Scientific research of mediation
The benefits of meditation
The physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of meditation have been well-documented for thousands of years. Scientists, spiritualists, philosophers, and religious leaders have honoured the power of witnessing awareness. They may refer to it as deep reflection, being present, mindfulness, contemplation, prayer, meditation, or simply relaxing. Still, it's, all the same, disconnecting from the activity and drifting to the space between our thoughts.
In the Yoga Sutras, written between 200 b.c. and. 200 a.d., the sage Patanjali who constructed a common thread that all schools of yoga follow, defined meditation in four Sanskrit words: yoga citta vritti nirodha, which means "oneness is the progressive quieting of the changes of the mind." Over the first few days, weeks, and months of daily meditation, the quieting impact of this simple practice on your body and mind begins to express itself within each choice you make. Of course, your shift may be so subtle that you don't see these meditation benefits. But your thoughts, selections, decisions, and daily actions become more conscious, leading to more intuitively conscious behaviours. Then one day, you realize you have a broader perspective, a deeper sense of calm, heightened clarity, greater creativity, expanded grace, and greater ease. You realize you are making more spontaneous right choices. You realize you are being more authentic. There is greater alignment between what you think, what you say, and what you do. These are the various effects and benefits of meditation.
Stillness, peace & quieting the mind
Over time, moving from activity to stillness during meditation translates into more conscious behaviours during non-meditation, such as the other 23 hours of your day. As a result, your interactions with the world shift more effortlessly from reactivity to responding, from defensiveness to openness, and from drama to calmness. There's a big bonus regarding the effects of meditation on top of all these other nourishing aspects of having a practice. Over time, meditation benefits you by quieting you to a state where you experience life with a deeper understanding of your true Self, which can open the door to the spiritual investigation, connection, discovery, and fulfilment of one of the many spiritual benefits of meditation. It is along the so-called "spiritual path" that you truly can experience your unbounded and unconditioned Self, the infinite you that rests at the core of who you are underneath your body and beneath this worldly garb of titles, roles, masks, ego, and the complexities of this life.
Regardless of the depth of your spiritual nature, simply by spending time in stillness and silence, you will experience the benefits of meditation and become more imbued with the ability to open to greater possibilities in each moment. By seeing yourself as more universal and less personal, you'll realize more options each moment instead of seeing only the limited ones you thought you had before. Everything in your life becomes richer when you see many different ways things can play out. Your previously constricted viewpoint only made you feel more helpless as life unfolded. But this meditation tool and its benefits can give you to feel strong each day, gain clarity, and finally regain your peace of mind.
The scientific research
Different types of meditation styles take you to different places. Some calm you at the moment, others calm you after the moment, some open you, some inspire you, some relax you, some comfort you, others transport you, and some deliver you to a life of oneness and deeper fulfilment. It may sound like a huge leap from the clinical, scientific proof of the power and benefits of meditation. Still, its current trendiness and 5,000 years of testimonials should give you the support you need to continue exploring.
Over the last several years, thousands of compelling scientific studies have found evidence that a regular, consistent meditation practice can offer a wide range of healing benefits and meditation-linked health benefits. The data include hundreds of clinical studies performed by science and medical departments at major universities, research reports in such venerable sources as The Journal of the American Medical Association and The New England Journal of Medicine, and special features in more popular publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Time magazine to The New York Times. As a result, there is now compelling evidence that meditation is a powerful tool in managing anxiety and stress, pain relief, restful sleep, cognitive function, and physical and emotional well-being.
Meditation changes the physical structure of the brain
On January 30, 2011, in the issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Massachusetts General and the University of Massachusetts Medical School reported the results of a study on meditation benefits that demonstrated that meditation could transform our brains. Using MRI brain scans at the beginning and end of the eight-week trial, scientists discovered that each of the 16 subjects who meditated for 30 minutes every day experienced visible changes to the physical structure of their brains. For example, within 56 days, each subject's MRI displayed an increase in the grey matter in the hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for learning, spatial orientation, and memory and a reduction in the grey matter of the amygdala, which is the fear, stress, and anxiety centre of the brain.
So if you wonder whether meditation's benefits will appear in your life, the answer is a powerful yes! In less than two months, the brain can change its physical structure and how it's wired, all from a daily practice of 30 minutes.
Brain wave studies of meditation
A recent brain-wave study by Dr Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin tested meditating monks, who had 35000 hours of meditation experience and the non-meditating volunteers on their pain responses and the threat of pain to explore the potential benefits of meditation on pain perception. Dr Davidson monitored the brain's pain centres as he applied a heated applicator to the arms of the test subjects. As the heat was directly applied to the skin, all the test subjects responded similarly.
The monitors showed their pain centres activated as the hot instrument touched their flesh. Then he changed the procedure a bit. All the test subjects were told, "In ten seconds, I will apply the heated applicator." The non-meditators pain centres reacted instantly upon hearing the words before the subjects were touched. The pain centres of the super meditators did not respond until the heat was applied 10 seconds later.
What's the takeaway here? The non-meditating world reacts first to the hint or projection of pain in the future as if it were feeling the pain now. The meditators stayed in the present moment longer. As a result, they did not feel pain when the threat of pain was announced.
This study has the most profound insight into how we can remove and lessen suffering if we don't project ourselves into the future and manufacture potential suffering. Yet most of our life is played out in the future as our hopes, dreams, wishes, and needs weave into expectations. So we start reacting to scenarios yet unborn as if we were clairvoyant. The effects of meditation will help you immeasurably in this process because one of meditation's benefits is to help you stay mindful of the present moment. These two studies demonstrate the transformational power meditation can have on our physical body and emotional response to the world around us.
Finally, after thousands of years of eye-rolling by naysayers, the value and benefits of meditation are validated scientifically in a laboratory with the most advanced technology to monitor the brain. And the results of studies like these in medical centres and institutions of higher learning continue to be published for the world to access. Yet the most transformational results and effects of meditation can only truly be felt by the one having the experience. That can happen with your very first meditation.
How meditation changes our physiology
During meditation, specific physiological shifts occur. These shifts are accumulative; over time, they can transform how our bodies and minds balance and integrate. However, the most powerful proof that meditation benefits the body-mind lies at the very core of our DNA, in a primal survival response, the fight or flight response.
Reducing Fear and Anxiety: Quieting The Fight-or-Flight Response
We have a self-preservation reflex, a powerful survival mechanism woven into our DNA known as the fight-or-flight response. When we perceive a life-threatening situation, we react at the moment and choose one of two basic paths of survival: to fight or to run. One of the benefits of meditation is that it gives us a choice in situations like these instead of reacting automatically.
It works like this: Imagine hunting and gathering in a jungle during prehistoric times when you hear a sabre-toothed tiger make a loud hiss. On perceiving this threat, your body's limbic system (which can be positively affected through meditation and controls emotion, behaviour, memory, and sense of smell) immediately responds via your autonomic nervous system, a complex network of endocrine glands that automatically regulates your hormonal chemistry and metabolism.
The body reacts to a threat
On hearing the sabre-toothed tiger, your sympathetic nervous system (the autonomic nervous system that regulates all our body's functions) quickly prepares you to deal with what is a threat to your safety. It says, "There's a good chance you will become this predator's dinner, but if you fight or run away, you could live." It then goes on a lightning-quick mission to help you achieve that goal. First, you begin to sweat. Your limbic brain knows you will most likely overheat if you start fighting or fleeing. Hence, automatic sweating is the fastest way to bring your temperature down.
Next, your hormones initiate several metabolic processes that help you cope with sudden danger. For example, your adrenal glands release adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and other hormones that speed up your breathing, spike your heart rate, and elevate your blood pressure, quickly driving more oxygen-rich blood to your brain and to the muscles needed for fighting the sabre-toothed tiger or for running away.
All of this happens before you've had an intellectual conversation with yourself about the impending danger.
The threat could be real or imagined, but if the limbic brain perceives it, you will automatically respond in seconds as if it is real (however, regularly practising meditation benefits this part of the brain by allowing it to stay calmer). These self-preservation processes are all triggered by the same part of your brain that regulates hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, fear, and sleep. Your energy soars as the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol surge into your bloodstream. At the same time, your pancreas secretes a hormone called glucagon to raise your blood sugar with the equivalent sugar kick of you eating several candy bars at once.
As these physiological changes occur, your senses become heightened, and your heart starts racing. All distractions, pain, thoughts, and internal conversations leave your awareness as your focus becomes concentrated on one single goal: survival.
Because of its enormous influence on emotions and memory, the limbic system is often called the "emotional brain." But fast-forward 20,000 years to the present-day reality, and there aren't too many sabre-toothed tigers out there. Unless you're defending your country in a war zone or a life-threatening line of work such as firefighting or law enforcement, the daily need for the rest of us to activate our fight-or-flight mode is a rarity. Practising meditation often allows you to minimize this fight or flight response.
Below is what happens to your body during the Fight-Flight response:
+ An increase in blood pressure and stress on your heart
+ An increase in your stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol)
+ An increase in your blood sugar (glucagon tells the pancreas to slow insulin production)
+ A decrease in blood circulation, especially to your digestive tract
+ A decrease in your growth and sex hormones
+ Suppression of your immune system, and
+ An increase in the thickness and stickiness of your blood.
We can look at these as the seeds of illness because they lead directly to the following diagnoses: coronary heart disease, anxiety, addictions, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, infections, cancer, strokes, and heart attacks. Modern science is slowly discovering that chronic stress impacts the brain as well. Clinical trials on mice have demonstrated that these stress hormones affect our dendrites—the signal receivers and senders on nerve cells—by shrinking them, which impedes the easy flow of the information they transmit. When this occurs in our hippocampus, it challenges our memory and learning ability. Thankfully, the effects and benefits of meditation help to turn off these reactions and turn on meditation's health benefits.
If we respond with an ego or fight or flight response to every fear and need that's not met, we will certainly die sooner or live a more painful life. Fortunately, one of the benefits of meditation is a tool that helps reverse the impact that fight-or-flight and ego responses have on our minds and bodies. In addition, meditation can unravel the cellular damage that stress has caused and alter our DNA hardwiring of the fight-or-flight response.
A group of scientists, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak, discovered that long DNA molecules protect our chromosomes, which carry our genes from one cell to another. Research also shows the existence of an enzyme. As lower levels of stress hormones are in our system through daily meditation, damaged telomeres mend, and our immune function rises. These direct meditation health benefits, emotionally, we respond intuitively, releasing us from the prison of ego responses. We begin to move from a life of conditioned, limiting mindset beliefs to a more unconditioned life of infinite possibilities.
The Restful Awareness Response
When we meditate, our body's chemistry changes. We are less inclined to sweat, our breathing and heart rate slow down, stress hormones decrease, our sex hormone increases, our growth hormone levels rise, our immune system gets stronger, and our platelets become smooth as blood flows throughout our body. As these physiological shifts occur, our mind relaxes anxiety and reduces stress. These elements remain even after a meditation session.
As we meditate regularly, we shift our automatic response mechanism to a more unconditioned response. In restful awareness, we navigate through situations with grace and ease. We're less impulsive and more intuitive, thanks to heightened awareness. Make more conscious choices because we intuitively are guided to the most positive choice, honouring ourselves by intuitively knowing the highest choice. The choice that elevates us to the highest plane of existence is to be compassionate and forgiving remaining in the heart space.
The more time we spend in a state of restful awareness, our need to try to defend them feels unimportant. We have awareness rather than the narrow view we once had.
Increased Creativity and Intuition
Many students say 30 minutes of meditation is more refreshing to them than 30 minutes of sleep, and several studies now confirm the specific benefit of meditation. For example, suppose you have an irregular or abnormal sleep pattern. In that case, it can normalize in a few days after your dedicated new meditation routine. But, of course, the issue that keeps you awake at night is a deeper emotional constriction or pain. In that case, meditation will help relieve the pain's acuteness. Only a commitment to self-discovery, emotional release, and healing will treat the issue of your insomnia.
Spiritual Benefits of Meditation
Beyond the health benefits of meditation, we benefit greatly from spiritual development. We Embark on a journey seeking a reconnection to the universe and our most divine authentic version.
We choose the most resonating path to understand and express the bigger universal concepts of bliss, truth, pain, life, death, love and purpose. Of course, some people may not care about these things because their awareness has yet to drift into these concepts at this current point in their lives. But ultimately, we will walk through these experiences and ask these questions.
If someone is not engaged in this conversation, simply being aware of these natural life principles and the journey invokes an understanding that there is something more expansive and intelligent than we are. Consciousness is connected to all things simultaneously. Meditation benefits you by gently guiding you to that space back to the oneness.
Experiencing the Infinite
Most of us grew up in homes where we were introduced to an all-knowing, all-seeing, infinite being known as God. How else can finite flesh beings such as us, with limited tools and understanding, ingest such a beyond-this-realm concept as oneness? There needs to be an almighty essence that embodies all the characteristics of oneness better to understand them as a guide between us and oneness. And this is where the benefits of meditation come in. Most of us have a similar understanding regarding our own personal God's nature. Essentially, this being created everything; is infinite, immortal, omnipresent, spans the existence of time and, therefore, is timeless; controls or influences everything; is everywhere at once or has demigods or avatars who can be anywhere; is capable of resurrection and rebirth; can be worshipped and appealed to; and can craft what we would consider miracles.
If you are not raised in a formal religious or spiritual tradition (if you are an atheist, you can still meditate and receive all the health benefits of meditation), you are likely to believe there is some form of intelligence beyond ours. So whether your orientation is toward the Divine, a god, multiple gods, or a higher power, we define our understanding of this universal nature as spirituality. Spirituality is the journey we take in each moment from our most individual Self to our most universal Self and then back again, integrating a bit of that divine magnificence into our flesh-encased human form, from constriction to expansion.
When our mind analyzes this being or power, we see this omniscient, omnipotent, infinite God or spirit at once in everything and yet separate from us and the world. Vedanta would say this separation exists only on the surface, only in our minds. One of the benefits of meditation is experiencing this perceived sense of separation less and less. According to Vedanta, liberation lies in knowing the reality of this oneness and experiencing spirit through varying aspects of the study (gyan), devotion (bhakti), selfless service (karma), and practice (raj or the royal path).
Two practices of the royal path that most directly connect us to the spirit are meditation (restful awareness) and yoga (body-centred restful awareness). The path to this understanding of spirit is a deeper understanding of who we are, what we really want in life, and why we are here. Expansion of consciousness—moving from a constricted, conditioned space where we define ourselves as the roles we play in life and the things we own (essentially, our positions and our possessions) to the more broad perspective of who we are, how we are connected to everything, and what we came here to do. Essentially, you are not in the universe; the universe is in you!