Saved on my desktop is a recording called “Guided Meditation for Beginners.” For several months, it sat there unopened, until one Wednesday evening when I finally clicked it. I sat cross-legged on my bed, straightened my posture, and folded my hands together in my lap — this was the image that came to mind when I thought of meditation. I closed my eyes, softly but deliberately, and waited for Zen.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s voice began in a drawl. Pronouncing each word slowly and with purpose, he said we would now begin the process of meditation, or rather, the process of “looking into ourselves.” More images sprung to mind: Me, as a child, looking intently through my grandmother’s skin at bumpy blue veins. A pediatrician flashing a light down my throat and up my nose. Then I remembered I was supposed to be focusing on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s voice, and his voice only.
Still, my mind wandered every time he paused, which was often. “We set aside a time when we will not be interrupted,” he said, stressing each syllable, giving each word weight in the sentence. My phone buzzed. It was an email from my boss. Jon called me back into focus: “Allow this to be” — long pause — “a time in which we set aside the usual mode in which we operate.” I thought it would be funny if we all had a switch like Buzz Lightyear that could be set to English-mode or Spanish-mode. Jon kept talking: “We must shift from that mode of more or less constant doing to a….” I suddenly felt the suspense — what mode would we shift to? “…a mode of non-doing.” It was anticlimactic, to say the least.
“This, of course,” Jon continued, “will tend to Slow. Time. Down.” I was already convinced of that. Glancing at my watch, I saw that Jon had spoken only three sentences in two minutes. One hundred twenty seconds. That was two-fifths of my daily ab workout. (Fine, my weekly ab workout.) It was how long I would spend skimming the Wall Street Journal article my dad forwarded. It was the time it would take me to write an email to my genetics TA asking her to explain the three-point testcross. Two minutes was also the amount of time I had zoned out during lecture, when I missed the professor’s discussion of the three-point testcross.
That evening, I learned that meditation is hard work. I know it’s easily dismissed as trivial, silly, a waste of time, but I want to be the kind of person who meditates. Because meditation works. The evidence says so.
Meditation has increased happiness and life satisfaction. It has reduced anxieties, lowered stress levels, and calmed neuroses. Experienced meditators are more attentive during daily tasks, and are better able to adapt their cognitive strategy in facing new challenges. Meditation can relieve chronic pain, and can even curb addiction.
Most of the meditation that has been studied empirically involves a component of mindfulness training. The human mind is prone to wandering — there is no off switch for thinking or feeling. Augmenting this is our increased tendency to multitask. We watch television while snacking, not paying attention to our biting, our chewing, or our swallowing, which leads to overeating. Mindfulness is about maintaining attention on immediate experience. Mindfulness training aims to reduce inherent mind-wandering, encouraging us to focus only on what we’re doing in the present moment. It also asks us to be accepting of our immediate experience, whatever that may be. For example, a mindful meditator trying to quit smoking would be aware that he’s craving a cigarette, and would react non-judgmentally and without self-criticism. Mindfulness meditation decouples having thoughts and identifying with thoughts, teaching the practice of self-regulation. The smoker who accepts his nicotine craving is then able to control his impulse to light a cigarette.
Advances in brain imaging have provided neurological evidence in support of meditation. Neuroscientists have identified a group of interconnected brain regions, called the default-mode network (DMN), associated with mind-wandering and daydreaming. This includes the medial prefrontal cortex, neurons clustered near the front of the brain, as well as the posterior cingulate cortex, or neurons concentrated deeper below the brain’s surface. When we are in a state of wakeful but distracted rest, not paying attention to the outside world, the DMN is active. This activity drops during goal-oriented behavior, such as playing a game of chess or prudently stopping yourself from smoking a cigarette or eating that last French fry. The DMN is deactivated during effective mindfulness meditation.
But the benefits of meditation reach further, still. The practice of mindfulness causes neuroplastic changes in the brain — connections between some neurons are strengthened, which makes one region more likely to fire in conjunction with another, while some neuronal links are lost. Research shows that mindfulness increases connectivity between areas of the brain involved in self-monitoring, and the tighter linkage improves our overall cognitive control. Meditation alters our hardwiring. The benefits of increased attention, sharper focus, and diminished stress then appear in daily life — sitting cross-legged with your back straight is not required.
Mind-wandering might not seem threatening. Daydreaming, even less so. Beyond decreasing productivity and causing attentional lapses, however, there are dangerous implications to unfocused thought. Hyperactivity in the DMN is correlated with anxiety symptoms. It’s also linked to the development of memory loss and Alzheimer’s. The distracted mind is less able to control cravings, make smart decisions, or perform on cognitive tasks. Studies investigating addiction have found that mindfulness not only empowers individuals to better regulate drug use, but reduces the craving they feel. Patients trained in mindful attention display lower levels of activity in the craving-related anterior cingulate cortex in response to a smoking cue. The neurological evidence indicates that mindfulness works against the patient’s experience of craving, which matches lower levels of self-reported craving.
Of course meditation is hard work, because it alters the mind in a non-abstract way. It creates new synaptic connections between neurons in the brain, or it makes structures less reactive to stressful stimuli, or it decreases the brain activity that leads to daydreaming and distractions. Two minutes won’t suffice. Nor will any half-hearted attempt. But with repeated practice and effort, mindfulness meditation causes neuroplastic changes that affect the very foundation giving rise to all human thought, emotion, and behavior.
The science behind meditation has been a growing field of research in the past few decades. And yet many dismiss the practice, perhaps because of its origins in religious thought. Mindfulness meditation is most often credited to early Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn started out as a student of Buddhist teachers, but he went on to publish some of the first empirical studies on the topic. Ten weeks of his Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, which includes mindfulness training, alleviates patients’ chronic pain and decreases their dependence on pain medications with other adverse side effects.
So yes, I want to be the kind of person who meditates. I’m fortunate not to have a chronic pain condition or a drug addiction, but mindfulness applies outside of clinical settings as well. It makes us more aware of what we’re doing and how we’re feeling in the present moment. It reduces mind-wandering, worrying, and anxiety. It might help us retain memories. I want to enjoy food as I eat it, and enjoy conversation as I have it. I want to be better at paying attention in class. I want to get to the end of this sentence without thinking about the items on my to-do list, or the episode of Modern Family I wasn’t supposed to watch but did, or the friend I texted who hasn’t yet texted me back. And there it goes again, the default-mode network.
Payal Marathe is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Featured image from Earth Seed Yoga.)