immediately into a mystical, trance-like state. “Ommmmm …” I chanted the sacred Sanskrit mantra of my ancestors, the sound reverberating through the woods. With each chant, I began to feel enveloped by a powerful calmness. I was aware of each individual blade of grass brushing my skin, their coolness contributing to the greater tranquility of the atmosphere. The whoosh of the wind felt in sync with the birds chirping in the distance. I had never felt more at peace in my whole life. Like the great Buddha, I could feel myself standing at the doorstep of enlightenment.

Just kidding. If you have ever tried to meditate yourself, you probably called BS after reading the first few lines. It’s not that easy. My first experience of attempting mindfulness meditation was far from a spiritual awakening. For starters, I wasn’t in the woods sitting cross-legged on the grass; I was at home sitting on my bed with my feet on the ground, my sweatshirts and unfinished homework piled around me. And rest assured, there was absolutely no chanting.

However, even without acting as a magical portal to spiritual transcendence, mindfulness meditation still impacted me in a powerful way, and there is a good chance it can impact you too.

I’ve always been a very emotional and impulsive person. While I am good at maintaining a nonchalant outward appearance, inside my mind, there is unrelenting chaos. I worry constantly about what others think about me—minor disagreements with my friends or even an unreciprocated smile in the hallway consume my thoughts for hours. I stress about the amount of work I have to do, about whether I am good enough and, like many others my age, about my future. Fueling this frenzied, destructive pattern of thought is social media, which by design denies the mind even a minute’s repose. Snapchat notifications, text messages and Instagram posts stoke the FOMO, or at the very least, conspire to keep my mind constantly engaged, hungry for more sensory bombardment.

Last summer, I had a forceful realization of the impact my thoughts were having on me when I read “10% Happier,” a memoir by journalist Dan Harris on his journey with meditation after having a panic attack on live television. In the book, Harris talks about the voice in his head, one that constantly criticizes him and propels a negative running commentary about everything in his life as he deals with the pressures of proving himself in the hypercompetitive media industry.

As I read the book, I was amazed to find someone that I could relate to so completely, someone who also wanted to get ahead and be liked and yet was told by his thoughts that he wasn’t good enough. Harris’ thoughts had made him too emotional, too responsive to every mental jerk. Thus, despite his skepticism, Harris embarked on the path of mindfulness, consulting everyone from spiritual gurus to doctors and neuroscientists, as well as attending meditation retreats (even one in Marin County) to find a way to tame his mind and gain control of his thoughts. I realized that mindfulness could help me, in the same way that it helped him, and decided to start my own journey with meditation.

According to Mindful.org, mindfulness meditation is a simple exercise of sitting still and paying attention to your breath. Unlike popular culture suggests, it is not necessarily a hippie, religious or elaborate activity that requires burning incense or a devotion to a particular ideology, but rather is a secular and scientifically proven method to train the brain. All one needs to do, according to the website, is “take a good seat, pay attention to the breath and when your attention wanders, return.”

My first time meditating, however, was not so simple. The minute I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breath, my thoughts began to race a thousand miles a second. I suddenly craved every kind of junk food, remembered all of the things that I was supposed to do that day but hadn’t done and felt a terrible itch on my left elbow. Far from being at peace, I wanted to check my texts, make a to-do list of all of my homework, organize my room and everything in between. Sitting in the same spot for 10 minutes and focusing on my breath when I had so much else to do seemed unproductive, even foolish.

The more I researched meditation, the more I realized that I was wrong. There are scientifically proven benefits to meditation that make even a few minutes’ attempt to meditate worth it in the long run. A study by Gaelle Desbordes, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, compared the brain activity of subjects before and after an eight-week training in mindful attention meditation. The results showed that upon being shown images with emotional content, there was less activation in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, in participants after the eight-week training course than prior to it. This demonstrates how mindfulness meditation can help humans be more rational and less emotionally reactive when faced with daily stressors, and find a way to respond to situations with greater poise. Additionally, studies published by the Biological Research for Nursing, a peer-reviewed journal, show reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and decreased the stress response in meditators.  

While there are arguments that meditation doesn’t live up to the expectations or that the scientific benefits are overstated, they may be expecting meditation to be a magical cure for stress and depression, which it is not. Just like how you go to the gym to build a healthy body, meditation trains the mind and works toward the well being of your mental state.  And, just as you would not expect to see washboard abs within two days of joining the gym, meditation also does not yield instantaneous effects but rather takes continued, steady practice to gradually train and strengthen the mind.

Since I began practicing mindfulness a few months ago, while I am still very much prone to stress and anxiety, I’ve found that I am better at stepping away from the epicenter of negativity and rather able to consciously observe my thoughts and emotions as an outsider, watching them come and go, without judgment or panic. Spending a moment to watch the ebb and flow of my thoughts immediately acts as a mediator between my feelings and the reality of the situation, as thoughts are not always facts. I plan to continue my practice for years to come as I navigate the ups and downs of college life and adulthood, and I encourage all my fellow teenagers, who might be in the same rocky boat, to practice mindfulness as well—because when practiced regularly, meditation can truly be a mental superpower.