Preface: This started as a term paper for one of my Psych classes and felt it was worth sharing on here. In adopting a meditation habit, I've found myself inevitably talking about it more, so I wanted to use this opportunity to further educate myself on a topic I'm invested in and to be able talk about meditation in a way that feels authentic to me. Consider what's to follow the start of an ongoing dialogue I wish to maintain about meditation and mindfulness in general.
What is meditation? For some, a miniature statue cheerful chubby Buddha sitting cross legged might come to mind. Others might think of their annoyingly progressive hippie friend who is always spouting the benefits for converting to veganism, crystal-collecting, and overusing the word “Namaste”. Many people assume it’s some sort of prayer practice from some other religion, and if they let themselves participate, it’ll somehow disrupt their known way of life. I’ve been guilty of a few of these misconceptions. Like most uneducated assumptions, these aren't true, and they definitely shouldn’t stop anyone from exploring meditation.
Meditation can be traced back for thousands of years, with the earliest documented records appearing around 1500 BCE. Over the next thousand or so years, the practice of mediation developed in India and China, around the Buddhist and Taoist religions of the locals. It wasn’t until the 18th century when translations begun spreading to the western world. (Eisler, 2017)) In America, meditation only began to catch on with minority groups in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and is only beginning to hit mainstream acceptance, and subsequently lose some of the prior social stigma, in the last decade or so (I realize this is debatable and very location specific - my location in San Diego makes for a more progressive, meditation-friendly environment than other communities may offer).
What does actual, every-day meditation to an average American look like? For one, there’s usually not any monk robes, incense, crystals, or awkward pretzel-like poses required - though I would like to own Jedi robes, and wouldn't mind sitting in my Skywalker-esque garbs. The entire point is essentially to sit quietly and calm one’s mind. Well, it’s usually simply someone sitting still, trying to keep their mind calm and 'thoughtless', or it might be someone focusing intently on a mantra or idea. Or they might have headphones in as they follow directions of a guided meditation app like Headspace or 10% Happier.
In my mind, the whole point is to focus one's attention on a single element. The breath, mantra, a point on the wall. It's human nature to get distracted. The whole point of meditation is understanding and moving past those distractions to a place of peaceful centeredness. To not let the mind get yanked around by passing thoughts, ideas, emotions, situations... I believe there's also some sort of meditative benefit for those who experience a state of 'flow' in their hobbies or daily life. Think surfing, painting, running, gardening, etc... When the rest of the world melts away and you're fully present and focused on the task at hand. To me at least, it's regenerative.
One method of Buddhist meditation is known as Vipassanā. In American practice, it’s often referred to as insight or mindfulness meditation. The commonly stated goal of this type of meditation is to ‘see things how they really are’. In his study, Meditation and Psychiatry, Michael McGee explains, “It is psychological state of active passivity and creative quiescence in which the meditator purposefully and nonjudgmentally pays attention to the present moment, attending to the multitude of sights, sounds, sensations, feelings, and thoughts that simultaneously present themselves to his or her awareness in each moment.”
In practice, what this means is one sits comfortably with their eyes closed and simply focusses their attention on the breath. Where it starts, the space between the breath, the state of the body, etc... As the meditator becomes distracted, they are to subtly and non-judgmentally bring their attention back to their breathing. It's okay to get distracted. This doesn't mean meditation isn't working. This IS the work. This act of noticing the distraction and moving past it, back to your original focus is quite powerful. In his book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics (2017), Dan Harris describes this practice as “bicep curls for the brain”, and describes the benefits as simply making him "10% happier". I agree with both of these insights..
Another method of meditation practice might involve a mantra. The content of the mantra for meditation can span a wide range, and it’s often something deeply personal to the individual, but basically, it’s a phrase that is repeated over and over in one’s mind. One popular example of this type is known as Transcendental Meditation. Unlike the empty mind approach of mindfulness meditation, Transcendental Meditation is more of a customizable approach where individuals use their time meditation to focus their energy on a mantra geared towards a specific goal. At least, that's my general understanding... The TM organization requires cash buy-in to begin training in their seemingly secretive technique. Didn't feel too much like my jam to be honest.
Perhaps the most user-friendly meditation tool in our present technology dependent, quick-paced world is smartphone apps. One popular example is an app called Headspace. The convenience and ease helped me personally kick start a very rewarding meditation practice. Apps like Headspace and 10% Happier offer a wide range of guided meditations of varying lengths, incorporating different methods, and even geared towards different areas of growth and development. For instance, on the Headspace app, the user can choose from a range of topics like anxiety, depression, motivation, and the techniques used in each of those ‘packs’ (such as noting, body scan, imagery) are intended to assist with improving that area of the meditator’s life through these ‘bicep curls for the brain’.
Why Meditate in the first place? Will adopting this obscure eastern practice actually make my life better? The simple answer is, yes it will. If finding some sort of peace and learning to be happy is important to someone, they owe it to themselves to at least invest the scientifically proven benefits of meditation. To name a few, meditation has been proven to foster positive measurable changes in the brain associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, empathy, compassion, and stress.
Of the ever growing number studies out there, I chose to highlight a few excellent points from a TED Talk entitled, How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains given by Neurologist Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge in 2011. In her TED Talk, Lazar shared a few of the differences in brains of meditators versus non-meditators and highlighted the significance of neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain is somewhat plastic or malleable and can be re-trained and re-molded in certain ways, in this instance, through meditation.
She outlined a study she conducted in which she compared MRI brain scans between meditators and non-meditators as well as another where she tracked changes in the brains of those who had recently adopted a meditation practice. One significant change was the increase of gray matter in the hippocampus, which is important for learning, memory, emotion regulation. There tends to be less gray matter in hippocampus of people who suffer from depression and PTSD, so the natural assumption is that meditation can help these specific people recuperate.
Another area Lazar mentions noting an increase in gray matter in the tempero-parietal junction, which is important for perspective taking, empathy and compassion. Compassion and empathy are often among the first benefits cited by meditation enthusiasts, which may sound like an unfounded claim, or turn-off to a science minded individual, but here is the actual science to support such a claim. Personally, I've 110% felt this increase in overall kindness and attribute the shift to my mindfulness habit.
Additionally, Lazar noted a decrease in grey matter in amygdala, the fight or flight region of the brain. Interestingly, the study showed a greater decrease in stress reduction correlated to a greater decrease of grey matter in the amygdala. It’s assumed that the participants of the study didn’t all suddenly find themselves in less stressful environments. So, if the environment hasn’t changed, their response to their environments (specifically, not reinforcing the fight-or-flight response) must be what caused the decrease in gray matter in this area. Again, stress reduction might sound like a lofty claim coming from a meditation teacher, however there is legitimate science to back it up.
All of these findings sound great, so why is it that only about 10% of the American population (Macmillan, 2017) has adopted such a beneficial practice? I would argue that the problem comes from a lack of education on the topic. Perhaps it was the hippie movement of the 1960’s embracing of meditation and the accompanying lifestyle that stigmatized the practice for the next several decades. Or it could be a nationalistic sense of pride preventing certain groups of Americans from adopting eastern practices, regardless of the scientific proof involved. Maybe it’s just that the scientific research on this ancient tradition is so young (relatively speaking), that time simply needs to run it’s course before more people on board.
There have been studies illustrating how meditation can be effective in sports, education, the workplace, and relationships, but the area that I'm most personally excited about is in helping fight mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in America experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Approximately 42 million American adults live with anxiety disorders. There is an underlying mental illness involved in 90% of suicides, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.. While many cases are undoubtedly far more complex than adopting a casual meditation practice alone can fix, it is my firm belief that adopting some sort of meditation practice would positive impact on anyone willing to give it a fair shot. The findings of Lazar’s research is just one in a long list of studies that support claims of meditation benefits.
There it is. Meditation in a nutshell. An ancient eastern tradition, ever so slowly evolving in the modern world with the power to overcome some of the most challenging matters of the mind. By tracking gray matter in the brains of meditators and non-meditators like, neurologists are able to see exactly which areas of the brain have developed in correlation with the participant adopting a meditation practice. These MRI brain scans have provided concrete proof to support many of the claims made for centuries about the benefits of meditation, taking this ancient practice out of purely religious realm and into secular and mainstream acceptance. My personal hope is that Meditation continues to grow in popularity as a tool that can be used to help treat mental illnesses.
Eisler, M. (2017). The history of meditation. Retrieved from https://chopra.com/articles/history-meditation.
Harris, D., & Warren J. (2017). Meditation for fidgety skeptics. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.
Macmillan, A. (2017, January 5). Yoga Is Officially Sweeping the Workplace. Retrieved from http://time.com/4624276/yoga-workplace-mindfulness/
McGee, M. (2008). Meditation and Psychiatry. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 5(1), 28–41. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719544/
TEDx Talks. (2012, January 23). How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains: Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8rRzTtP7Tc&vl=en
Vipassana Meditation. Retrieved from https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/vipassana