THE SCIENCE OF MEDITATION

THE SCIENCE OF MEDITATION

Here's a newspaper  beginners guide to meditation  ... why not start there.

Please note: As you're reading this page you will find contradictory advice! That is the nature of the beast, there simply are so many meditation methods, so many studies and so many opinions ... they inevitably are bound to clash, contradict and annul one another. Don't worry, just absorb different viewpoints and make up your own mind. When you do meditation the only thing that's important is that it works for you.

To get a grip on the nature of meditation, let's look at two questions:

What is meditation not? Meditation is not relaxation; it is not concentration; it is not a religious practice; it is not self-hypnosis; it is not a state of mind ... above all it is not thinking.

Then what is meditation? The last of the above points is the clue: In meditation we don't think, instead we still or empty the mind. The desired outcome of meditation generally is a calm disposition; but the goal of true meditation is to go beyond the mind, i.e. to our higher consciousness, our inner self, our soul, our inner God ... this stage of consciousness is defined as enlightenment.

So, what are the every-day benefits of meditation? Much is written about this, there is a myriad of studies ... few scientists who deal with the subject matter would argue that there are not substantial health and other benefits; nevertheless, the short answer is: Meditation gives us the benefit of a quiet, still mind ... which induces a relaxed disposition (but the ultimate goal for meditation - let's remember this - is enlightenment).

Here's a simple explanation of meditation as a means to relaxation:

The most basic kind of meditation is simply the art of relaxation. In this kind of practice the student seeks to enter a deeply relaxed state which corresponds to the alpha, or even the theta bands of brainwave activity rather than the beta state of ordinary consciousness. Although there is a finite change in consciousness from this practice the main focus is usually on the body rather than the mind. The purpose here is to let go of the tension built up in the muscles and other areas, whilst simultaneously letting go of all the stresses, fears, and other negative emotions that we habitually carry around with us. This kind of meditation has health benefits for both the mind and the body, and is often pleasurable to perform, but has little or no relation to enlightenment practices or other spiritual purposes.

On this Wikipedia page is some research on meditation: Since the 1950s hundreds of studies on meditation have been conducted. These studies have shown substantial bodily changes as a consequence of regular meditative practice. For instance, one study showed that eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation produced significant increases in left-sided anterior brain activity, which is associated with positive emotional states. Positive emotion may be a skill which can be achieved with training similar to learning to ride a bike or play the piano.

Mindfulness in the West is a psychological concept of the focusing of attention and awareness; several definitions of mindfulness have been used in modern psychology:
  • bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis
  • paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally
  • a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is
  • mindfulness involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment
  • adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance

Mindfulness meditation is a Buddhist tradition going back thousands of years ... it has been practiced within religious traditions since ancient times, especially within monastic centers. These days there also exist many secular programs in the West including mindfulness-based programs. Today mindfulness-based meditative practices have become popular within the Western medical and psychological community, due mainly to the observable, positive impact such processes have on patients suffering from stress-related health conditions.

Mindfulness is a spiritual faculty that, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is considered to be of great importance on the path to enlightenment. Mindfulness is defined as being attentive and aware, non-judgementally, whereas meditation is engaging in a mental exercise (as concentration on one's breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.

Awareness is an important concept in Mindfulness; awareness about how we're living our life ... what we are doing in the contexts of ethics, wisdom and 'seeing the world the way it really is'. Awareness opens up other choices; if we don't have awareness we are likely to do the same thing - the same thinking - over and over. When we bring awareness to what we're doing we free ourselves from such detrimental repetition in our life.

If you haven't listened to the TED talk on doing 'Nothing', do it now; here's more research from the TED blog:

For years, meditation fans have said that the practice keeps them healthy. But a new study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in November 2012actually tested this. For the study, 201 people with coronary heart disease were asked to either (a) take a health education class promoting better diet and exercise or (b) take a class on transcendental meditation. Researchers followed up with participants for the next five years and found that those who took the meditation class had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death. It’s an initial study, but a promising one. [Time]

Is meditating a good way to increase creativity? Maybe, but it depends on what kind. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands looked at the way two types of meditation — focused-attention (for example, focusing on your breath) and open-monitoring (where participants focus on both the internal and external) — affected two types of creative thinking — the ability to generate new ideas and solutions to problems. In a study published in April 2012 in Frontiers in Cognition, they revealed that the participants who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show improved results in the two creativity tasks. However, those who practiced open-monitoring meditation did perform better at task related to coming up with new ideas. [Meditation Research]

Researchers at UCLA wanted to study the brains of people who had been meditating for years, versus those who had never meditated or who had only done it for a short period of time. They took MRI scans of 100 people — half meditators and half non-meditators. They were fascinated to find that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification (a folding of the cerebral cortex that may be associated with faster information processing). In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in February of 2012, they shared that, the more years a person had been meditating, the more gyrification their MRIs revealed. [UCLA Newsroom]

Distractions are everywhere. But can meditation help a person better navigate through them? A computer scientist at the University of Washington teamed up with a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona to test this. The pair recruited 45 human resources managers, and gave a third of them eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third of them eight weeks of body relaxation training and a third of them no training at all. All the groups were given a stressful multitasking test before and after the eight weeks. In a study published in the Proceedings of Graphics Interface in May of 2012, they showed that the mindful-mediation group reported less stress as they performed the multitasking test than both of the other groups. [Washington.edu]

Furthermore, here's an article from the Scientific American:

The benefits of meditation have received newfound evidence from neuroscience in the last five years, as researchers are finding real physiological changes due to a sort of formally practiced introspection.

Recently scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital had 16 participants take an eight-week mindfulness meditation program. This sort of meditation focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations and feelings. Subjects practiced for about 30 minutes a day.

Brain images were taken of each subject before and after the training. Scientists found increases in gray-matter density in the hippocampus—an area responsible for learning and memory. And they saw decreased density in the amygdala—which is responsible for our anxiety and stress responses.

One area that did not change is the insula, which is associated with self-awareness. The researchers speculate that longer-term meditation might be necessary to affect that area.

All this reminds us of two things: 1) The brain is much more plastic than scientists thought even just a decade ago and 2) the way we feel—calm or anxious—can be correlated with real structural indicators in our brains.  


The most popular and wide-spread meditation regimes probably are Mindfulness Meditation (Vipassana - or The Art Of Living) and Transcendental Meditation (TM).


THE ART OF LIVING

The art of living is Vipassana Meditation. This is a rigorous meditation regime in a ten day retreat setting, involving concentration on various body parts ... a lot of technique is involved with Vipassana. I have not done this meditation. 


TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION

"TM can change your life", says the website; but then, so does any meditation one attends to consistently. TM is not a free meditation, to learn it involves charges. TM on Wikipedia. TM technique.

I include the links here for reasons of balance and variety ... I cannot recommend these meditation techniques or even comment on them. But it is safe to say that all meditation methods have benefits.



To round off the chapter of the large variety of meditations, this is a website that might be interesting.

I have written essays about meditation, more than once, in fact three times.


























































 

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