Meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective of YOU!
You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. And eventually, you may start to better understand them as well.
SO, WHAT IS MEDITATION?
It is something so simple (not easy, but simple) and yet so profound and what huge benefit it can have for our day-to-day happiness. You can even carry out meditation practice for just two minutes per day and you can actually meditate anywhere at any time. Yes, just two minutes and anywhere! Starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even two minutes make a massive life difference.
So, what is meditation?
It is an ancient practice with records of it being utilised many, many thousands of years ago.
There are different ways to meditate, and since it’s such a personal and individual practice there are probably more actual ways than any of us know about.
There are, however, a couple that are usually focused on heavily in scientific research, though. These are focused-attention, or mindful meditation, which is where you focus on one specific thing—it could be your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you, or a visualisation. This first type of meditation creates focus and strongly on one point or thing which continually brings your attention back to that focal point when it wanders.
The second type of meditation often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. This is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you—you simply notice everything without reacting.
I teach both methods as a matter of course as each has a profound effect on us in different situations.
I have listed some of the amazing benefits of regular meditation below and below that is the scientific easy to understand explanation of why and how it helps.
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.
Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.
This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we’re actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.
What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Centre (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centres of the brain to the Me Centre are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Centre, making you feel scared and under attack.
When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centres. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Centre (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centres. So, when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:
For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.
As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in and we’ve explored the science of creativity in depth before. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.
Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.
Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment, it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.
Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.
One of the things, meditation has been linked to, is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Centre for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Centre found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be remarkably similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.
Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.
More grey matter
Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of grey matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More grey matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and heightened focus during daily life.
Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on grey matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.
THE SCIENCE BIT
Meditation yields a surprising number of health benefits, including stress reduction, improved attention, better memory, and even increased creativity and feelings of compassion plus many more positive benefits. But how can something as simple as focusing on a single object produce such dramatic results? Here’s what the growing body of scientific evidence is telling us about meditation and how it can change the way our brains function.
Before we get started it’s worth doing a quick review of what is actually meant by meditation. The practice can take on many different forms, but the one technique that appears most beneficial, and which also happens to be among the most traditional, is called mindfulness meditation, or focused attention.
By mindfulness, you are asked to focus your thoughts on one thought and one thought alone. An overarching goal is to be firmly affixed to the present moment. This typically means concentrating on the breath in a certain manner — and without consideration to other thoughts.
Now, if you’ve ever tried it, you know how unbelievably difficult this is — particularly in this day in age when our attention spans are taxed to the limit. Our minds are notorious at wandering and moving from thought-to-thought; it is hard sometimes to string just a few seconds of focused attention together.
And indeed, notions that meditation is simply about relaxation or cleansing the mind of all thoughts are common misconceptions. Meditation is hard work, and it takes a lot of practice to get better. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to stay focused. Progress can be measured by how long a single thought can be focused upon without straying.
I utilise techniques to enable you to overcome and prevail.
Remarkably, for something so exceedingly simple, it can produce an astounding number of health benefits.
Eager to learn more, a growing number of scientists (in the thousands) are looking into the cognitive effects of meditation, including studies on Buddhist monks. And they are learning that meditation is a extremely powerful tool indeed.
As a quick aside, most of the studies cited here consider the benefits of focused attention. That’s not to suggest that other practices, like open attention, can’t yield positive results as well, as they can and do dramatically so.
Changes to the Brain
Buddhists have meditated for literally thousands of years. They’re familiar with its positive effects, including the way it works to instil the inner strength and insight required for the overarching spiritual practice; meditation, or “sitting,” is to Buddhist monks what prayer is to Christians. But instead of trying to hack into the mind of God, Buddhists are trying to hack into their own mind to harness it under control.
‘The ONLY thing we have control of, is our minds’
But it has only been in recent times that neuroscientists have been able to peer directly into the brain to see what’s going on. The advent of MRIs and other brain scanning techniques have largely paved the way.
For example, neuroscientists observing MRI scans have learned that meditation strengthens the brain by reinforcing the connections between brain cells. A 2012 study showed that people who meditate exhibit higher levels of gyrification — the “folding” of the cerebral cortex as a result of growth, which in turn allows the brain to process information faster. Though the research did not prove this directly, scientists suspect that gyrification is responsible for making the brain better at processing information, making decisions, forming memories, and improving attention.
Indeed, as much of the research is showing, meditation causes the brain to undergo physical changes, All of which are beneficial. Other studies, for example, have shown that meditation is linked to cortical thickness, which can result in decreased sensitivity to pain.
Or take the 2009 study with the descriptive title, “Long-term meditation is associated with increased grey matter density in the brain stem.” Neuroscientists used MRIs to compare the brains of meditators with non-meditators. The structural differences observed led the scientists to speculate that certain benefits, like improved cognitive, emotional, and immune responses, can be tied to this growth and its positive effects on breathing and heart rate (cardiorespiratory control).
The integrity of grey matter, which is a major player in the central nervous system, certainly appears to benefit. Meditation has been linked to larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of grey matter, resulting in more positive emotions, the retention of emotional stability, and more mindful behaviour (heightened focus during day-to-day living). Meditation has also been shown to have neuroprotective attributes; it can diminish age-related effects on grey matter and reduce cognitive decline.
A previous study showed that meditators have a different expression of brain metabolites than healthy non-meditators, specifically those metabolites linked to anxiety and depression.
But it’s not just the physical and chemical components of the brain that’s affected by meditation. Neuroscientists have documented the way it impacts on brain activity itself. For example, meditation has been associated with decreased activity in default mode network activity and connectivity — those undesirable brain functions responsible for lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, ADHD — and even the build-up of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease.
And finally, meditation has been linked to dramatic changes in electrical brain activity, namely increased Theta and Alpha EEG activity, which is associated with wakeful and relaxed attention.
While most of the studies I have listed addressed the neuro-cognitive aspects of meditation, other studies have correlated meditation with many of the health benefits already described.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of meditation is its ability to improve attention. In 2010, researchers looked at participants who practiced focused attention meditation for about five hours each day over the course of three months (which is a lot!). After conducting concentration tests, the participants were shown to have an easier time sustaining voluntary attention. Which makes sense; if you can concentrate for extended periods of time during meditation, it should carry over to daily life. Focused attention is very much like a muscle, one that needs to be strengthened through exercise.
As an aside, five hours of meditation per day is a bit excessive. Other studies show that 20 minutes a day is all that is required to get beneficial results, like stress reduction. In my teaching, I have also found that just 5 minutes a day return unbelievable positive life changing results.
Indeed, other research has shown that even a little bit of meditation can help. Studies indicate that, after 5 minutes each day for just 10 days of meditation, people can experience significant improvements in mindfulness and contemplative thoughts, the alleviation of depressive symptoms, and boosts to working memory and sustained attention.
A not-so-surprising recent study showed that meditation can significantly reduce stress after just eight weeks of training (pdf; more here). Participants who meditated, as compared to those who did not, performed better on stressful multitasking tests. This may have something to do with reduced levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone. And interestingly, meditating before a stressful situation may help reduce feelings of stress during the event.
For you creative types, open-monitoring (OM) meditation can promote idea generation. OM meditation is basically the polar opposite of focused attention meditation, requiring practitioners to non-reactively monitor the content of experience from moment to moment.
And lastly, meditation has also been shown to increase levels of empathy, but it has to come from a specific practice known as loving-kindness-compassion meditation. (which is also included within my classes) It’s a kind of focused attention meditation. By comparing MRI scans of novices to those of expert Buddhist monks (each with more than 10,000 hours of practice), researchers watched as emotional stimuli (sounds of people in distress) caused those areas of the brain linked to empathy light up; the monks exhibited greater degrees of empathetic response than the novices. In turn, the scientists speculate that compassion meditation can make a person more empathetic. Yet even noted in the novices after just 10 minutes of meditation the emotional stimuli caused the lighting up of the same empathic areas in the brain.
So, as you can see for something so very simple there are far reaching amazing and profound benefits for us all. And these are just the core benefits, the far reaching life benefits that can spider out are better relationships, better working or studying, better physical health benefits better experiences and so much more