Scientific research now supports what long-time meditators have always purported. Mindfulness practices can contribute to a host of health and performance benefits, including improving attention, decreasing stress, increasing resilience, decreasing depression, improving immune responses, and decreasing inflammation.
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar (Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital) used MRI scans to compare the brain activity of 20 meditators to a control group. She found the following:
- Some cortical areas of the brains of the meditators were significantly thicker and resembled that of nonpractitioners who were twenty years younger.
- Specifically, this increased size was observed in the prefrontal cortex (essential for executive functions such as planning, decision-making, judgement, and discerning socially-appropriate behavior; allows us to hold simultaneously two concepts or experiences, so we can compare and evaluate plans, ideas and memories; links memory with sensory input data so we can connect what we have learned in the past with what are currently experiencing) and the insula (integrates sensation and emotion, processes social emotions such as empathy and love, and essential for self-awareness). 247
Lazar’s research was confirmed by neuroscientist Britta Hozel, who found additional structural differences between the brains of meditators and non-meditators:
- The region of the brain that allows us to shift perspective (e.g., empathize with another) and manage emotional upheavals was larger in the meditators.
- The amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotional reactivity and fear, was smaller in the meditators. 248
When Amishi Jha (University of Pennsylvania) compared students who were newly trained in meditation to those who were not trained, she found that meditating for as little as eight weeks can produce these structural changes in the brain. In addition, also just after eight weeks of meditation training, new meditators showed increased ability to intentionally and direct their attention, compared to untrained students. More experienced meditators experienced a different shift; their awareness became more open and alert. They experienced fewer distractions and more insight into the distractions, when they occurred. Perhaps most strikingly, she demonstrated that meditation – even as little as twelve minutes a day – yields significant improvements in short-term memory. 249
Another study by Norman Farb, from the University of Toronto, showed that meditation affects how we experience our “self.” Specifically, it demonstrates that meditation practices enhance the ability to de-link the operations of two separate regions of the brain – the sensory region that focuses on the direct sensory and emotional experience of the present moment and the storytelling region that creates narratives about what happens. “As a result, the likelihood that an experience of present-moment awareness will automatically be followed by a self-centered monologue is reduced.” 250
Barbara Fredrickson, in a study done at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, showed that doing the ancient mindfulness practice of loving-kindness (often called “meta”) for an hour a week over several months generated a significant measurable increase in vagal tone. Vagal tone is a key indicator of health of the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps regulate your ability to regain calm when triggered and can even forecast your likelihood of heart failure. It also reflects the strength of your immune system. 251
Yoga has also been shown to enhance self-regulation, mind-body awareness, and the awareness of deeper states. One study showed that participants suffering from depression who did yoga for 12 minutes a day for six weeks showed a 33% decrease (compared to the control group) in depression and anxiety, a decrease in overall psychological distress, an increase in resilience, and an increase in recounting positive (vs. negative) experiences. 252 Another study showed that the combination of controlled breathing (taking fewer, deeper breaths) and effortful focus of attention that is fundamental to yoga is an effective tool for lowering blood pressure, an indicator of stress. 253
Consider how different kinds of mindfulness practices 254 support the development of the four meta competences.
- Focus of Attention: In focusing on our breath or a mantra or “emptying your mind” (and gently returning our attention, when we inevitably get distracted), we practice exerting “cognitive control” (i.e., the mental activity of exercising agency in what we pay attention to). These exercises build discipline and skill related to the Seeing meta competency. Jack Kornfield likens these kinds of meditation practices to “training the puppy.”
- Wheel of Awareness: By focusing attention on each distinct sensory center, the linkages between them, and then on awareness itself, this practice facilitates neural integration that supports the integration between the four meta competencies. 255
- Breathing Practices: As discussed earlier, the physical act of deep breathing causes changes in our physiology (thus “being” skill-building creates physiological spillover benefits. These practices have been called “meditation for people who cannot meditate.” 256 (The Healing Power of Breath, by Dr. Brown and Dr. Gerbarg, detail some simple, fundamental breathing techniques and how they can be used to heal physical, emotional ailments, including trauma. 257)
- Body Scan: This practice of sequentially focusing attention on each area of your body increases somatic awareness and helps you attune to your inner, physiological experience.
- Core Connect: Purposefully “checking in” with your “head, heart, core and hips” helps you attune to the subtle energies associated with each meta competency and helps you tap into these vital sources of information. 258
- Loving Kindness / Meta: This practice focuses on the heart center and involves “holding” yourself, your loved ones, strangers and enemies in “loving kindness,” wishing them safety, happiness, health, and peace. As discussed earlier, this practice increases the vagal tone of the meditator, which is correlated with a host of physiological, social, and cognitive benefits. Focusing Loving Kindness on yourself can create self-love, a pre-requisite for loving others. 259
- Yoga combines physical postures (which causes you to direct your attention in specific ways) and controlled breathing to enhance self-regulation, mind-body awareness and the experience of broader and deeper awareness.
© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham