By Dr. Mark Wiley
Meditative practices were developed thousands of years ago, in countries like Tibet, China, and India. The various practices made their way West and eventually grabbed the interest of mind-body enthusiasts and psychologists.
Today, there are enough people practicing meditation, and enough researchers and big institutions doing trials, that meditation is gaining ground as perhaps the best overall non-medical practice for self-development and promotion of well-being.
8 Weeks to a Better Brain
Recent research from Harvard shows that practicing meditation regularly for as little as eight weeks can cause beneficial physiological structural changes in the brain’s grey matter. This is important because most of the brain’s neural cell bodies are found within grey matter, which itself encompasses regions of the brain that effect sensory perception (sight and sound), muscle control, memory, emotions, auditory functions and how we make decisions and apply self-control. In other words, this is amazing proof of the power of meditation to positively affect almost every aspect of your well-being.
For the study the researchers utilized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to gain images of participants’ brains two weeks before and then right after the meditation study period. For eight weeks participants (meditation experts and novices) meditated using the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) method for 27 minutes per day using guided meditation recordings.
All participants self-reported feeling less stressed. Importantly, the MRIs showed a clear decrease of the grey matter in the parts of the brain known as the amygdalae (which help us deal with stress, anxiety and controls the ‘fight or flight’ response). Additionally, the MRI showed an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus (the area that controls memory, learning, self-awareness, compassion).
This is objective proof that meditation changes our brains in a positive way that helps us reduce our stress response while increasing our concentration, decision making, and compassion toward others.
Improved Cardiovascular and Neurological Changes
A recent study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience shows the benefits that long-term meditation practice has on the heart and nervous system. For the study, researchers used wireless sensor technology to examine variations between novice and experienced participants while meditating, through continuous monitoring of vital signs (via EEG, blood pressure, heart rate variability).
Forty participants (half with experience and half novice) took part in a one week wellness retreat where their meditation sessions were monitored on their first and last days to compare changes in vital signs readings. Changes in EEG, BP and HRV showed that meditation does, objectively, produce improved physiologic responses in the body.
Many Ways to Meditate
There are many ways to meditate, and most have in common the practice of single-point focus with controlled breathing. In other words, they contain a mindfulness component, even if they are not strictly “mindfulness meditation.”
With the above studies showing how meditation can directly affect positive physiological changes in our brain, body, senses and emotions I wanted to share a bit about Daoist meditation practice. Daoist meditation is among the very old forms of meditation and also contains elements of what the ancient Chinese refer to as “internal alchemy” or “internal elixir” development practices for improving and prolonging life.
The great sage Laozi (Lao Tzu) said, “Consider how empty and full exist in each other, difficulty and ease change into each other, long and short are elements of each other, top and bottom rest on each other, sound and noise blend together, back and front chase each other.”
He is referring here to the Daoist concept of yin/yang or the complimentary forces of seemingly opposites. In Daoist meditation the body and mind are still (yin) yet the body energy (physiology) is changing (yang). Along these lines, RJ Coons in his book, Internal Elixir Cultivation, writes, “Daoism as a practice is fundamentally rooted in creating something from nothing — or more exactly, the focus on the soft and feminine in order to create the strong and dynamic. Daoism views the ultimate outcome of concentration on the yin aspect of our being as being the birth and growth of the dynamic yang nature which we are trying to become.”
Let’s jump out of the philosophical (yin) and into the physical (yang) with the basic techniques of Daoist meditation practice.
Basic Meditation Practice
- Sit upright on the edge of a chair.
- Fold your hands at your waist, or put your hands on your knees palm down.
- Close your eyes and relax your mind while focusing on the feeling of your breaths moving slowly in and out.
- Begin to imagine the space around your entire body and gradually pull your attention inward and downward toward the belly button.
- Gradually move the mind deeper into the abdomen and downward into the dantian area — your energy center — just a few inches under the belly button.
- Simply let the mind rest there and breathe naturally.
- It is okay at this point if your breath becomes either shallow or deeper; simply remain relaxed with your mind focused on the core of your body.
- If the mind wanders, bring it back to the dantian as soon as you catch it.
- Once you are comfortable, continue moving the mind downward and toward the qi xue point between the dantian and genitals.
- Continue to breathe naturally and simply observe the phenomenon in the abdomen.
Simply remain still and silent and allow the meditation to stir and move energy in your body. Just observe your breath, not fussing over other bodily sensations. Wherever (e.g., head, back, legs) or however (e.g., feelings of warmth or cold) you feel the energy just allow it to move without focusing on it too much. Keep your attention on your breath, the meditative piece that releases the physical energy.
If you meditate once in a while now, or have never tried it, go ahead and begin a daily practice. You can learn from a class, or utilize guided meditation CDs and videos the lead you. The key is to begin a practice and stick with it, daily, for well… life. Why? Because it is free and offers amazing benefits to the body and mind and improves well-being overall.
You can learn more about Daoist Meditation in RJ Coons’s wonderful primer on the subject.