The science of meditation: A personal account

As I sit on my living room floor, with only a sofa cushion to support my body atop the dark worn wood, I place my hands in my lap, one on top of the other, palms up.  I must sit straight but relaxed, centering myself in such a way that I can remain calm and still.  I must maintain razor sharp focus on nothing except my breathing, which is beginning to slow.  It is late in the afternoon and the sun is shining brightly through the shaded windows, only to be diffused by my pale white walls.  Everything is silent, except for the wind, which now flows with the rushed softness of ocean waves.  I close my eyes.

***

            My goal is to reach a state of mindfulness, a term used by practicing Buddhists to describe a total and complete awareness of reality as it exists, not as our mind thinks it exists.  According to Henepola Gunaratana, author of “Mindfulness in Plain English,” it describes the state of mind that normally exists in the fleeting moment after we look at an object, but before our mind classifies that object.

            “Mindfulness is mirror thought,” he writes.  “It reflects only what is presently happening and in exactly the way it is happening.  There are no biases.”

            In the split second that lies between observing and perceiving, we experience the world as it truly is, without criticism and judgment that so often distorts reality.  Through meditation, as the theory goes, a prolonged state of mindfulness can be induced, thus allowing for clearer thinking and a refined vision of the true state of the world.

            Buddhists have being developing and practicing the art of meditation for centuries, and extolling its numerous benefits for just as long.  Now, thanks to modern psychology and brain imaging, the science behind meditation is beginning to be understood, and its rewards visualized.

Brain scans, such as this one from an fMRI, are able to highlight neural activity by measuring bloodflow.

***

            For a couple of minutes, I think I am experiencing this “inner peace” that stereotypically is associated with meditation.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to maintain my grasp on it.  I can hear my neighbors walking around upstairs.  Someone outside is shouting.  My leg is falling asleep.  I snap out of it and fetch some earplugs to drown out the noise, and sit Indian style on my couch instead of the hardwood floor.  I count in my head along with my breathing, but it’s just not happening, and now I’m getting discouraged.  Still, I already feel remarkably light and relaxed.  If I could just sustain that feeling…

                                                                        ***

            The benefits of mindfulness meditation are beginning to be known to science, thanks to constant advancements in the field of brain imaging.  Rae Rabideau, a graduate psychology student at DePaul, wrote a research paper on the topic that explains some key benefits of the practice.  In her research, Rabideau found that “many of the brain’s vital parts and related functions reveal adjustments that associate psychosomatic benefits with the incorporation of mindfulness.”  In other words, meditation results in observable changes within the brain and the body.  Among the more general changes, she explained, were “reduced heart rate and blood pressure, decreased anxiety [and] heightened emotion regulation.”  More specifically, mindfulness meditation was found to increase the amount of gray matter (brain cells) in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that consolidates and stores memories.  Conversely, the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs the flight-or-flight response and thus is implicated in inducing undue fear and anxiety, has been shown to decrease gray matter growth after prolonged meditative practice.

            “Various research studies have demonstrated the occurrence of structural reformations… following only weeks of mindfulness training,” Rabideau added.

                                                                        ***

            After eating some food, taking a shower, talking to my friends and beginning to write this story, I am compelled to give it another shot.  I sit on my bed this time, legs crossed and hands folded, and I begin to sink into the feeling.  I feel a heightened awareness of my body and my immediate surroundings, and when I am finished, the feeling persists, making more focused yet relaxed.  If I can stick with a routine of meditating often, it would have great benefits for my mood and general wellbeing.  I can already sense it.

                                                                        ***

            Weeks later, I am still looking to settle into a routine of meditating daily, or at least a few times per week.  I manage to acquire a guided meditation CD called “Journey to Amenta,” made by a man named Master Yirser Ra Hotep.

Yirser Ra Hotep

On the face of the CD, a dark-skinned man who I assume to be Master Hotep sits in lotus position, his chest and legs bare.  He speaks over ambient music that reminds me of being in space, floating.  Hotep speaks with a heavy southern accent that somewhat distracts me from achieving a clear mind; he pronounces “still” like “steel” and “cells” like “sails.”  His instructions are not unlike what I’ve read in “Mindfulness in Plain English,” as Hotep also describes focusing on breathing and maintaining a totally relaxed state.  However, he seems to place more emphasis on becoming mindful of different parts of the body to relieve tension.  After instructing me to enter a comfortable position, he runs through every part of the body, starting at the temples and continuing all the way down to my feet.

“Focus on the fingers of your left hand,” he says, for example.  “Feel the muscles in your fingers relax with each breath.”  Hotep’s thick southern accent and Brian Eno soundtrack are somewhat distracting at first, but I think they are distractions I could overcome.

                                                            ***

The CD was given to me by my friend, Joe Cantacessi, whom I spoke with about his meditation experiences.  Cantacessi has been meditating almost every day for about four years, and was motivated to do so after taking a class with Hotep.

“For me, it’s literally an escape,” he said, speaking about why he stuck with a routine of meditating every night before bed.  “It takes time to get down, but if you do, you have this space that you can go to, to get away.”

Cantacessi was introduced to Hotep and the practice of meditation as part of a world religion class he took during his sophomore year of high school.  He described Hotep as “the chillest guy ever.  He looked like he was permanently stoned on life, and nothing really phased him.  He was also really healthy.”

After keeping up with the practice of meditating regularly, Cantacessi said he noticed small changes in his behavior that made a big impact.

“I felt better.  I was more rested and at peace with myself,” he explains.  “Problems didn’t bother me as much.  If my friends argued, I wouldn’t get involved, even though before [meditating regularly] I probably would.”

Lately, Cantacessi has neglected meditating as often as he used to, and said he already noticed changes in his mood.

“I’m already stressed from not doing it for the last few weeks,” he said with a laugh.

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