The Science Behind Meditation


The alarm goes off, and my mind automatically kicks in with its incessant ritual chatter:
I start to imagine yet another demanding day of work, the thoughts churning up those two dubious and all-too-human gifts of anxiety and stress.

I manage to stand and my brain clears enough for me to remember my nightly commitment to myself: to spend at least 10 minutes every morning in a state of tranquil meditation.

Modern life has become increasingly more stressful. I often feel there isn’t enough time to get everything done that needs to get done-why add something else, something seemingly frivolous like meditation, to an already overcrowded list?

Why Meditate?

However, meditation can provide us with not only more time but also better use of time by allowing us to clear our minds and focus on what is most important in our lives. Stress, anxiety, and depression arise not from external situations but from our response to them. The key to improving our lives is to change our minds (or our mindsets). Meditation provides a way to train the mind and allow it to settle into a state of calmness and clarity.

Recent scientific research indicates that 10 minutes of daily meditation can result in significant changes in the way we conduct our lives. Richard Davidson, a Harvard University neuroscientist and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic a the University of Massachusetts have discovered through magnetic resonance imaging that “meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger.” Davidson and Zinn also noticed that “people who meditate exhibit an increased activity in the left side of the frontal part of the brain that is responsible for a more positive emotional state.”

These studies reveal that the human brain is not as hardwired as scientists had previously assumed it was and that we actually have much more control over our emotions and thoughts than scientific studies of the past had indicated.

The Benefits of Being…

In The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience (HarperCollins, 1989) the psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman wrote,”the single most reported physiological benefit of meditation is the drop in blood pressure.” Goleman also found that meditation might enhance the immune function of the body, with “research showing increased defense against tumors, viruses, colds, flu, and other infectious diseases.”

Meditation may also hold the key to happiness because it gives us the ability to control what the Buddhists have named “monkey mind,” our undisciplined thinking mind that jumps from thought to thought and is fueled by negative emotions and desires. The practice of meditation allows us to turn inward instead of outward towards the perimeter, to stillness and silence instead of being being pushed and pulled in all directions by our reactions to emotional states.

We can cultivate a larger awareness that sees that whatever the mind tells us, we are not that. In this way we can simply observe our emotional states rather than become completely lost in them.

After my 10 minutes of morning meditation, I feel quieter and more collected inside, and I am looking forward to whatever challenges are waiting for me throughout the day. ♦

Photograph: A Buddhist monk is fitted with electrodes in Richard Davidson s neuroscience lab.

Alive Magazine, February 2007

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