The Science of Meditation
My knowledge on meditation is continually updated, with the world scrutinising it for over 30 years (I have been meditating for 25 of those 30 years). Some of our earlier research might have been less than exemplary, such was the enthusiasm for its effect, but we learn and we grow. Research design and analysis has evolved, we now have human and mechanical technology which can visually demonstrate the real effects of meditation on our mind and body (like the MRI scan, the cross fertilisation of human endeavour around the brain, neuroplasticity).
Here are just some of the interesting now completely valid facts:
- It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds – multiple studies have shown this. And it also affects other parts of the brain too, like..
- With regular practice, the amygdala (that brain region linked with processing sadness, anxiety and a myriad of negative emotions) shrinks in size. We get less worried, experience less fear. Sign me up.
- Regardless of the type of meditation practice, it lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, enhances the immune response, lifts mood, helps us recover more quickly from stress and sharpens focus.
What is hard to find is facts that have been asserted about meditation but which have been subsequently disproven. And this is because there is probably a unifying set of benefits for all types of meditation (like the above), but that some meditation styles will give us deeper benefits in this areas, and some may also alter who we are. (There are loads of myths about the meditation process and don’t intend to cover them here – google and ye shall find).
THE PATH IS WIDE AND DEEP
When I first started meditation, most people thought I was attempting to either ‘zone out’ or ‘get high’ naturally (this was the naughty nineties). I didn’t wear the compulsory fishermans pants, preferring to stay in my Olivia Newton-John tights with silver leg warmers.
As a regular practitioner, I could see what it was doing to help me balance myself, become more peaceful, more ‘me’. But I was not comfortable with some of the new-age philosophy being attached to it, nor did I wish to see it being corporatised, losing its soul.
As I continued to meditate, I noticed that different meditation techniques seemed to have different affects. I started to distinguish this difference based on its spiritual impact – either wide or deep. And now meditation research, and loads of it, supports this framework.
WIDE LIKE THE OPEN OCEAN
Shamata – the calming of the fluctuations of the mind – is the best way to describe this. This category of Wide also includes those meditation practices which, to me, are ‘de-spiritualised’ – mindfulness programs such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Cognitive Programs for example, which have an impact on peacefulness immediately after meditation, sometimes only short lived, sometimes much longer. But my essential identity is never challenged. This is not a criticism of these practices, but an observation of the effect this meditation has on the body, mind and soul.
The term ‘mindfulness’ has been somewhat overdone, and is in danger of becoming that close 1st cousin to the rising narcissism of our society (if you want to read a good book on this, try Dr. Thomas Joiner), so I am not talking about programs, such as ‘mindful parenting’, ‘mindful dog walking’, and so on.
Mindful parenting and mindful dog walking are not, and hopefully were never intended to be, meditation practice.
Thankfully, in parallel to the diminution of the term mindfulness, many have continued to do their research in mindfulness, have always understood the spiritual groundstream under the rising snappy logo programs. Like Ellen Langer, the first female tenured academic in the esteemed Harvard University Psychology Department.
DEEP LIKE THE OCEAN TOO
Vispassna – these are the practices which alter who we are – they challenge our identity and connection to our beliefs and thoughts. They may not bring us much personal peace when we are in the thick of it, but will bring immense insight and awareness of us and others. And once out the other side, you have a peace which can never be taken away from you. Characterised by long periods of sitting, silence, some form of sensory deprivation (no reading, no writing, no phone, no talking, 1 meal a day – you get the drift).
As one of my masters once said, ‘there is no where to hide in Vispassna when the dancing mara sisters come to visit’.
WHAT MEDITATION AFFECTS
Every form of meditation has its own neural profile. Not all meditation style deliver the same benefits
From what I have been able to gather from all the research over the years (including the latest from Daniel Coleman and Richard Davidson), meditation practices cover some, one or all, of these:
- Presence – through body scans, breath work, yoga nidra
- Perspective – contemplative group discussion, observing thoughts, focussing on a particular thought and assessing feelings and response
- Affect – loving kindness practice, using mantras or key words
- Equanimity – building compassion and empathy
- Attention – meaning simply learning to pay attention
Example 1 – Listening to a guided meditation on getting to sleep as I lie in bed – I am meditating. Which category are you in? And what affect is that meditation mainly having on you?
Type of meditation: You are practicing shamata, mainly working on presence and affect. Should do the job if what you want to do is relax enough to get to sleep. Unlikely to change who you are, and might work sometimes and not others.
Example 2 – I meditate every morning, I go outside, sit down and am silent for 15 minutes. I focus on my breath, and when my mind wanders I come back to my breath.
Type of meditation – shamata, removing fluctuations of the mind. Loads of practice in attention and presence. Might start to open the door to vispassna, so be careful 🙂
Example 3 – When I meditate, I settle into the seat, using my breath, I focus on a particular mantra or dharma, usually followed by some silent meditation. Sometimes I see colours, hear sounds of insects, or bells. Not always very comfortable, but I feel great after. I keep a diary of some of these meditations, as some of my insights while on the seat have been quite profound (in retrospect).
Type of meditation: Vispassna – deep, deep. Long term changes to brain functionality, using all elements. Peace longer term, potential personality changes for the better.
WHAT KIND OF MEDITATION OUTCOME ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
Don’t get hooked on having to do the ‘right’ type of meditation – there is no Nobel Peace Prize waiting for you when you finally go to that 10 day vispassna (trust me, I know). And remember that what you are looking for right now, may not be what you will want do always.
- If you want a transient peaceful state of mind (meaning just after the meditation practice), then practice once in a blue moon (meaning once a week). Go with meditation practices that develop presence, perspective and attention – through body work, breath. It won’t last long – it is an emergency repair device for your body and soul, and sometimes that’s what you need.
- To create a continued state of peacefulness, you need to meditate for at least 20 minutes 3 times a week (yep, that’s what they have discovered). Practice improves the brain’s capacity to rewire itself away from bad habits. Just like anything really. Again, using presence, perspective and attention. Start to explore meditation techniques that ask you to focus on an idea or concept (such as unconditional love, compassion, peace). Meditation practices that work on affect AND equanimity. (Note: Shamata practices of gratefulness need to include something around unconditional love for oneself – empathic resonance (concern only for others) actives a neural alarm around pain. Compassion, on the other hand involves brain circuits around warmth, care and concern (for us all). Workers in high crisis people oriented business burn out because of this empathic neural impact. So you need to balance this out in the practice).
- If you want to change or alter your traits, meditation practice needs to increase in time and intensity to daily and most likely for 30 minutes or longer. The focus shifts from peace, to insight and awareness of yourself and then others. Meditation practices with a strong spiritual tradition becomes of paramount importance. You bed down important concepts (such as the four noble truths, or one of the Five Precepts), and long periods of quiet contemplation. You will be challenged, and in many ways, it becomes a high performance meditation activity. Dedication, consistency, and unwavering moral virtues in the face of the stuff that will be inside you waiting to get out is key. As is a good master, and a sangha.
This is what it feels like when you start to practice trait altering meditation every day. At least to me, it did and still does.
In summary, short daily doses of meditation will not get us to the highest level of lasting positive change—even if we continue for years—without some of the following: smarter practice (reading this article helped, I hope), targeted feedback from yourself and a master teacher, and a sangha.
It is kind of like buying a Maserati, and driving it like a Volkswagen. You may be hooked on the idea of being ‘zen’, but seriously, is vispassna for you, when all you want is a couple of days away from the kids?
one of the biggest issues we have with THE ALL DANCING, ALL SINGING nature of meditation at the moment, is that people are not given the neural menu choice that best suits them. We are being asked to buy A Maserati and all we want is a Volkswagen – Lee Carsley, WanderingYogi
So we set our expectations too high, abetted by enthusiastic meditation guides, and we start to fall at the first hurdle. They tell us they meditate for an hour and half a day (like seriously? I might be doing that in preparation for vispassna, or at a particular time of the buddhist calendar – but some days, all I can manage is 30 minutes).
And our bodies hurt us when sit lotus style. Our guides tells us not to move, they may even chastise us (ever so gently, but still…) I do not recommend lying down, but how come no one thinks to suggest lying on your side? No way you are falling asleep, and it was the meditation seat that Buddha took as he passed from this life. Or maybe the body is truly not yet ready for the meditation (but don’t use this as an excuse not to start somewhere). Go and do some yoga first (cos that’s what it was invented for).
While we are on excuses, if I had one American dollar for every time I heard someone say to me, “I really do need to come to meditation, but I am too busy, it doesn’t fit my schedule, I have kids, blah, blah, blah”, I would be richer than Donald Trump.
Myths and fabrications are the basis of all our excuses on why not to meditate – designed by us to fool ourselves, we must all be some form of masochists.
- I don’t have the time – stop looking at your social media – we spend up to 3 hours a day on this.
- I have family/work commitments – most everyone has these, and yet we still continue to have personal goals and develop. Or don’t you have personal goals? Might be time to have a look at that. Come to meditation.
- I don’t have the ‘right’ space at home – Monks sit under trees or in caves, these are not the ‘best’ places to meditate despite the romantic image. In my earlier days of meditating in an insanely busy household, I used to sit on the toilet (literally, with the lid down in lotus pose) or have a bath. No one interrupts you there.
Becoming better informed as meditators, regular or that once in a blue moon, is key. Learning to sift through ‘mythinformation’ on meditation, drop our ego on what we think we ‘should’ do, start with small baby steps, and learn to enjoy the wild journey your mind and you will go on.
And for those of meditating or about to meditate:
- The mind is wired to wander about 50% of the time, a Harvard study found (FYI, it wanders most on your commute, while working, and when you’re looking at a digital screen). Scientific data suggests it’s not that we have fewer distractions, but that we handle them better. Meditation takes advantage of the mind’s wiring to wander – it is an opportunity for mental training. All that noticing the thought, getting back to the breath, and doing it over again and again and again. One study tested a variety of different meditation types, including Transcendental Meditation, Vipassana, Tibetan Buddhist Meditation, Sufi Meditation and Hindu Meditation, and found that they all improve focus by varying degrees (all of which have as their grounding, breath work).
- Meditation will surface but is not meant to resolve our inner conflicts or fix dysfunctional relationship patterns. Psychotherapy was. Mindfulness and psychotherapy are like hammers and saws – different tools for different jobs. (Note: It turns out meditation and psychotherapy in combination are particularly powerful – witness the rise of mindfulness integrated with cognitive therapy styles, studies finding this to be one of the most powerful treatments for everything from depression to, maybe, dysfunctional relationship patterns). Watch this space on that one.
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist teacher.