Your Brain on Meditation

Your Brain on Meditation

Yesterday our local meditation group read together a pitifully small portion of our book, One Dharma, because we got so interested in the topic and kept talking instead of reading. The section is “Attachment to Self.” What is “self?”, Goldstein asks. If we go into the body with a tiny video camera and look at the organs, what part of that is “self”? And if all the space were removed from the body, what remains would be the size of a particle of dust. Our identification with the body is very superficial, yet the clinging goes very deep.

Frank described—and I’ll never be able to explain here (I wasn’t recording)—what some studies call the “focused” brain and the “default” brain. It appears that when we’re not concentrating on a task, etc., the mind is shown in MRIs to be all over the place, and this is its natural state, the origin of creativity.

When we start to pay close attention, Goldstein says, we get a very different understanding of the body. So, what is “close attention”—is it focused, as in Shamatha (breathing meditation, and the like, to steady the mind) or is it that global awareness Frank said seems to be the default mode? Probably both, we thought.

I mentioned a book I’d like to tell you about. It’s called How God Changes Your Brain (Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, Ballantine Books, 2009). I heard about it recently from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Leisa Huyck, a Unitarian minister. Don’t let the title throw you off. The word God stands in for feelings of unity/emptiness, sacredness, intuitive knowledge, and ineffability.

Some of this material is not new. But some is, to me at least. The authors describe how meditation (including traditional prayer, mantras, etc.) affect the brain. Essentially, the more one mediates, the more the brain changes. We have this old brain, part of the limbic system (the amygdala) used for basic survival, where strong emotions (fear, anger) live. This part acts without “thinking.” It responds to perceived danger instinctively. The trouble is, it’s gotten confused about what’s actually dangerous. Then we have the newer brain, our frontal lobes, that provide us with complex thinking: rationality, deliberate behavior, and “mirror neurons” that respond to the emotional or physical activity of another person as if it were our own.

This is what was new to me: We also have a special structure, “recently” evolved, between the old and new brain, called the anterior cingulate. This structure acts like a fulcrum to balance thoughts and emotions. It allows us to calm our feelings. But when we’re afraid, the limbic system takes over the whole mind. Nothing’s important but our survival. We don’t even have to be seriously in danger for this to happen. Just seeing an angry face can do it. Our behavior can get radically distorted.

Meditation stimulates activity in the anterior cingulate. When there is mediation between the two parts, the inappropriate “fight or flight” messages from the old brain begin to quiet down, the sense of self as being separate from all else (hence, needing to be fought for) begins to die down. The false walls of the constructed self, or ego, begin to collapse.

This explanation is way, way, too simple. I would need to write six pages to adequately explain. The gist of the book is that meditation, in whatever form, changes our being. As little as 12 minutes a day can make a very discernible shift in what’s seen in MRIs of the brain. The more meditation, the more shift. (There have been many studies documenting these changes.)

In our discussion last night, we said we can go to the many Buddhist texts and see the same exquisitely detailed examination of how consciousness works, how the sense of self is constructed and is deconstructed by awareness practice. It’s helpful sometimes to use different languages for what actually can only be pointed to, not expressed in words.

And in Goldstein’s words: “It’s possible to free ourselves from this energetic contraction into self when we see how emotions arise out of conditions and then again vanish into the clear open sky of awareness.”

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