Meditation, in its most basic form, is the practice of training your mind to achieve a specific level of consciousness. However, since there are multiple forms of meditation, there is no single practice that can be considered the ultimate representation. Most of them are used to induce a state of relaxation.
Mindfulness meditation is one type that most people are familiar with. Many times it focuses on breathing and clearing the mind. Other forms of meditation involve a speaker to guide the person meditating through a series of described, calming images to help them relax. For others, like many who practice forms of Buddhism, meditation may take the form of physical work that helps relax and focus the mind. All of the forms have the same ultimate goal: increase peace, reduce stress, improve concentration, and provide higher levels of self-awareness.
Because of meditation’s relationship with religion and philosophy it can sometimes have the unfortunate reputation of being a New Age fad. Many people feel that it is a form of pseudoscience that only people who aren’t knowledgeable about how the mind works would fall for. However, many scientific and medical studies have been performed to better understand how meditation affects the brain and most agree that it has positive effects.
This is your brain on meditation
A recent study conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology brought to light a number of interesting things that happen to the human brain while meditating. The study demonstrated that meditation was more than a way to relax and calm our minds. It also helps our brains process feelings and access memories more efficiently.
The study not only looked at how meditation in general affected activity within the brain, it determined which types of meditation are best for our minds. The many varieties of meditation can be classified into two basic categories. Concentrative meditation is the action of focusing attention of breathing or thoughts to suppress all other impulses. Nondirective meditation is a more effortless version where focus is centered on breathing or a sound but the mind is free to wander.
Subjects were selected for the study based on their familiarity with meditation techniques. They were asked to perform certain meditation activities while in an MRI machine that scanned their brain. They were tested while simply resting and while performing meditation practices that fell within the two categories of meditation.
The results of the test showed that brain activity was highest while the individuals performed nondirective mediation practices. This increased activity occurred specifically in the area of the brain that is responsible for processing thoughts, emotions, and memories.
Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, said of the study:
“This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest.”
With this new information in mind medical science may find new reasons to back more of the more New Age practice of meditation and encourage their patients to participate. There really is no downside to learning how to meditate as a means to relax.
How can mediation help in your life? Let’s take a look at some common issues and how meditation and relaxation has been known to help.
Almost no one is immune to feelings of stress. Work, family, and other pressures can pile up making us feel the impact. Stress is not inconsequential. It is one of the leading causes of illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure. During the holiday season people who aren’t typically stressed the rest of the year can feel the impact of the increased pressure to make the holidays perfect. This is a great time to give meditation a try.
Especially in light of the study which indicates that nondirective meditation helps us process thoughts and emotions, cultivating this practice can help individuals work through the feelings surrounding the issues that are causing them stress.
For the same reasons, this form of meditation can also help with creative thinking. Everyone, even if they aren’t part of the art community, can benefit from creative thinking. While nondirective meditation could help a writer process their ideas so their writing is stronger, a corporate sales person can use this technique to help think through a particularly sticky problem that is challenging them at work.
Consider starting a daily meditation practice to kick off your morning. Just 20 minutes after you wake up can be enough to get your brain working and processing thoughts that can help you be more successful throughout your work day, whatever it is that you do. This is the same reason many people think they have the best ideas when they’re in the shower.
Our minds wander. That is completely normal. When we get into trouble is when that wandering impacts our ability to function. Picture the student that spends the classroom time staring out the window and daydreaming about what they would rather be doing. They will not be able to concentrate on the task at hand and, subsequently, fail to accomplish their work.
However, giving your mind a chance to wander within a controlled environment can help with your ability to focus on necessary tasks when you need to. This could be a great technique for people who have attention deficit issues or who have a hard time focusing on a task they don’t really enjoy but have to complete anyway.
It is exciting that science is making these connections between practices that have been part of human consciousness since the beginning of recorded history and medical science. When a condition is being treated many doctors focus on stopping the symptoms rather than healing the root cause. Meditation can be a great way to bridge the gap and allow science and traditional practices to work together for the patient’s best outcome.
Are you familiar with meditation techniques? Have you used them to help you focus, relieve stress, or improve your creativity?
Image by Balint Foldesi via Flickr