What is Meditation?

    Meditation is a method for acquainting our mind with virtue. The more familiar our mind is with virtue, the calmer and more peaceful it becomes. When our mind is peaceful we are free from worries and mental discomfort, and we experience true happiness.

Meditation is a universal spiritual wisdom and a practice found at the core of all the great religious traditions, leading from the mind to the heart. It is a way of simplicity, silence and stillness. It can be practiced by anyone, wherever you are on your life’s journey. 

If we train our mind to become peaceful we will be happy all the time, even in the most adverse conditions. But if our mind is not peaceful, even if we have the most pleasant external conditions we will not be happy. Therefore it is important to train our mind through meditation.


The current state of meditation and spirituality is arriving at a turning point that could soon easily be a gigantic leap.

When meditation came to the west (some would say in the 60’s but it probably started with Swami Vivekananda at the turn of the 20th century at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago) it arrived with many westerners becoming faux-easterners in many respects. 

From setting up exclusive spiritual communities or ashrams to many joining cults and adopting master-disciple relationships that almost invariably lead to exploitation and corruption.

Currently the most popular forms of meditation are Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Mindfulness Meditation (a form of Buddhism). Many people think of TM as being meditation, which shows how successful they have been in their marketing. Others see TM as a weird cult, with some very expensive courses, celebrity endorsement, exploitation of its members, a huge financial corporate infrastructure and one very limited style of meditation, known as mantra meditation (a mantra is a sound, word or phrase that one simply repeats over and over again).

This style of meditation is extremely effective in helping people to concentrate and so is particularly useful in the west where it is commonly recognized that we are the most stressed that have ever been with the shortest attention span.

  Mindfulness meditation is a Buddhist style of meditation that emphasises a detached witnessing of thoughts before they become emotions that negatively affect the meditator. In Mindfulness Meditation we are intimately aware of every thought and emotion but we just witness and treat them with peace and equanimity.

This form of meditation is again extremely effective for bringing peace to the stressed western practitioner and so has been very successful even whilst being a very limited form of meditation. To say that TM or Mindfulness Meditation define what meditation is, would be akin to saying Jesus is defined by the Church. They are the most popular but represent a tiny, tiny portion of what real meditation is.

Beginning with styles of meditation there are at least 6 meditation techniques, that include visualization, affirmations, music, breathe, object based meditation, mantra, silent meditation and much more. But the real point is that meditation experiences are the ultimate experience in every human endeavor. So there are as many meditation styles really as there are human endeavors. The best music experience will be a meditation; the best walking will be a meditation, the best surfing, ballet, dancing will be a meditation.

That is to say meditation is very wide and very deep and cannot be defined by just a mantra or just mindfulness. It is the experience of real love, recognizable to most meditators as our most natural state, the state we center ourselves in beyond the noise of the human body, mind and ego.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Meditate

This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session if we’ve never tried it before.


In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).

Below is the best explanation I found of what happens in each part of the brain during meditation:


Frontal lobe

This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.

Parietal lobe

This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.

Thalamus

The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.

Reticular formation

As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.

How Meditation Affects You

Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health.

Better Focus

Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.

Less Anxiety

This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we're actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not.


What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.


When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. Here’s a good example:


For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.

More Creativity


As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity.


Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.


More Compassion


Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images.


Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people.


Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.


Better Memory


One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.


Less Stress


Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.


More Gray Matter


Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and heightened focus during daily life.


Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.

A Note on Getting Started


One of the best (free!) apps I’ve come across to help you get started with meditation is called Headspace. Invented by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, this is meditation geared towards busy people like you and me. Andy guides you through 10 minutes of simple meditation every day. You don’t have to do anything—just sit down and turn on the app and let Andy’s calm voice (his voice is truly amazing–the app is worth trying just for that!) explain how to approach meditation.