“With the ever growing impact of science in our lives, belief and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things.” ~Upaya Zen Center
Brain Food for Thought:
- How do meditative practices influence pain and human suffering?
- What role does the brain play in emotional well-being and health?
- To what extent can our minds actually influence physical disease?
- Are there important synergies here for transforming health care, and for understanding our own evolutionary limitations as a species?
Meditation has been extensively used since the dawn of time in many civilizations around the world as a means of cultivating a state of well-being, balance and flow of equilibrium between the mind, body, soul and environment. The practice of documented meditation has formally been found in ancient scripture as early as the third century BCE, in the Buddhist writings of Abhidharma.
What was once a “froo-froo,” only for the “yoga mat” exercise is now being studied in terms of its influence on brain activity, cognitive development and patterning. There is wide spread recognition of the influence that mind has on our physiological, attentional and affective paradigms; where more clinicians are integrating the application of emotional regulation and somatic healing in their clinical practices and merging the scientific research of brain science, with somatic developmental psychology and the art of meditation to prevent and treat disease such as mental illness, depression, etc.
At the Mind & Life Institute, the Dalai Lama and leading researchers in medicine, psychology, and neuroscience are exploring the healing potential of the human mind by using dynamic interchange along with intriguing research findings that shed light on the nature of the mind, its capacity to refine itself through training, and its role in physical and emotional health. The most recent Zen Brain program at the Institute of Mind & Life, explores trauma, stress, loss and the human potential for resilience and happiness.
“Mindful meditation may be described as sustained awareness aimed at non-reactive and nonattached mental observation, without cognitive or emotional interpretation of the unfolding moment-to-moment experience.” (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Gunar).
The role that meditation plays in brain development has been the subject of several theories and a number of studies. At the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that long-term meditators had greater gyrification — a term that describes the folding of the cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain.
Published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal the study is the latest effort from the U.C.L.A. lab to determine the extent to which meditation may affect neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to make physiological changes. Previous studies found that the brains of long-term meditators had increased amounts of so-called gray and white matter (the former is believed to be involved in processing information; the latter is thought of as the “wiring” of the brain’s communication system.
In 2009, a study was presented at an American Heart Association meeting, suggested that the mental relaxation produced by meditation has physiological benefits for people with established coronary artery disease. Researchers followed about 200 high-risk patients for an average of five years. Among the 100 who meditated, there were 20 heart attacks, strokes and deaths; in the comparison group, there were 32.
The results – the meditators tended to remain free of disease longer and also reduced their systolic blood pressure. That study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin inMilwaukee, in collaboration with the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. The institute’s director, Dr. Robert H. Schneider, suggested that the stress reduction produced by the meditation could cause changes in the brain that cut stress hormones like cortisol and damp the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.
We already know that regular exercise; such as Yoga can reduce stress and increase the “happy chemicals” in our brain – endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. In 2010, more than 50 people gathered in the Circle of the Way temple at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to explore the connection between neuroscience and meditation. This summer solstice, the same experience took place inNew York CityinTimes Square; where thousands of yogis came out to collectively “om” in the name of community and good energy.
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein
As a corrective coach, I know how important focus, visualization and control of one’s movements are crucial to a client’s success, but what is often neglected today is the power of the mind to improve or reduce a client’s success. If the mind is not yet freed from self doubt and self defeating mind stuff; then the success rate of that client will be limited and the body will continue to move slowly and show limitations in a successful progression.
This is what somatic anthropology and mind-body practioners call “control and resignation. Much like our muscular states our psyche works a bit the same. “For instance… “I need to hold onto this, to keep control of it (a pattern of thought that holds many of us back from letting go of fears).. the hypo-response reflects a resignation that says, “attempting to do this is too exhausting; i give up.” The body (and mind) flow between a triad of states – over-activity, under-activity and neutrality. Present empirical findings indicate that these physical states generally correspond to psychological ones.Every part of the body may be said to also be part of the mind.” – Levine 1976
The answers are simple. Meditation is proven to have a hug influence on brain activity and physical response. Meditation produces significant increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive characteristics like optimism and resilience, as well as “higher” executive functions as decision-making, judgment, and planning. All of which, can help combat and prevent physical disease. When we operate in the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain) we are able to think more clearly, make better decisions, listen more attentively, see outside our own perspectives and see other people’s points of view and work together more effectively and more efficiently.
The question you should be asking yourself is “what are YOU thinking? Choose your thoughts wisely, as the infamous Gandhi once said…”thoughts become words, words become things, things become values”… and so on.
Body, Breath, & Consciousness – Ian Macnaughton