In addition to being even-minded in the midst of life’s challenges, many meditators describe having experiences that might be called mystical–and not just in the state of meditation but also after their session of meditation has ended. Some individuals say that their …
A huge amount of research over the last few years has shown more clearly what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation benefits us. Meditation, for example,
- Helps to slow down aging of the brain
- Increases thickness in parts of the brain to do with memory and learning
- Reduces mind-wandering and unhappiness
- Increases the thickness of parts of the brain connected with emotional regulation
- Improves concentration
- Reduces our susceptibility to anxiety and depression
- Helps us tolerate pain
- Reduces feelings of isolation
It may seem rather staggering that one activity, or collection of related activities, can lead to such a varied range of benefits. It is clear in fact that meditation has not just one effect on the brain, but generally helps it to run optimally. Indeed, meditation could almost be defined as “a series of exercises that help us to optimize our brains.”
Neuroscience offers us a more precise way of talking about the mechanisms of meditation. For example, we can recognize that in meditating we are exercising and thickening the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala, which is involved in generating anxiety, and thus encouraging the amygdala to shrink, leading to long-term changes in our emotional being. Some of our older ways of talking about experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to talk as if emotions were like hydraulic fluids that would leak or burst out if we didn’t express them. This isn’t how the brain works! Neuroscience gives us more accurate metaphors and thus helps us to understand ourselves better.
Neuroscientists can actually see the changes I’ve described above taking place in the brain. Not only that, but they can see them happening over a timescale of a few weeks, rather than the years we might assume they might require. Most neuroscientific trials last only eight weeks. And in many of those trials, participants are meditating for an average of around 20 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time!
If you’re one of those people who assumes that somehow you’re not cut out for meditation, or believes that only certain people (the “spiritual” ones) will experience the kinds of benefits I’ve outlined, then perhaps you will find confidence in knowing that exercising the brain is, in many respects, exactly like exercising the body. Just as repeated physical exercise will inevitably promote muscle growth or flexibility, so repeated meditation will help promote brain growth and emotional resilience.
I’d like to add one caveat, which is that in talking about optimizing your brain I’m using a figure of speech known as a metonym. In metonymy, we use a part to represent a whole, or sometimes a whole to represent a part. So when we talk, for example, about combatting climate change in order to “save the planet,” we’re using a metonym. It’s not the planet we want to save, but the biosphere that lives on the planet. Similarly, when we talk about optimizing the brain, we really mean that we’re optimizing our entire being, or even our entire lives.
That’s what we’ll be exploring in these 28 days. We’ll be focusing on brain research and meditation in order to bring positive change in a number of aspects of our lives, including developing greater calmness and focus, enhancing our ability to experience happiness, boosting our creativity and intelligence, bringing into being greater interpersonal harmony, and cultivating insight.
We’ll be looking both at the theory and the practice of these activities. In terms of practice we’ll start today with a simple mindfulness meditation, a video of which you’ll find embedded below.
This post is extracted from our forthcoming 28-day online course, Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation, which starts January 1. Click here for more details.
Lara Fielding, Huffington Post: Now that the holiday shopping is (mostly) finished, and we look to the New Year, perhaps it is a time when you may be selfish… in the best sense of the word! Building your self-awareness is the best gift you can give yourself, and ultimately to share with those you love.
Before you can know what you need, you have to know how to listen to your needs. While we tend to believe we know ourselves pretty well, the skill of self-awareness is not always intuitive. Our true authentic needs often get buried under layers of encrusted patterns of beliefs …
Because the Buddha was a celibate monk, there can be a tendency for us to see intimate relationships as a distraction or hindrance to the spiritual life. But the Buddha himself described marriage as potentially a source of great happiness.
Both husband and wife are endowed with faith, charitable and self-controlled, living their lives ethically, addressing each other with pleasant words. Then many benefits accrue to them and they dwell at ease.
He went as far as to claim that a happy marriage was divine or angelic in nature when he said that a couple can be like two devas (angels, gods) living together.
Moving in the direction of having this kind of fulfilling relationship involves recognizing what I call “The Four Noble Truths of Relationships.”
1. Suffering is a part of all intimate relationships. Some of this is inevitable, but most of it is unnecessary.
Our task here is to recognize this suffering in the first place, and to understand that we create most of it ourselves, taking responsibility for our own actions.
2. Relationships are unnecessarily hard when we cling to unhelpful conditioned beliefs and patterns of action. We often act in ways that cause us, and our partners, pain. This includes blaming, wanting to be “right,” keeping score, thinking that the other person “makes” you feel things, seeing your partner as the source of your happiness, using passive-aggressive “hinting” instead of direct communication, withdrawing affection as a means of punishing our partner, and using sex as a substitute for emotional intimacy.
Our task here is to let go of these unhelpful patterns, so that we can make room for more creative, kind, and helpful ways of being.
3. Relationships can be a source of joy, fulfillment, and of personal growth. This statement comes with a caveat: it doesn’t mean that every relationship has this potential. If one partner is abusive and unwilling to change, then joy and fulfillment likely lie elsewhere. But assuming that both partners are open to change and growth, and genuinely want a fulfilling relationship, then this is possible.
Our task now is to learn to accept any current difficulties without seeing them as defining the relationship. This involves having the faith that the relationship can blossom, perhaps in unexpected ways, should we commit to mindfulness, honesty, courage, and kindness.
4. There is a path that consists of developing mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, which leads to the realization of this potential. This is the “eightfold path of relationships.”
This eightfold path starts with i) exploring our views about relationships, discarding those that hinder our growth and adopting those that facilitate it. It continues with ii) clarifying our intentions, expectations, and core values. It involves iii) cultivating truthful yet compassionate speech and iv) action, as well as v) balancing work and family life. It includes vi) making an effort to grow in every aspect of our lives, and to vii) develop greater mindfulness. And it involves viii) taking time out in order to meditate, reflect, and transform ourselves.
Our task is to walk that path.
Being in a relationship involves the direct realization of interconnectedness, where we recognize that our own personal happiness is inextricable interwoven with that of another person. Instead of focusing narrowly on our own happiness, we have instead to consider our mutual wellbeing as partners. Intimate relationships thus present us with an opportunity for self-transcendence.
To do all this isn’t easy. An intimate relationship requires constant attention and constant “work.” It requires us to courageously accept uncomfortable truths about our own unhelpful views and habits. It requires us to let go, again and again, of those unskillful tendencies. It involves the humility of accepting that we don’t have all the answers, and that we maybe don’t even know what the important questions are. It involves taking risks, and exposing our own vulnerability. But it’s from these challenges that joy and fulfillment come.
Bodhipaksa and Shelly Chatterelli will be co-leading an online event, The Conscious Couple, from Sep 1–28, 2016. Click here to learn more about this event.
Tom Ayers, Chronicle Herald: The holiday season can be stressful, what with office parties, gatherings of friends and family, and nearly constant reminders to shop for presents.
Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, have proven health benefits and can help with the stress, said Simon Sherry, a practising psychologist and researcher at Dalhousie University.
But while people may believe the Christmas holidays are the most stressful time of year, studies show they are actually beneficial to people’s mental health, he said.
“There is actually a substantive body of research on the Christmas season,” he said. “It shows that Christmas has a generally positive and generally …
Justin Karter, Mad in America: A new study demonstrates that the practice of mindfulness may ease pain in a way that is mechanistically distinct from the placebo effect. Research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that mindfulness meditation not only outperformed placebo and fake meditation for pain relief but that it also activated different brain regions than the placebo treatments.
There is an accumulating body of evidence that mindfulness meditation, defined in this study as “a cognitive practice based on developing nonjudgmental awareness of arising sensory events,” can reduce the subjective experience of pain in various settings. However, scientists have yet to determine …
Vidyamala Burch, Kindness Blog: There is no doubt that ‘Giving Tuesday’ is a great way to bring us back to the true sense of charity and empathy towards others, but this is a one off seasonal donation. How is it possible to maintain kindness and compassion to others in our daily lives throughout the whole year, when we have so many demands from family, friends and live in a world where we witness others, and the environment, lurch from crisis to despair and back again?
To complicate matters, compassion and kindness can sometimes be viewed as ‘soft’, possibly even a bit weak? But nothing …
Noah Levine, Lion’s Roar: The Buddha first taught loving-kindness to a group of monks who had been practicing meditation in a forest. The monks were fearful that the spirits of the forest did not want them there and that the spirits were going to attack them. Although the monks were probably just afraid of the dark, their fear became anger toward the forest, and their anger became hatred. And, of course, when one is feeling angry, unsafe, and resentful it becomes more and more difficult to meditate. So the group of monks went to the Buddha, asking for advice on how to deal with …
Betsy Hanger, Mindful Schools: At the Brooklyn public high school where I worked as an English and mindfulness teacher, the principal came in one afternoon during a guided practice on self-compassion. He quietly took a seat among my ninth grade students and closed his eyes. Though he’d encouraged me to start the school’s mindfulness program, he hadn’t witnessed our daily practice.
We were silently repeating short statements meant to cultivate self-compassion. “May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. May I be healthy. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I experience joy in my life.” I offered students the …