The Science & Why of Meditation

written by Holli McCormick
Reading time approximately 2-3 minutes 

Continued from What is Meditation?

“Many of us are slaves to our minds. Our own mind is our worst enemy. We try to focus, and our mind wanders off. We try to keep stress at bay, but anxiety keeps us awake at night. We try to be good to the people we love, but then we forget them and put ourselves first. And when we want to change our life, we dive into spiritual practice and expect quick results, only to lose focus after the honeymoon has worn off. We return to our state of bewilderment. We’re left feeling helpless and discouraged. It seems we all agree that training the body through exercise, diet, and relaxation is a good idea, but why don’t we think about training our minds?”

~ Sakyong Mipham
Turning the Mind into an Ally

Yesterday we discussed what meditation is not and what it is.  Today we will move on to the actual science behind the brain and then develop why meditation is a useful practice.

OUR PRESENT ENVIROMENT
In our culture, we tend to be on automatic pilot, going through the motions of the day – while there are tons of voices going off in our head daily, clouding our thoughts and making us unproductive.  While we do our daily life, our mind is either shut off or hyper aware of our past guilt and shame or busy planning for the future.  Therefore, we become reactive – versus proactive – to our present environment.

THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN
If you are living in a chronic state of reactiveness (i.e. on automatic pilot), you are most likely living in the part of the brain that is responsible for the “fight or flight” response.  This is an older part of the brain and is responsible for getting the adrenaline kicking and pumping throughout the blood.  Whether it is the actual hormones or the overload of thoughts from information/stress/business, there is a phenomenon called “flooding the brain”.  When the brain is flooded – you cannot think.  When you cannot think, you cannot formulate choices.  When you cannot formulate choices, you feel trapped or controlled by outside forces – causing your stress hormones to continue to go off in a viscous cyclical cycle.  There is evidence that remaining in this state can have long-term, chronic negative effects on the body.

On the other hand, when you learn to live proactively, you are able to stay in the frontal cortex of your brain.  The frontal cortex is the more evolved part of the brain where executive – or high level – thinking can happen.  This part of the brain allows you to formulate choices for any given decision that needs to be made.  When you have choices for decisions, you have more of a sense of control.  When you have more of a sense of control, your mind is calmer.  When your mind is calmer – your body, your breathing, your heart rate, your blood pressure and your hormones will follow.

WHY IS MEDITATION USEFUL/HELPFUL?
Meditation is a way to help tune your mind into your present environment – to learn to stay in the frontal cortex.  Training with meditation allows you to go from reactive to proactive in your life by learning to calm your mind.  When you train your brain, your entire body is benefiting – just like when you train your body, your mind benefits.  Therefore we can say when you train with meditation, you are reaping the physiological effects of exercise.  It is a two way street.

Like anything else, the benefits of meditation do not happen overnight; however, with practice – even with just 5-10 minutes a day – you can learn the art of focusing the mind.  When compared to physical training, meditation will help you implement clearer thinking in high stress times.  The outcome allows you to take that art of being present out into your everyday life, providing you with a sense of control.