By Ansley Roche
January 18, 2006
When I first started to practice meditation, part of me dreaded taking a seat in the circle. I knew it was good for me, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing with my chatty little mind, and I was frustrated with the fact that sitting down to meditate brought out a narcoleptic tendency I didn’t know I had.
The meditation leader would sound a bell to initiate the session and within 2 minutes, I would start the sway—sitting upright as I drifted off to sleep only to be jerked awake by my head falling forward: the sway. It didn’t take long to learn that during these sleep-deprived college years, I would need caffeine to meditate. I also learned that I meditate “better” if my eyes are open (different traditions say different things about the eyes), cast gently down, at a 45-degree angle. Back straight, legs crossed, hands gently resting on knees, palms up.
I’m not the first person to become frustrated by the experience. People have been meditating for over 5000 years, well before the time of Guatama Buddha, who began his teachings of enlightenment through meditation around 500 B.C. After Buddha, meditation was integrated into many eastern religions and became a household practice for many eastern countries.
When the concept of enlightenment finally reached the West 2200 years later—the Age of Enlightenment—its meaning had transformed into a historical intellectual movement founded on rationality and logic. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that the true eastern concept of meditation as a vehicle for enlightenment reached the shores of the United States and gained popularity and interest, finally.
When people speak of meditation, we tend to assume that they’re talking about Buddhism. While the Buddha was meditation’s most prominent spokesperson, meditation is not specific to Buddhism. Hinduism, for example, teaches sound and light meditation, and uses techniques such as “laughing meditation” (Osho). In our current society, many people are turning to meditation as a way of handling stress, confusion, mild depression, and even for philosophical reasons.
Whichever practice you choose, all forms of meditation involve focusing the mind on a single object, freeing the mind of all thoughts by focusing on the field (rather than the object), and sometimes shifting between the object and the field. The details vary, but all meditation aims at essentially the same thing – getting to know the way the mind works in order to experience an expanded consciousness.
This is Your Brain on Meditation
Beginning with the ecstatic spiritual exploration of the New Age movement of the1960’s and 70’s, the scientific community commenced a systematic program of research on the effects of meditation and the mental processes at work during its practice. While meditation is still considered a very complex and mysterious mental task, scientists have revealed some of the roles played by hormones, neurotransmitters (the communication molecules within the brain), and regional brain activation during meditation. Some of the findings include:
• The level of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in the blood is increased during meditation. Typically associated with relaxation, GABA is the neurotransmitter whose activity is enhanced by sedatives such as alcohol and Valium.
• AVP (arginine vasopressin – a blood vessel constrictor) is increased during meditation. AVP has been shown to play a role in the maintenance of positive mood, a decrease in perception of self-fatigue and arousal, as well as improved memory and learning. This may be the reason that meditators frequently report vivid memories of mediation.
• During meditation, the parasympathetic system – the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for relaxation, such as slowing down the heart rate and respiratory rate – is activated. With relaxation comes a decreased level of cortisol – a stress hormone that, if present over a long period of time, suppresses the immune system, increases blood pressure, and a myriad of other things that aren’t good for us in large quantities. This makes sense, since other studies have shown that meditation actually improves the immune system function.
• Brain imaging studies show that meditation causes increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the seat of higher level thinking) and other parts of the brain associated with sophisticated processes that are associated with the will or the intention to clear one’s mind of thoughts.
• Another area of the brain, the posterior superior parietal lobule (PSPL), responsible for generating the three-dimensional image of the body in space is affected by GABA during meditation such that the perception of the self is altered but not destroyed. This may explain why meditators tend to feel slightly out of body.
• Buddhist practitioners exhibit significantly higher amplitude gamma waves—a type of brain wave associated with perception and consciousness—than normal controls. Higher in fact than in any reported in scientific literature, excluding certain mental disorders.
• During meditation people find themselves more relaxed and less anxious. The frontal regions of the brain have been shown to play a role in both negative and positive emotions. When activated, it reduces feelings of anxiety and increases positive emotions. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin and his colleagues have shown through research that the left-sided anterior (near the front) region of the brain is activated during meditation.
• Researchers have found that meditation can actually help reverse heart disease, the number one killer in the United States, by decreasing the thickness of artery walls.
Enough about the heart, Doctor.
What about me?
The growing attraction to meditation goes far beyond preventing heart attacks. In many ways, meditation shares the goals of modern psychotherapy. It is not about changing who you are, but how you see yourself.
From his work both in private practice and as a research fellow in Affective Disorders at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University in Washington Heights, Peter Freed, M.D. has found that at the end of a good therapy session, patients often say something like, “I don’t think I changed how I am, but I am much more comfortable with who I am.”
Trained in psychiatry, Freed explains his understanding of meditation in terms of modern theory of mind. “In psychiatry, healthy people who do not have personality disorders, have good ‘theory of mind’ function. They are fairly good at being aware of how the people they are closest to ‘work’ psychologically. They can predict how others will behave. They can read how other people are feeling, and they are empathically motivated to keep interpersonal relationships going well by adjusting their behavior to fit where other people are ‘at,’ while at the same time not losing track of their own needs, and not falling into the trap of thinking that they can ignore their needs without consequence.”
“In contrast, people with personality disorders often have great difficulty knowing how other people work, and are often oblivious to the effect their behavior has on others. They often don’t even know how their own minds work. For example arrogant, haughty, or demanding people are often genuinely surprised to find out that this is how they are perceived – they can feel weak, ineffective, and self-depriving. This leads to interpersonal problems and often brings them to therapy. You could say that having good theory of mind is like perceiving more of reality, and having not-so-good theory of mind is like perceiving less of reality, with reality here being psychic reality.”
But even healthy people have these moments of “not-so-good theory of mind,” when they withdraw into themselves in the face of painful relationships with family and loved ones or when they fail at their life goals. “The real question in therapy,” says Freed, “is what are the rules that govern how, why, and when people shift from being in a good space where they are in touch with reality to being in a lonely place where they aren’t. Meditation may get you to the same kind of place.”
Losing Theory for Practice
Looking for Dr. Freed’s reality, a couple of weeks ago I went to an evening meditation sitting near Union Square. Even though we were six floors off the ground, sirens periodically pierced the quiet circle of meditators. Now that I’d mastered the art of staying awake, I was able to sit as GABA blurred my perception of self, as my parasympathetic nervous system decreased my blood pressure and breathing rate, as the left frontal region of my brain became active, and as my theory of mind improved.
I became more aware both of my surroundings and myself while not letting the awareness turn into long strings of thoughts. Eventually, I stopped fantasizing about brain chemistry and psychology and just sat there breathing.
And there’s the paradox, by observing the way the mind works through meditation, we have the power to change how we perceive our surrounding and how we perceive ourselves. I can choose, just by sitting, to be happier and more grounded in the world around me. But I wonder, is that why I am sitting, to be happier? Am I just trading one form of therapy for another so that I can have good theory of mind?
As much as the scientist in me wants to deconstruct the experience, I am unable to capture the whole moment. It remains mysterious, and at this early stage in my practice, strangely seductive. Maybe that is enough for now.