The Science of Meditation
In certain cultures, people have practiced meditation for physical and emotional wellbeing for thousands of year. Today, the practice of meditation is increasingly spreading in the western society.
Starting to meditate is hard. Most of us will find very challenging to sit still with ourselves and our thoughts even for few seconds. In a society where we are constantly bombarded by stimuli, we are chasing deadlines and striving to achieve, simply sitting and doing nothing can feel enormously frustrating.
If you think of meditation as training of the mind then it becomes clear that it’s a process that requires time, patience and discipline, just as if you were training for a pentathlon.
Most times the struggle comes from our expectation to be able to silence the chatter in our mind as we sit in meditation. However, often as we take the meditation seat thoughts and worries stir up and the chatter becomes even louder. The practice of meditation is not about stopping the chitta vritti, it is more about finding some comfort in the chaos of the mind, it’s about learning how to be at ease as the thoughts come and go.
An example given me by a meditation teacher and that allowed me to ease into the practice is to see the thoughts as cars passing by on a busy road and imagine myself sitting on the side of this road. One car could be “worry”, another car could be “fear”, another could be “sadness”, all I have to do is to sit and watch them drive through. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? What happens in reality is that the traffic will soon start to make us feel unsettled and restless, we run in the middle of the road and we try to stop or chase the cars. This is the exact moment when the practice of meditation begins! As soon as we realise that the mind has wandered off, we notice it and without judgement we go back to sit on the side of the road.
Overtime, less and less thoughts come visit us as we sit in meditation. The mind slowly drifts to a calmer state. The chitta vrittigently quiets.
How does meditation actually work? It all starts in the brain.
There is now plenty of scientific research that backs up the positive impact of meditation on mental and physical health. During meditation, brain scans show increased activity in regions directly correlated with decreased anxiety and depression along with increased pain tolerance and irritability.
Scientists have compared the brains of meditators with the brains of non-meditators and they found that the region of the brain associated with empathy, compassion and kindness is much more pronounced in the meditators’ brains. Meditation literally changes brain waves: meditators have higher levels of alpha waves which have been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness and anger.
Meditation has the power to physically change our brain. A study found that after only 8 weeks of meditation practice the shape and the size of the brain changes, gray matter was more dense in areas associated with learning, memory, processing and emotion regulation and yet the amygdala which deals with stress, blood pressure and fear had decreased in size.
When we look at the entire body, not only meditation decreases blood pressure but it can also increase the variability of your heart rate improving the transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body. In another study, both meditators and non-meditators were given the flu virus. Well, guess what? Meditators were able to produce a greater number of antibodies and had increased immune function!
And we can go even deeper. Researchers have observed changes on a cellular level. Our chromosomes have protective protein complexes called telomeres which help reduce damage to our DNA and lower cell death. A shortened telomere length has been linked to several diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer. Amazingly when cancer survivors completed a meditation program their bodies showed significant increases in telomere length.
Of course I am in no way saying that meditation is the ultimate cure for cancer but much like the asana practice can tone your muscles and increase your overall health, meditation may be a way of working out your brain with extra health benefits.