Meditation dates back to around 1,500 BCE when it was used in the ancient Hindu practice of Advaita Vedanta. By the 18th century it had come to the west through Buddhist studies and philosophy, as taught by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and French writer Voltaire. Today, it is extremely popular all over the world thanks to what it does to the brain and general mental awareness. But what exactly happens to the brain when you meditate? Here is an explanation.
What is meditation?
Meditation is defined as a way to train the mind to a mode of consciousness and awareness, which can be done through a variety of techniques. It promotes happiness, compassion, patience, forgiveness, and love, as well as allowing the mind to focus on one point to aid in concentration. This is then brought in to everyday life, helping to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and other ailments such as high blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia.
How does it work?
When you meditate, the beta waves in the brain stop processing a lot of information. However, there is so much more to it than that, as different parts on the brain start to do different things than they would if you are going about your regular day. For starters, the frontal lobe of the brain goes offline during meditation. This is the most evolved part of the brain and is responsible for emotions, planning, reasoning, and self-conscious awareness. The parietal lobe of the brain also slows down, which is the part of the brain that sends information to your brain about your surroundings, keeping you in the present time and space.
The Thalamus sits near the center of the brain, with one half on each side of the midbrain. It is responsible for regulating sleep, alertness, and consciousness, sending sensory data to the brain. It is known as the gatekeeper for the senses. When meditating, this information flow slows down to a drip, as opposed to a steady flow.
Finally, the reticular formation slows down, or goes into backwards mode. The reticular formation a set of interconnected nuclei found in the brainstem that controls behavioral arousal and consciousness, keeping the brain alert. This is the part of the brain, that when damaged, will cause someone to go into a coma.
How do we know this?
Numerous studies have been done in the USA through the use of Electroencephalography (EEG) and Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at how the brain works before and after meditation. These tests were done over a number of days, with the best results being seen at the end of the study. However, researchers found that there was even a noticeable change after just one day of doing a 45-minute meditation exercise.
As well, long-term meditators had larger amounts of grey matter in the brain than non-meditators or even short-term meditators. This grey matter is especially seen in the cortex area, which is the part of the brain associated with controlling emotions and responses.
Meditation and Spirituality
The very definition of meditation is to induce a mode of consciousness, or to train the mind to focus on one thing. It helps people explore their own spirituality, be it through religious meditation or some other form, with the end result being self-realization. This than diminished things like the ego, and having no ego is the core of true spiritual self, leading to total self-realization. When meditating for spiritual reasons, the end goal is infinite love and acceptance, which results in peace and happiness.
Spirituality is achieving infinite consciousness, which is attained through meditation. A perfect example of this is Buddha; who spent 49 days meditating underneath a Bodhi tree to attain full enlightenment. This is when he became fully awakened and saw when suffering was, how it was caused, and how to eliminate it. This is how Buddhism came to life, which in itself is a spiritual practice or philosophy that teaches practitioners to attain a state of Nirvana.
Meditation and Mental Illness
Today, meditation is used in hospitals and clinics to help people with mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and schizophrenia. We know what happens to the brain when we meditate, but in treating mental illnesses it is the controlling of emotions, thoughts, and moods where it becomes most beneficial.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is the technique that is best for reducing mental health issues, particularly when it comes to stress, anxiety, and PTSD. This technique uses sound or a mantra that is repeated for 15-20 minutes twice a day, while sitting with your eyes closed. This allows the brain to become less active and for the attention span to be decreased, keeping the mind quiet. Transcendental Meditation has been used in prisons and with war veterans in the USA with great success, as well as being incorporating into many drug rehabilitation programs.
Another form of meditation used for mental illnesses is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive
Therapy (MBCT), which is specifically targeting those with a history of depression. This technique uses cognitive behavioral therapy with mindful meditation, helping you to become aware of your thoughts and feelings, but not reacting to them. Accepting them and learning what triggers certain thoughts and feelings, while understanding why you react to them the way that you do to help control this reaction. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy teaches you to pay attention to every moment without any judgment, and holding onto these feelings without destructing mentally. It teaches those with depression to accept and be aware of negative thoughts and patterns and respond to them in a positive way, keeping negative thoughts at a minimum.
Meditating on a regular basis will promote overall mindfulness, as your brain will start to be more aware of your feelings and emotions, and will be able to control what is going on when it comes to your thoughts. This will result in a better overall life, not only personally but also professionally, as it will keep you focused and allow you to concentrate on each task individually and help the mind from being distracted. This is in addition to a general sense of happiness and inner peace, without ego or self.