The Meaning of Meditation
If the sun rises over the ocean, but no one is around to photograph it, will there still be light?
Yes, we can all agree, hard yes.
Now, if the sun rises over the ocean, but there are no phones or cameras around to photograph it, will we, down the road, still remember the breadth and scope of its beauty?
Also yes, and, turns out, perhaps even more vibrantly than if we used a screen or a lens to capture it.
In a recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology researchers found that, “media use during an experience impairs memory for that experience.” Specifically, “findings suggest that using media may prevent people from remembering the very events they are attempting to preserve.” Even in moments when we’re trying to be present, standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon for example, or simply, waiting in line at our favorite coffee shop, we’re so accustomed to nonstop stimulation that quieting the mind has become a daunting exercise.
In the words of philosopher Alan Watts, one of the preeminent voices on The Way of Zen (which is also the title of his bestselling book), “you can make any human activity into meditation simply by being completely with it and doing it just to do it.” The more we understand about how meditation works, and the ways in which we can, quite seamlessly, integrate it into our daily lives, the more resonant this statement becomes. While the forms of practice vary, and the benefits continue to reveal themselves, there is one claim to be made with growing confidence… meditation works.
The Science of Meditation
The intricacies of how, precisely, the brain functions have long confounded the scientific community. Today, there is more information available than ever before, and the research is growing. With expanding technology, which includes techniques such as neuroimaging, as well as an increase in studies that explore the science of altered states of consciousness, the doors of understanding are beginning to open.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), “some research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body and could potentially help to improve many health problems and promote healthy behaviors.” To date, research has been conducted on the ways in which meditation — particularly mindfulness meditation — may ease various symptoms, and even contribute to the remission of certain conditions including:
• Digestive Issues
• High Blood Pressure
• Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
• Sleep Issues
The list could go on. According to a 2014 research review, “mind and body practices, including meditation, reduce chemical identifiers of inflammation and show promise in helping to regulate the immune system” (NCCIH 2016). Additionally, it is being demonstrated that meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the body to rest and recuperate from instances of acute stress. This is a particularly crucial state in today’s stress inducing world. When the body is not given the opportunity to recover from the “fight or flight,” spike in cortisol, a direct result of shifting into the sympathetic nervous system, it remains in a state of chronic stress.
As stated in an article published by Harvard University titled, “Calming Your Nerves and Your Heart Through Meditation,” when in that sympathetic nervous state, “the system’s natural feedback loop is interrupted.” This is what makes the holistic nature of meditation so crucial, “the physiologic benefits of transcendental meditation [see below] do seem related to activating the parasympathetic and quieting the sympathetic nervous system. Medical studies have showed that individuals who practice transcendental meditation daily had lower blood levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.”
Every day it seems like more data is released, and more papers are published on the comprehensive and widespread value of mediation. Last summer, The ReSource Project released results from its year long study suggesting that certain meditative practices may actually contribute to an increase in gray matter, which is directly correlated to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways.
The more we understand about the ways in which meditation works physiologically, the more we understand the depths and power of its effects.
Types of Meditation
Depending on whom you ask (or how you Google) there are anywhere from one to twenty-three types of meditation.
What is certainly clear is that varying forms of meditation, deriving from an array of spiritual and cultural backgrounds, require varying techniques, and offer differing benefits.
The two most common and traditional forms of meditation are mindfulness, and transcendental.
Mindfulness Meditation is “a form of present moment awareness.” Specifically, according to Dr. Neda Gould, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, “it’s about paying attention in the present moment — to what is here — in a nonjudgmental way without fixating on the past or dwelling on the future.” Rooted in Buddhism, this form of meditation requires presence. When guided, mindfulness meditation draws directed attention to breath, bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
Transcendental Meditation on the other hand, is a form of silent meditation. Developed in India by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, this form of meditation calls for seated, deliberate silence. Transcendental Meditation is about being still, and practicing open, concentrated quietude.
From excessive use of social media that is literally rewiring our brains to be less attentive and less present, to the ever evolving challenges of being a thoughtful, attuned person in this world, achieving calm is no easy feat these days. As stated by neuroscientist and author Sam Harris in a recent “Making Sense” podcast, “We spend nearly every moment of our lives lost in thought, and hostage to the character of those thoughts.”
Enter, the practice of meditation.
Meaningful relaxation takes work (perhaps paradoxically) but not as much as one might think. Meditation is more supported, understood, and accessible today than it has ever been, and its benefits are proving to be deeply and immediately beneficial.
Books on Meditation
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
Written By: Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story
Written By: Dan Harris
Full Catastrophe Living
Written By: Jon Kabat-Zinn
- What is mindfulness meditation?
It’s attention—being exactly where you are, in this precise moment, without judgment.
- How does one do mindfulness meditation?
Really, mindfulness meditation can happen at any moment. When you’re brushing your teeth, cooking a meal, taking a walk, it’s all about presence. Instead of allowing your mind to drift off into the myriad of responsibilities and distractions that pull at us at any given moment, mindfulness meditation just asks that you surrender to right now.
- What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
Truly, not much. The major distinction is that fundamentally, one is an awareness (mindfulness), and the other is a deliberate practice (meditation). In other words, mindfulness can inform a meditation practice.
- What does meditation encourage?
Presence, calm, focus, and peace of mind, among many other things.
- Can meditation replace sleep?
In the words of Matthew Walker, sleep expert and professor of neuroscience at the University of California in Berkeley, meditation will never replace sleep. It does, however, boost melatonin, and can dramatically improve a person’s quality of sleep. The science is also showing that meditation can effectively treat insomnia.
- What about psychedelics and meditation?
We’ve of course written about this topic on The Third Wave.