Why Do I Meditate – Have I Gone Over To The ‘Dark Side’? [Podcast]
You may have noticed that I have posted various articles and podcasts about meditation, and that’s generated some interesting conversations with people, many who I have known for many years and some who are very good friends.
Some people, I am sure, think that I’ve gone over to the ‘dark side’ as they see meditation and mindfulness as some form of ‘weird’ spirituality thing.
Others think that I have possibly gone soft, but none of that could be further from the truth.
The truth is that meditation is a discipline that takes regular and committed practice and like any other discipline you practice regularly, the more you do it the more it will be there for you when you need it.
In short, mindfulness meditation is training for the brain.
And if you think it’s easy, try this. Try to sit quietly and think of nothing but your breath for 20 minutes and you’ll soon realise that after a minute a distracting thought will enter your mind.
Many of you listening to this or reading this will go to the gym regularly and you do so because you want to get fitter, lose weight or realise the benefits of physical activity for your mental health.
But what’s the point of having a great body or being physically fitter if you don’t look after your mind.
To me that’s the equivalent of ensuring that your car’s bodywork is spotless and clean, but not caring for the engine.
Training our brain has major benefits.
For example, neuro-plasticty is the brain’s capability to rewire itself and create new pathways in response to changes in its environment, experience and training. This means that you can literally rewire your brain to get rid of old dysfunctional habits and create new functional ones, and this not only brings about physical changes in the brain, but also positive changes in health, mood and behaviour.
Advances in science and brain monitoring have provided evidence that meditation seems to prime brain cells to fire together in patterns that strengthen key brain structures, those for example, important in tasks such as decision-making, memory, and emotional flexibility. It also helps improve communication among different parts of the brain in ways that further improve physical and emotional health, which are important for those of us who run businesses where we constantly need to make decisions and let’s face it, being in business can be a lonely and (at times) stressful place.
Sharon Salzberg is a world renowned expert in the field of meditation who has been meditating since the 1970’s.
In Sharon Salzberg’s book ‘Real Happiness’ Sharon highlights some of the research undertaken in recent years about the benefits of meditation, and I’d like to share some of those findings with you now, which I have also previously mentioned in previous posts and podcasts.
In 2005, pioneering study led by neuro scientist Sarah Lazar of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital showed that practitioners of insight meditation had measurably thicker tissue in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. And the subject of study weren’t Tibetan monks who had spent years contemplating in caves, but ordinary Boston area professionals, most of whom meditated about 40 minutes a day. Brain scans of the older participants suggested meditation may also counteract the thinning of the Cortex that occurs naturally with aging, which may protect against memory loss and cognitive deficits.
Several other brain scan studies have extended Lazar’s work, showing that meditation strengthens areas of the brain involving memory, learning, and emotional flexibility.
In 2009, for example, neuro scientist Eileen Luders of the UCLA laboratory of neuroimaging reported that when she and her team compared the brains of experienced practitioners of meditation with those of a control group of non-meditators, they found that the brains of the meditators contained more grey matter, the brain tissue responsible for high-level information processing, then did those of the non meditators, especially in the areas of the brain associated with attention, body awareness, and the ability to modulate emotional responses.
“We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behaviour,” says Luders. “The observed differences in brain Anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities.”
In another study published in 2010, Lazar and her team scanned the brains of volunteers before and after that received 8 weeks of training in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a popular combination of meditation and yoga designed to alleviate stress in patients with health problems.
The new meditators showed measurable changes in important brain areas – growth in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning, and shrinkage in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress.
The decrease in the size of the amygdala correlated with lowered stress levels reported by the group that learned meditation – and the more they reduced their stress through meditation, the smaller the amygdala got. A control group that received no MBSR training showed no such brain changes on scans done 8 weeks apart.
A 2012 study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience supports this: It gave volunteers with no prior meditation experience 8-weeks of Mindful Attention Training, which is similar to MBSR. Then, using fMRI scans, the researchers found that the amygdala activation decreased when the participants were presented with positive, neutral, and negative images.
Because the scans were taken when the participants weren’t meditating, this further supports a growing body of research suggesting that meditators excel in present-moment awareness and are able to regulate emotions in response to stimuli of any kind. When we can regulate our emotions in the moment, we feel more emotionally stable overall.
More and more studies like these are finding measurable evidence of what meditators have known empirically for centuries: Meditation strengthens the brain service associated not only with concentration and problem-solving, but with our feelings of well-being.
This knowledge is very important for those of us who work in environments where you are expected to deal with challenging, aggressive or violent behaviour on a regular basis, which can cause you stress and automatically trigger your primitive fight and flight response.
Meditation can help you push the ‘pause button’ so that instead of just automatically reacting to what is happening you create a buffer that gives you time to control your response.
Furthermore, if you can’t switch off from your work environment when you go home, that can have a damaging effect on your relationship between you and your family and loved ones.
Richard Davidson, Ph. D., an expert in the study of neuro-plasticity, says: “We now know that the brain is the one organ in our body built to change in response to experience and training”.
What’s most heartening about the new research, says Davidson, is the way meditation can remodel the brain to strengthen the qualities that psychologists say are crucial components of happiness; which are, resilience, equanimity, and a sense of compassionate connection to others all of which are also essential qualities for those who work in so many public facing professions.
Scientists have also looked at the way meditation improves attention. In a 2019 fMRI study, researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds aimed to show that mindfulness training improves the concentration between two networks in the brain that are integral to attentional control and focus.
Training Attention through meditation also improves our capacity to process rapidly arriving incoming information. When we are presented with two new pieces of Visual information in a very quick succession, we have trouble detecting the second stimulus because the brain’s limited attentional resources are still busy processing the first one, a phenomenon called the ‘attentional blink’.
Perhaps this is one reason meditation seems to work so well for athletes.
Famed basketball coach Phil Jackson, a meditator himself, arranged to have his players – first the Chicago Bulls and then the L.A. Lakers learn meditation as a way to improve their focus and teamwork.
Jackson finds that mindfulness assists players in paying attention to what’s happening on the court moment by moment. such precise training in attention as paid off during tense playoffs. Jackson has led more teams to championship than any coach in NBA history.
Meditation seems to improve not just our cognitive abilities, but also our immune system.
In one study, for example, Davidson and colleagues teamed with Jon Kabat-Zinn, PH. D., founder of the stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and the developer of MBSR.
The scientists studied the brains of participants before and after they received 8 weeks of MBSR training and compared them with those of a group of non meditators. At the end of the training, the subjects received flu shots and their antibody activity was tested. Not only did the meditators show elevated activity in the area of the brain associated with lowered anxiety, a decrease in negative emotions, and an increasing positive ones, but their immune systems produced more antibodies in response to the vaccine than did the non-meditators. In other words, there may be a strong link among meditation, positive emotions, and a healthy immune system.
Because of these studies, some doctors are recommending meditation to patients with chronic pain, insomnia, and immune deficiencies. Clinicians regularly used mindfulness meditation as part of therapy, especially with clients who have anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Therapists have come to realise that meditation may ater reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach. “It’s a shift from having a mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” says psychologist Stephen Hayes of the University of Nevada, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing, and becoming disentangled from her definition of ourselves.”
Among the institutions that have embraced meditation as a legitimate area of scientific study is the US government.
Current projects include looking into how mindfulness can help law enforcement officers manage stress, the effect of mindfulness on migraine pain, how a loving kindness practice makes a difference in decision-making, and the effect compassion training has on veterans with PTSD.
A 2019 study led by Amishi Jha at the University of Miami gave members of the military training in mindfulness for 4 weeks and found that, compared to those who were given only two weeks of training or no training at all, both their ability to be attentive during chaotic circumstances and their working memory improved. The participants also reported that they were making fewer cognitive errors than before. The effect of these ancient practices on performance cannot be denied
For many people, science provides a way of understanding the world that allows them to approach subjects they might otherwise have dismissed.
One of the most wonderful things about these findings, beyond the personal improvements they promise, is that a large, new group of people may now feel more comfortable about taking advantage of meditation’s many benefits.
These benefits accrue not simply from reading about the effects of meditation, but from actually practicing it.
I would highly recommend you reading Sharon Salzberg’s book called ‘Real Happiness’ as it is a 28 day programme to realise the power of meditation.
For me meditation is now an everyday practice. It is something that grounds me and gives me peace and perspective. Meditation also helps me prioritise my focus and my attention, and in doing so makes me more productive.
And as I am in the latter stages of my life, the scientific evidence helps me to realise that I can take control of my brain’s health and development, by quitely stilling the mind and focusing on my breath.
And (as I’ve said before when quoting Sharon Salzberg, Jon Kabat-Zinn and the recently departed Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hahn), if you can breathe you can’t fail at meditation.
For those of you attending our Restraint Trainer refreshers this year, you will get even more information on this as well as practice on how to do it, because (for all of the reasons I have mentioned already) this is a fundamentally important practice for those of us who choose to work in an industry where we are either expected to deal with conflict, aggression or violence or train others to deal with conflict aggression or violence.
Have a great day and we’ll speak soon.