Thursday, July 9, 2009

Spirituality & the Science of Meditation

"Reading makes a full man,
meditation a profound man,
discourse a clear man."

- Benjamin Franklin

What is meditation and why do I need it?

Meditation is a practice wherein you train your brain to "let go." I think of it as yoga for the mind. It brings about a state of relaxation but also heightened awareness at the same time. Some people use it along with prayer, but meditation itself is not inherently religious and it has been incorporated into many spiritual beliefs. It dates back thousands of years and the earliest known record of it is in 5,000 year old Hindu scriptures.

So why do it? The benefits of meditation are numerous, but a few key ones include:
* relaxation
* stress reduction
* helps depression and anxiety
* enhanced learning ability

We've talked about the mind/body connection and the negative effects of excess cortisol on the body in prior posts, and one of the best benefits of meditation is stress reduction. When the body relaxes, the cortisol levels drop down and meditation has also been shown to increase "feel-good" neurotransmitters such as seratonin. In fact, many anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications work by boosting the production of seratonin in the brain. Meditation is a natural anti-depressant - and that's something I doubt you'll ever see advertised on television because there's no real money to be made. Furthermore, when you are relaxed, you are better able to think and problem-solve. Think about a time when you've been extremely stressed over a work or personal issue - it's much harder to think rationally when overcome with anxiety about a problem. In fact, some of my best "a-ha" moments when I discover the answer to a question I've been pondering have occurred as I've been in bed on the verge of sleep.

Meditation and the Impact on Brain Waves

The human brain is comprised of billions of neurons - yes, billions - which create electrical activity in your brain that can be measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). In studying EEG's of meditating brains, it has been shown that meditation increases activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain (the region associated with positive thoughts and happiness), and that meditation changes the pattern of brain waves. Think about this for a second in terms of the mind/body connection - your thoughts can change the way your brain works. I'll touch briefly on the types of brain waves we experience each day and discuss how meditation can impact them. Keep in mind that we rarely function solely in one of these states and usually have a combination of brain waves occurring throughout our day, with one type of brain wave being dominant at any one time. Brain waves are measured in pulses per second (Hertz scale) which will be noted below.

Beta : 13-40 Hz. This type of brain wave is when we are consciously alert and
active, so we would typically be in this state during the day (eg.
working, running errands, parenting.)Anytime you are worrying or angry,
you are also in this state.
Alpha: 8-13 Hz. This is when you are in a state of physical and mental relaxation
but are still quite aware of your surroundings. It is a great state for
mental clarity and meditation often produces these brain waves. When you
are daydreaming or using creative visualization, you are typically in this
Theta: 4-7Hz. This is usually a state of deep relaxation, such as in dream
sleeping or a deep meditative trance.
Delta: .1-4Hz. Deep, dreamless sleep.

What about Gamma Waves?

I've saved the best for last. Gamma brain waves are those that occur at 40Hz and higher. They are considered an extremely fast-moving and intense brain wave. Many times, they are grouped in with Beta waves and are not recognized as a separate category but I believe this is inaccurate. A well-documented study examined Tibetan monks using an EEG. The monks had been actively meditating for years and a control group was used of people that did not have meditation experience. The EEG readings showed that the meditating monks not only produced more gamma waves than the control group, but they produced more gamma waves than the control group when they were not even meditating. More impressive was the fact that these monks produced more powerful gamma waves than any previously recorded in a healthy person. You can read the Washington Post article about it here or read the actual scientific study here. Other reported "perks" of increased gamma wave activity are increased memory, quicker mental processing and enhanced learning ability. One product I recommend that produces meditation CD's designed to increase specific brain waves, including gamma waves, are the Brain Sync series. These were recommended to me by numerous people until I finally tried several. I wasn't hooked up to an EEG machine, so I can't tell you my specific brain waves but it was an incredible experience.

How Long Does It Take and How Do I Do It?
The great thing about meditation is that you can do it virtually anywhere and it doesn't take a lot of time. You can do it at your desk at work, at home, even while doing the dishes. 10-20 minutes a day is all you need to make a difference, and you don't even break a sweat while doing it. If you're taking the time to exercise your body, your mind deserves the same treatment. As an aside, several physical activities have been shown to create changes in mindfulness as well and include yoga, tai chi, and bagwa.

The how of it is pretty simple in theory and best of all, it's FREE. You can find many guided meditations online or in books, and you can experiment until you find something you're comfortable with. Guided meditations are a great place to start as they help you with the breathing, mind clearing, etc. until you feel you can do it on your own. Some good free meditations can be found here.

The hardest part for me when I started several years ago was the mind-clearing part. It was like the "don't look at the white elephant in the room" because as soon as I told myself not to think of anything, all kinds of random thoughts would show up. For me, the key was to allow the thoughts to enter but let them float away on their own without my trying to hold onto them - or analyze them. And let me tell you - it's pretty hard for a psychologist not to analyze something when it pops up - but it got easier over time. Also, try to create an environment conducive to meditating. I have a favorite CD and a favorite incense that enables me to slip very quickly into a meditative state. Find what works for you - and don't be afraid to play around with it and have fun. The goal is to feel good, so don't worry so much about whether you're "doing it right." If you feel good, you are.

What about you?
I'd love to hear people's experiences with meditation or any good links, meditations, etc. that people have found helpful. Until next time...


Brigitte said...

I have the mind and blood of an artist, so naturally, I have trouble sorting ideas and thoughts in my head if I can't put them down. It keeps me from sleep, and the only time I can fully rest is when I seclude all my thoughts - a usually pretty difficult process for me.
I know they have drugs for this kind of issue
but I have a phobia of them so meditating is definitely way more helpful. I do in my room, and adding Cat Stevens in the background helps as well.
I'm a long way from a full-fledged meditation though, since I'm still living with my siblings.
I'm sure it'll help me work more easily in college - especially with tightly scheduled projects that require speedy brainstorming.

Kristi said...

Brigitte - thanks for responding. College can be such a stressful time in itself, so I agree that incorporating some kind of meditation would be helpful on many levels. Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

I've been doing the Ah meditation by Dattatreya Siva Baba and the Karma Busting Mantra, along with baba's miracle mantra and other such. I also "turned my money faucet on" donated to several humanitarian and animal rescue organizations.
... and I got my DREAM JOB!!! I've been going to school and freelancing for 10 years to get this job and it finally happened. I started this past week.
Hello, Brigitte!! Dreams do come true. You can have anything you want as long as you have faith in it. Life doesn't have to be a struggle. The universe is kind and benevolent.
God bless,

Kristi said...

Journalizer - congratulations on the new job! It's wonderful when you embrace the power within you and see the changes manifest. Also, thanks for the links to the other meditations. :)

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Kristi. I also find that meditation simultaneously relaxes me AND makes me more alert. Doing yoga outside is my favorite path to serenity (especially the corpse pose)... although lying still and listening to music (like Cat Stevens, Willie Nelson, or Enya) helps me clear my mind as well. A hammock in the breeze is also effective - as is stroking my kitty for a while.

I've even started a blog that focuses on life's simple pleasures - and Thursdays are all about yoga, meditation, and anything that helps me to embrace serenity and keep worries in perspective. So, I'm always on the lookout for better ways to meditate. Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Kristi said...

Thanks for your comments Laura and you're on to something with stroking your cat. Research has found that petting your dog or cat actually lowers your blood pressure. Plus they're just so darn cute! :)

Chuck Dilmore said...

thank you for your beautiful topic and writing, Kristi!
hope things are great in your world!