The Meditating Brain

We live in a time when scientific research is finding the same results that the meditative traditions have clearly explained, advocated and shared with humanity through the ages.

Meditative awareness has three primary qualities. The first is calmness, the second openness, and the third harmony. — Tarthang Tulku

How does calmness show up? Meditation has been found to lower the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, and heart and respiratory rates. Studies have also found less gray-matter density in the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays an important role in anxiety and stress.

Openness can be interpreted in many ways. One might be “empathy” which is a critical factor of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a set of skills and qualities which is significant all on its own: it increases our ability to manage our life and its pressures, and relate to others in a socially positive way.

Back to empathy itself:

Not too long ago, we thought of the body as a machine and the brain as some sort of computer that ran the show. But much recent research indicates that the brain is essentially a social organ with its cells and pathways wired for empathy, for experiencing the joys and sufferings of others as if they were our own. Our brain, our hormones, and our immune system are an intimately related care-connection system.

— Stephen Post, PhD [follow this link to a complete breakdown of how this actually works]

Let’s look at the meaning of “harmony.” Here’s a dictionary definition: “The quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.” That about sums it up. Being stress-free, relating to others in a meaningful way, and making friends with ourselves and life in general through increased emotional intelligence all lead to harmony. Harmony feels good and leads to clear, better decisions and choices.

Harmony is the secret principle that controls life; without it life will disintegrate. Your breath flows and your health is vibrant as long as your bodily organs work in harmony. But if there is discord, disease ensues… This is equally true in any type of organization—any structure that has interacting parts, from nature as a whole to human relationships to corporate businesses… Harmony is the soul of organization…

— Paramahansa Yogananda

Speaking of health, recent research has shown that meditation reduces the experience of pain in the brain. It does this better than morphine! Not only is the intensity of pain reduced, but how the entire experience of pain is felt and perceived.

One major network in the brain has been identified as the default mode network or default network. This is “a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest… The default network is an interconnected and anatomically defined brain system that preferentially activates when individuals focus on internal tasks such as daydreaming, envisioning the future, retrieving memories, and gauging others’ perspectives.” (Wikipedia)

The other network is the attentional network. “The attentional network is usually focused on something external, such as a manual task. The default network is involved in internal chatter and daydreaming.”

Usually the two networks are active when one or the other is inactive.

“But meditators are using this default network in unusual and novel ways,” Catherine Kerr, PhD tells WebMD. “People who meditate don’t get lost in mindless negative chatter. Meditation protects you from repetitive negative thinking, which puts you at risk for depression.”

An encouraging finding in many of these studies is that the measureable benefits of meditation are available to use with relatively short training, and positive effects remain well after each meditation period. In fact, certain ways of being and thinking can become lifelong. Meditators “may have formed a new default mode: one that is more present-centered (and less “me”-centered), no matter what they are doing.”

We sometimes regard meditation as an activity of pacifying or calming the mind, but it is also a way to gather and direct it. We gather the energy from hearing, seeing, feeling, and so forth, and place it very steadily on one object…

— Sakyong Mipham

Meditation increases concentration. It leads to better decision-making by removing emotions that may cloud clarity. Self-awareness is boosted because meditation works in the area of the brain associated with it. Several studies have shown that there’s a greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex as a result of meditation. This area is linked to positive emotions and greater responsiveness to negative events. Other research indicates that meditation may help with insomnia.

Why isn’t the whole world meditating?!

In this culture, if we sit and do nothing, people think we’re strange. In places like Tibet, where there is a tradition of meditation, sitting still is considered to be courageous. People appreciate that when someone meditates, they are working with their own mind, which is challenging. All of the pain and pleasure that we experience stems fundamentally from the mind.

— Sakyong Mipham

Even so, companies such as General Mills, Genentech, Google, and Prentice Hall are using meditation in the workplace. While the reasons for doing so may be more about their bottom-line (participants have reported greater satisfaction, productivity, communication, and clarity), such use mainstreams this ancient practice which is obviously so very beneficial.

At the same time, it’s very important to remember the real purpose of meditation:

Meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within. Meditation is not a part of any religion; it is a science, which means that the process of meditation follows a particular order, has definite principles, and produces results that can be verified….

The goal of meditation is to go beyond the mind and experience our essential nature—which is described as peace, happiness, and bliss…

Meditation is a practical means for calming yourself, for letting go of your biases and seeing what is, openly and clearly. It is a way of training the mind so that you are not distracted and caught up in its endless churning.

— Swami Rama

Related:

The Ins and Outs of Meditation

Meditation Reveals…

Put on the Brakes with Meditation

The Life of Meditation

Why Do Humans Meditate?


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