Meditation is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “to focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.” This definition is a more general way to define meditation. In yoga, meditation is a practice of a focusing on a sound, object, visualization, breath or movement in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation and enhance personal and spiritual growth. But what is meditation in psychology?
Meditation in Psychology
Mr Robert G. Nairn, a South African Buddhist teacher and author talks about meditation as a state of “bare attention”. He explains: “it is a highly alert and skillful state of mind because it requires one to remain psychologically present and ‘with’ whatever happens in and around one without adding to or subtracting from it in any way”.
Meditation is the practice of revolving your attention on a single point of reference. It can involve concentrating on the breath, on bodily senses or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. In other words, meditation is about turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment.
The physical act of meditation generally consists of simply sitting quietly, focusing on your breath and mantra. However, a meditator might also be walking or standing. It is not unusual to see a meditating monk walking a few steps and then lying horizontal over and over again until he reaches his destination many miles away.
There are many traditional and countless ways to perform meditation. According to Dr. Roger Thomson, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Chicago and a zen meditator: “if you are feeling better at the end, you are probably doing it right”.
To explore what part of the brain meditation affects, researchers at the Harvard Medical School used MRI technology on some participants to observe their brain activities while they are meditating. They found that meditation activates the sections of the brain that are responsible for the autonomic nervous systems, which manages the functions in our body that we cannot control such as digestion and blood pressure. These functions are often compromised by stress. Therefore, it makes sense that monitoring these functions would help to reduce stress-related conditions such as heart disease, digestive problems and infertility.
However, many people cannot seem to get the hang of meditation, no matter how often they try. Dr. Steven Hendlin, a clinical psychologist in California says: “It can be difficult. It may be a struggle to overcome the internal chatter that we all experience”.
Meditation and Science
Various studies have shown that meditation has not only a mental but a deep physical effect on the body. Studies have provided results whereby meditation can help to reverse heart disease which is the number one killer in the US. It can reduce pain and enhance the body’s immune system, enabling it to better combat diseases.
Other studies show that meditators showed a decrease in the thickness of their artery walls, whereas those who do not meditate showed an increase.
Another study taught a random group of 90 cancer patients about mindful meditation. After about seven weeks, those who meditated were considerably less depressed, anxious, angry and confused.
It has also been found that meditation helps people to produce less cortisol – a stress hormone produced by the body.
Psychological benefits of Meditation
Meditation helps to create balance in your two brain hemispheres:
Deep meditation offers your nervous system a fruitful atmosphere, resulting in positive transformations in your body and brain.
Your brain has two hemispheres – left and right. The thinking of the left hemisphere is generally more sequential, linear, practical, mathematical, analytical, scientific and time-oriented. Whereas, the right hemisphere is more intuitive, abstract, big-picture focused, creative and space-oriented.
People usually use more of one hemisphere that the other which creates an imbalance.
Meditation works to balance both hemispheres of the brain, forcing them to work in harmony. During meditation, the cable of nerves connecting your two hemispheres becomes deeply stimulated much like a joggers legs on a long run.
This means that your mind will become more awake, focused, deep, powerful yet peaceful. By allowing both hemispheres to work in synchronization, you will experience an increase in overall mental health, enhancing cognitive performance, better memory and intellectual functioning. You will begin to notice an abundant supply of insightful thoughts with less anger, anxiety, depression and addiction. You will be happier, more optimistic and feeling one with the world.
Meditation boosts Serotonin:
The scientists at the University of Montreal found that meditation “bathes” neurons with a range of feel-good chemicals. Thus, it effectively melts away the stress that leads to low serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) and depression.
Meditation boosts the “longevity” molecule:
Dr. Vincent Giampapa found that meditation provides a dramatic boost in DHEA levels (the longevity molecule and the one that helps to “punch” stress away). He discovered that meditation practitioners have an incredible 43.77% more DHEA.
Meditation boosts the “calm chemical”:
Psychiatrists at the Boston University School of Medicine found a 27% increase in GABA levels ( a neurotransmitter that is best known for making you feel calm) after only 60 minutes of mindful meditation.
Meditation boosts the “natural high”:
Meditation helps a person to produce more endorphins which creates a happy, zen-like state that can be a powerful and highly pleasurable experience.
Meditation boosts the “sleep molecule”:
A key to a good mood and restful sleep is melatonin. It is a hormone manufactured by the pineal gland, with levels in the blood rising up just before bedtime. Melatonin is known to prevent cancer, make the immune system stronger, slow down aging and so much more. Rutgers University researchers discovered that melatonin levels for meditation practitioners were increased by an average of 98%.
Meditation reduces cortisol levels:
Cortisol is a major age-accelerating hormone. With this hormone, less is better. When we are stressed, our bodies produce a combination of cortisol and adrenaline in abundance. However, over the long term, that combination can lead to anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, brain fog, insomnia and so on.
Luckily, in 2013 researchers at UC Davis discovered a powerful connection between mindfulness and cortisol. Furthermore, another study by a Rutgers University doctor discovered that those practicing meditation had a nearly 50% reduction in cortisol levels.
Meditation helps to reduce anxiety:
How to quiet an overactive mind? Meditation!
By taking a permanent meditative break from the anxiety, you are no longer wasting precious resources and energy on fear-based thoughts.
This means that instead of thinking about yesterday’s mistakes and tomorrow’s challenges, meditation helps to focus on the present moment. Therefore, meditation allows the mind to experience itself in its truest, purest, most natural state that is the state of stillness.
Meditation helps to improve the brain:
What is the one method of building a better brain? Meditation!
There are an unlimited number of ways in which meditation can naturally increase your memory, brain power, focus and intelligence.
You can build a better, stronger brain just like you can build strength in any other muscles in your body. Using MRI, a Harvard University research found that in both the short term and long term, meditators benefit from an increase in gray matter in regions of the brain that are related to long and short term memory, focused attention, deep thoughts and overall brain power. Furthermore, the study found that meditating helps to quiet regions of the brain associated with anxiety, depression, fear and anger.
There are many more mental benefits connected to meditation such as:
- Overcoming OCD, ADD and ADHD
- Increasing creativity
- Improving adaptability
- Boosting learning abilities
- Increasing willpower and self-discipline
- Increasing motivation
- Experiencing better concentration
- Having a positive mindset
- Being better at listening
- Having better perception
“Meditation brings wisdom; lack of meditation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom”. – Buddha
As we have seen in this article, meditation has proven to bring loads of benefits to the practitioner. The benefits shown in this article are mental benefits. But meditation brings other benefits like physical benefits, emotional benefits and spiritual benefits.