The Ancient Practice of Meditation

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The ancient practice of meditation is rapidly gaining scientific credibility as a remarkable new – for western societies – means for cultivating psychological and physical health. With coverage of new research last week in the New York Times, the Irish Times and Scientific American, Examiner readers can’t be left out!

Western ideas about meditation can be pretty interesting. Very little levitating or astral projection is needed, and you can put away your bed of nails. It’s really just about strengthening our attention and awareness. Our attention is like a flashlight beam, capable of being moved around or, instead, focused and concentrated. Meditation simply involves intentionally paying attention in the present moment by focusing and concentrating on some object and trying to sustain that focus from moment to moment. Simple! A common practice is to just watch the sensations of your breath through its cycles. “Simple” becomes challenging very quickly because of one little detail – our mind. The human mind is insanely undisciplined and busy and for most of us it has the attentional muscles of an underfed 98 pound weakling. Try paying steady attention for two minutes to your breath as you feel it, perhaps in your chest or at your nostrils – I’ll wait…

…and if you tried it you probably saw how awareness flits or disappears. That little exercise gives us a glimpse of the very considerable underpinnings of stress and emotional disturbance. Our undisciplined mind tends to fret and worry and criticize and distort and excrete disturbance way more than we commonly know. We can’t really know what our mind is doing unless we have some way of paying attention to our mind. How can we possibly regulate or realistically come to terms with anything if we don’t see it or know about it?

Western neuroscience is revealing that this simple practice is something of a universal exercise machine. Meditation works the meatiest of those neurobiological systems associated with stress and our most human and compassionate abilities. Regular practice is being shown to be associated with improvements in a who’s who list that includes the immune system, memory, attention, self esteem, depression and anxiety, cardiovascular risk factors, chronic pain, and addictions including our relationship to food. It may be that the common path to whole person health has to do with emotion regulation and the reduction of the wear and tear of stress.

The piece of research receiving the recent media coverage is from Dr. Sara Lazar’s group at the Harvard Medical School, reporting changes in the grey matter in some brain structures after an 8-week mindfulness meditation course. The measured increases in grey matter (from more neurons or brain cells) in the hippocampi may be related to better memory and emotion regulation, and the measured reduction in the size of the amygdale may indicate less fear and reduced stress-susceptibility. Our plastic brain responds to practice and exercise.

One study doesn’t provide us with anything that we can be completely sure of. It’s the body of scientific work that tells a useful story. The research database that I subscribe to shows that since this past December more than 50 peer-reviewed papers about mindfulness have been published. Even so, the early days of research in any new area will suffer growing pains for many reasons.

Mindfulness is clearly trendy and a hot area for research. The body of neuroscience, medical and stress research appears to be telling us that we can do much to look after ourselves if we mindfully see ourselves. And remember too that the wisdom of this very human practice of seeing “the precision and openness and intelligence of the present” goes back 2500 years and has been echoed by Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson and Jung among others.