I’ve been fascinated with meditation for years, the idea that by simply sitting one can experience insights and transformations is intriguing. The fact that various meditation techniques are ubiquitous in spiritual disciplines across the continents and through time is telling of their importance for growth. Yet for many modern
scientifically minded westerners the idea of engaging in a spiritual discipline evokes all kinds of psychological resistances. Many meditation schools make unverifiable claims or are instructed with a language embedded in a culture and a philosophy that does not lend itself for export in our modern world. However, in the last few decades mindfulness meditation was distilled and exported into the West. Mindfulness meditation contains no doctrine or ‘woo-woo’ attached to its practice and philosophy. Mindfulness can be thought of as simply paying attention to the aspects of experience. When we are mindful of our experience we become conscious of our bodily sensations, our body movements, our perceptions (internally generated sights, smells, sounds, etc.), our emotions, and our thoughts (cognition). In the practice of mindfulness we become an uninvolved observer of our experience, that is, we allow thoughts, feeling, and emotions, etc., to arise and fall without us examining, judging, or inspecting them. Most mindfulness meditation practices have a central object of attention , such as the breathe which one orientates themselves towards, and as inevitable aspects of experience pull the attention away one simply and nonjudgmentally pull themselves back to the meditation object, in this case the breathe.
Here is a mindfulness meditation technique for beginners:
1. Find a quiet and comfortable place. Sit in a chair or on the floor with your head, neck and back straight but not stiff.
2. Try to put aside all thoughts of the past and the future and stay in the present.
3. Become aware of your breath, focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe. Feel your belly rise and fall, the air enter your nostrils and leave your mouth. Pay attention to the way each breath changes and is different.
4. Watch every thought come and go, whether it be a worry, fear, anxiety or hope. When thoughts come up in your mind, don’t ignore or suppress them but simply note them, remain calm and use your breathing as an anchor.
5. If you find yourself getting carried away in your thoughts, observe where your mind went off to, without judging, and simply return to your breathing.
Remember not to be hard on yourself if this happens.
6. As the time comes to a close, sit for a minute or two, becoming aware of where you are. Get up gradually.
Meditation is a discipline. It requires training to become proficient at paying attention. We live in a busy world, and most of the time we are easily distractible and our attention constantly switches and orientates all over the place. Meditation can be difficult to start and to maintain a routine. Yet the outcomes of meditation and experiences one may encounter are profound. There are now hundreds, if not thousands of studies on meditation proving profound benefits to stress levels, the immune system, and the felt sense of peace and acceptance. As well as thousands of years of anecdotal reports of various kinds of spiritual transcendence and growth. Once again, many of the explanations and mechanisms of growth are embedded in religious philosophy that does not lend itself for understanding for the scientifically minded. However, through the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel, an eminent researcher in the areas of the developing brain, interpersonal neurobiology, and attachment we now have a language for which we can discuss possible mechanism of the growth associated with mindfulness meditation.
Before we can discuss the benefits of meditation on the mind we must first discuss the brain. In particular I want to draw attention to an area of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. In the words of Dr. Daniel Siegal:
“The prefrontal areas coordinate and balance input from the cortex, limbic, brainstem, and bodily regions as these are connected even to the input from other brains (that is, other people). In this way, the prefrontal cortex integrates social, somatic, brainstem, limbic, and cortical systems all into one functional whole.”
The prefrontal cortex is a pivotal area for everything involved in being human. What the paragraph above says is that our brains have different regions of brain tissues specialised for processing our social experience, or felt presence in the body (somatic), and our emotions (limbic). All the information processing in these areas is then sorted by the prefrontal cortex and integrated into our conscious experience. Thus the prefrontal cortex is a central hub for our sense of self and the felt experience of the here and now playing a role in our decision making and integration of various aspects of experience. Now, let’s further explore and prefrontal cortex and its 9 functions according to Daniel Siegel and then relate it to the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
The nine functions of the pre-frontal cortex, according to Daniel Siegel:
1. Body Regulation — Functions of the body such as heart rate, respiration and digestion that are controlled by the nervous system.
2. Attunement — When we attune to others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another.
3. Emotional Balance — Even the healthiest person may be temporarily thrown off and feel out of balance but the middle pre-frontal region functions to bring us back to equilibrium. The ability to stay focused on the inside when the storms of life are raging on the outside.
4. Response Flexibility — This ability to pause before responding is an important part of emotional and social intelligence.
5. Empathy — The capacity to create mindsight images of other people’s minds. These you-maps enable us to sense the internal mental stance of another person, not just to attune to their state of mind.
6. Self-Knowing — Mental time travel in which we connect the past to the present and the anticipated future.
7. Fear Extinction — After experiencing a frightening event, we may come to feel fear in the face of a similar situation. But the middle prefrontal region has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area and make it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-create amygdala.
8. Intuition — Can be seen as how the pre-frontal cortex gives us access to the wisdom of the body. This region receives information from throughout the interior of the body, including the viscera (heart, intestines) and uses this input to give us a “heart felt sense” of what to do or a “gut feeling” about the right choice.
9. Morality — Moral reasoning seems to require the integrative capacity of the pre-frontal cortex to sense the emotional meaning of present challenges and to override immediate impulses in order to create moral action in response to challenges.
Any activity which bolsters improvements across these 9 domains has the potential to radically transform a persons life. Studies have shown repeatedly that experienced mindfulness meditators can alter their grey matter in regions of the prefrontal cortex. Grey matter being a measure the functionality of the region, thus, that is to say, that meditation causes changes in the brain that result in improved function of the
prefrontal cortex. Its not a far leap to look at the functions of prefrontal cortex such as increased empathy and morality to see its connection with spiritual disciplines. Also as Dr. Siegel points out the intuition associated with a better mind body awareness to our gut feelings or gut-nervous system may be an explanation for what people mean when they discuss listening to the mind and heart in various religious philosophies.
The research is becoming quite clear as to the possible mechanisms by which meditation provides its benefits. The idea that meditation as merely a spiritual practice for the religious is unnecessary and frankly it turns off many people from practicing a discipline that can cause radical personal transformation which can in turn benefit the wider social environment. As such, I’m deeply encouraged when I hear that mindfulness is now being taught to many kids in elementary schools. Now if only we could integrate the practice into the lives of all those who grew up without it.
Did you read this article and find some value? Give me some feedback in the comments to help me improve my writing. Or tell me about your experience (or non-experience) with meditation 🙂