PEOPLE HAVE BEEN meditating for thousands of years, but it seems only recently that it’s gaining credibility by the scientific community. The shame is that many won’t even give things a second thought unless some researcher or scientist “proves” its benefits, choosing to ignore the wisdom of experience. An article at Forbes discusses research done that correlates meditation and happiness.
First, a Harvard University study has shown that wandering minds are an attribute of unhappy people. 2250 volunteers (ages 18-88, from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and occupations) were used in the study — they were contacted at random intervals by the researchers and asked what they were currently doing and what they were actually thinking about.
They were then asked whether what they were thinking about was pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They found that almost half of the time (46.9%) people were thinking about something else. In other words, they were not engaged in the present moment. These people with the wandering minds were found to be the least happy.
The Forbes article then points to another study that correlates wandering minds and a neural network called the default mode network (DMN). This network becomes active when our brains are moving from one thought/worry to the next. Tying this all together is more research at Yale University (led by Judson Alyn Brewer, MD/PhD) that shows that people who meditate have a large decrease of activity in the DMN (as well as less wandering minds).
What does it all mean? Practitioners of meditation are able to notice and acknowledge their wandering minds and, without judgement, curb their thoughts about future or past events (and non-events) and focus on the present moment. It’s through this practice that the parts of the brain that are centered around “me, me, me” (e.g. the medial prefrontal cortext, as shown in this study) become less activated, even when not in a meditative state.
Studies and research aside, I can tell you from experience that meditation does work. I started practicing regularly about a year and a half ago, shortly after separating from my wife, as a way to cope. As most people who have tried it will tell you, the mind races unbelievably fast when you just sit there and try to focus on your breath. It’s very uncomfortable.
But the more I practiced (I tried to do 15-20 minutes everyday) the more I noticed that this racy brain slowed down and I was able to focus easier. For someone who is interested in discovering and acknowledging thought and emotional patterns, it’s an invaluable practice (not to mention free and easily accessible as anything can be).
Try this right now.
Sit comfortably but not lazily — back straight and upright, hands in your laps. Close your eyes. Focus all your attention on your breath. Notice it as it comes into and goes out of your nostrils. When thoughts arise (and they will, fast and furious) acknowledge them without judgement, and then release them (one of my favourite things to do is imagine them as bubbles floating up in water). Bring your attention back to your breath.
It’s a constant cycle and at first it might feel like you’re “failing” or “not getting it.” You are not failing; you are getting it. This is the process. The exercise is staying with it. All this leads to mindfulness, becoming aware of thoughts and emotions as they come up. This extends beyond meditation practice into everyday life. I find that I am able to catch myself having an instinctual emotion (a pattern learned in childhood, essentially) and am able to choose my reaction to it, to choose what I think is the most appropriate response, instead of letting it get the best of me.
I notice how my body reacts, especially when my defensive mechanism fires up (heart racing, blood rushing to head) and I remember to take some breaths — the mind comes back to me and the guard goes down. I find myself thinking, “hm, that’s interesting” when these emotions arise. I try not to judge them. They’re neither good nor bad, they just are.
What are your experiences from your meditation practice?