People often ask, “What will I get from doing this?” “How will all this help me in my daily life?” We want to know where we’re going and why. The benefits of meditating are both psychological and physical. A joint Carnegie Mellon/UCLA study (published in Brain, Behavior, Immunity, 2012) offers first evidence that mindfulness meditation is a promising intervention for reducing loneliness in older adults. Loneliness is considered a risk factor for illnesses such as cardiovascular neurodegenerative disease. Also, with a group of healthy 40 adults–age 55-85–after 30 minutes of eight weeks daily meditation and one day-long retreat (control group was used), blood samples showed reduced pre-inflammatory gene expression in the immune cells, plus a measure of C-Reactive Protein (CRP). This suggests mindfulness training may reduce inflammatory disease risk. These results are exciting because they indicate we can modulate immune cell gene expression — through psychological intervention!
Among the many psychological benefits of meditation: people are often surprised to realize this–what we’re contemplating is distinct from our mind responsible for generating such. Benefits of MeditationThe content is process. By tracking our process, we guide our content. Why is this important? It gives us a better sense of ‘control.’ We’re more focused and ‘grounded,’ more hopeful. When we witness the rhythm and chain of our mind’s events, we see our consciousness as mosaic and kaleidoscopically constant, teeming with change. Since our external Reality depends on our internal universe, we marvel at our thoughts as mirage, and as not necessarily true! “Thinking” something, does not make it fact. Understanding this deeply, we appreciate the distinction between how things appear and how things are. When we come to see this reliably, over and over again, we have sharpened awareness, feeling a huge sense of freedom in our behavior with others and the world. People often report greatest benefit from meditation when they achieve a sense of “equanimity” or abiding “still in the storm.” We feel more at ease, released from with past conditioned behaviors, and are able to live more fully in the moment. We are witness to our experience. We are observer AND participant, rather than solely the latter. Rather than feeling burdened by bad memories of the past or fearing the imagined future, we’re less anxious and despairing. Hence, we’re freer from self-judgement, more open to “happiness,” and relaxation.
Many studies confirm positive neurological changes as a result of regular meditation practice. Recently, using a type of MRI technique, diffusion tensor imaging, researchers presented a paper at the 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After subjects practiced two weeks (approximately eleven hours of meditation), they looked at the following correlated brain changes:
- changes in brain structure, e.g. increase in number of axonal density (signaling connections)
- increase in myelin (protective tissue around axons) in anterior cingulate region (region responsible for self-regulation)
- enhances brain function
- increases emotional regulation
- lowers levels of fatigue, anger, anxiety, and depression (in contrast to control group)
- elevates mood and decreases hyper-vigilance/stress response (via activating left prefrontal cortex and decreasing amygdala activity, respectively)
- heightens empathy
- improves cognitive functions, e.g. increased memory