“It is a tribute to the accumulated wisdom of humankind that a traditional Buddhist meditation practice going back 2500 years, which was originally designed in part to deal with the problem of human suffering, has been successfully adapted to prevent the relapse of depression in the modern era.” ~ Simon N. Young, PhD
It’s a source of great debate among many in the West (not among those who practice and are adherents of mindful meditation, of course; for them, there is no debate): just what are the benefits of mindfulness meditation? This is, really, the core question that can help change not only lives, but the way we medicine is practiced, the way people approach their own stress, and the assumptions behind the growing mindfulness trend in the Western world. Without going into the different types of meditation (that’s for another post)
The inquiry about the end results of mindfulness meditation isn’t limited to just strict Buddhist practitioners; after all, nowadays there are many variants of meditation, all of which can offer varying degrees of results. Transcendental Meditation has been in the US and gained popularity in the 70s and 80s, but it’s based less on mindfulness meditation as practiced in Buddhism than it is on repeating a “mantra” for 20 – 30 minutes, twice a day. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts borrows from Buddhist Insight Meditation’s mindfulness awareness techniques to help people alleviate everything from chronic pain to the stress of daily life. Thousands of books have been written about these and many other categories of meditation. In fact, it has been argued (even by some famous Buddhists) that there are connections between Christ and the Buddha. As someone who was raised as a Catholic, I recognize now that when someone prays for another’s well-being, this actually similar to Buddhism’s “metta” meditation, also known as “LovingKindness” meditation, wherein one wishes wellness, happiness, safety, and peace for one’s self and others.
Fine, but let’s get to the good stuff. So what does mindful meditation do for you? Like many things in our world that involve the collision of belief systems and science, the answer is simple and complicated, all at once, and it’s entirely clear that not all benefits of mindfulness meditation are accorded to all people given the same level of meditation dedication and consistency. That, again, is a discussion for another post.
At the highest level, it’s clear: research has revealed through brain scans and testing, that even moderate mindfulness meditation can bring immediate benefits of stress relief, decreased fear, a sense of calm, and a more relaxed state. Buddhists, lacking “neuroscience,” have known this for a very long time, of course. But now we have solid scientific evidence that verifies what mindfulness practitioners have known for many centuries: mindfulness meditation is good for you.
Dr. Simon N. Young, of the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, concluded in his paper Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: growing insights into neurobiology aspects of the prevention of depression. it’s conclusive that:
“…changes in brain function during meditation have been documented using electrophysiology, single photon emission computed tomography, PET and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Results differ somewhat, possibly owing to the use of different forms of meditation, but in general show increased signals in brain regions related to affect regulation and attentional control, with increased release of dopamine.
Buddhist meditation techniques were originally adapted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Reviews of MBSR studies suggest that it decreases depression, anxiety and psychologic distress in people with chronic somatic diseases and that it reduces stress, ruminative thinking and trait anxiety in healthy people. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is similar to MBSR and is designed to change some of the cognitions that are associated with depression.”
This latter set of traits fits me, unfortunately, to a tee: ruminative thinking and “trait anxiety” are pretty benign-sounding euphemisms for people who compulsively obsess over health, people, social situations, etc. When I was trapped in a negative feedback / fight or flight loop, I’m pretty sure that my amygdala was on fire, preparing my body for a threat that only existed in my mind. If only I’d known about MBSR back then.
According to the Harvard Gazette, research conducted in 2012 indicated:
“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala — a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion — to images with emotional content,” says Gaëlle Desbordes, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state .
Participants had enrolled in a larger investigation into the effects of two forms of meditation: mindful attention meditation and compassion meditation. Based at Emory University in Atlanta, healthy adults with no experience meditating participated in eight-week courses in either mindful attention meditation — which focuses on developing attention to and awareness of breathing, thoughts, and emotions — and compassion meditation, a less-studied form that includes methods designed to develop loving kindness and compassion for oneself and for others. A control group participated in an eight-week health education course.
Within three weeks before beginning and three weeks after completing the training, 12 participants from each group traveled to Boston for fMRI brain imaging at the Martinos Center’s state-of-the-art imaging facilities. Brain scans were performed as the volunteers viewed a series of 216 different images — 108 per session — of people in situations with either positive, negative, or neutral emotional content. Meditation was not mentioned in preimaging instructions to participants, and investigators confirmed afterward that the volunteers had not meditated while in the scanner. Participants also completed assessments of symptoms of depression and anxiety before and after the training program.”
What’s happening here? Well, it turns out that a lot of things are happening (see graphic below). But in a “nutshell” hormones and chemicals are being released that lead to healthier mental states. Instead of thoughts running away with one’s mental health, mindfulness meditation helps one capture those thoughts, observe them, and mitigate their deleterious effects. And it does so by triggering the world’s most powerful pharmacy–you know, the one that’s open 24/7 in your brain.
My own experience? It has transformed obsessive health fears into understandable, non-judged changes. Buddhism teaches that rather than pretend that everything should remain static and that nothing should change, that in fact, everything changes all the time. Everything is impermanent, and the sooner we accept this fact, the better off we will be, because the more we accept changes and “facts of life,” the easier life becomes–and the more we appreciate the moments we have; living neither in the anxious “why didn’t I do XYZ of the past” or the “What if bad things happen” future. Slowing down the runaway train of thoughts and fears isn’t easy, but it’s all part of the rewiring process–and mindfulness meditation is proven to do just that. Not the real trick is to keep it up!!
Yours in Mental Hygiene,
The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness