Let us continue with the theme of meditation. Last week I listed some of the benefits of meditation practice, and I openly confess that my aspiration is to convince you to take it up. You may recall that I previously stressed two happiness enhancers championed by positive psychology as being particularly powerful: exercise and positive relationships. Note that meditation is right up there with these two. And as is the case with exercise, it doesn’t matter much which style or method you choose. What matters is that you practice it.
Scientific studies have focused on the outcomes of a variety of meditation methods, including those based on Buddhist meditation traditions, such as Vipassana, Dzogchen or Zen.1 Another meditation intervention is Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This technique was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of meditation research, who removed the Buddhist components of meditation and replaced them with a scientific angle. Transcendental Meditation (TM) was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Its aim is to achieve a natural state of restful alertness. In positive psychology reference is also made to Loving Kindness Meditation. This practice is based on teachings by the Buddha to develop the mental habit of selfless or altruistic love.
Why does meditation have such fundamental, broad and far-reaching outcomes? Tang and colleagues write that according to a meta-analysis, there are eight brain regions that have shown to be consistently altered in meditators. These include regions that affect higher level awareness, body awareness, memory processes, self regulation and emotion regulation, and communication within each hemisphere of the brain as well as the communication between them. Their diagram below describes how meditation indirectly affects self-regulation:
Tang and colleagues argue that the underlying mechanisms that evoke the positive effects of mindfulness meditation are yet to be fully understood. They conclude, however, that there are signs that the practice can evoke neuroplastic changes in the brain. Mindfulness meditation, they write, appears to be a tool for cultivating a healthy mind, achieving greater wellbeing, and treating a variety of clinical disorders.2
Although studies have more often considered the long term benefits of meditation, a few of them looked at its short term results. Tang, Ma, Wang, Fan, Feng, Lu, Yu, Sui, Rothbart, Fang and Posner found that a group of undergraduate students randomly assigned to learn and practice 20 minutes of integrative body-mind training for five days performed significantly better in an attention network test and could control stress much better than the control group who had been practicing relaxation.3
Friese, Messner and Schaffner conducted a study to test whether a single, brief period of mindfulness meditation could affect individuals’ level of self-control. The study was based on psychologists’ understanding that humans have a limited amount of self-control; if we exert it for one event, we have less at our disposal for the next. Of course, failing at self-control can result in a host of problems, including drug use, obesity, aggression, crime or unwanted pregnancies. Friese and collegues had study participants view disgusting film clips and asked them to suppress their emotions. Those who then briefly practiced mindfulness meditation did not suffer the effects of depleted self-control for the next task, unlike those who had not meditated. Indeed, the meditators did just as well as those participants who had not seen the videos. Friese and colleagues find that mindfulness meditation can be a quick, efficient and healthy tool for counteracting the short term effects of depleted self-control.4 Translated, this means that if you are trying to eat less, control your anger, be more patient with someone, exercise daily, reduce alcohol or whatever, meditation can help you to gather up more self-control.
It has to be said though that meditation is more a long term approach to wellbeing. Frederickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek and Finkel found that participants did not report reliable increases in positive emotions before the third week of loving kindness meditation practice. Their study tested whether becoming skilled in this meditation would increase positive emotions, which (you might remember from a previous post) have been shown to build personal resources that support mental health and life satisfaction. Their participants experienced a shift in a wide range of positive feelings, which included joy, contentment, interest, hope, love, gratitude, pride, awe, and amusement during the 9 weeks of meditation tuition. The shift was still in place two weeks after the course. These positive emotions translated into personal resources, including better physical health, increased awareness and attention, enhancement of positive relationships, and greater self-acceptance. According to this study, practicing loving kindness meditation resulted in long-term gains and made a genuine difference in participants’ lives.5
I mentioned before that it took me years to start meditating. Finally I ran out of excuses. Not long after I began the practice my son went on a long holiday. He has a little dog, Wally. I had grown tired of having to look after Wally every time my son went away, and since I was renting had the perfect excuse: I was not allowed to. Thus Wally was left with a friend. My job was to walk and feed Wally on Fridays so the friend could attend after hour drinks. The friend worked long hours, however, and Wally, who was not used to being on his own all day, deteriorated by the week. At one point he was so “depressed” that he hardly looked up when I arrived, and during the walks slouched along, uninterested in his surroundings. I had long discussions with my daughter; we were worried that he might die. But the morning meditations had a direct influence on me: they seemed to call me to action. They conveyed that worrying about Wally would not do. I decided to plead with my landlord. I took Wally home on Fridays and kept him for the weekend if my son’s friend was planning on being out. I started work half an hour earlier so I could walk Wally during my lunchbreak. I played with him, talked to him, and walked him until he was super fit. I now take Wally whenever there is a need. It’s not just my attitude to looking after Wally that has changed through meditation. Meditation woke me up to the power of directing my focus and choosing my actions. I try to complain less and to do more to make situations better.
Better attention and more control over it. An increased ability to regulate emotions. Higher self-awareness. More happy feelings. A life change that stays. A re-connection with what matters most. That’s the potential of meditation.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015