When we think of meditation, we think of yogis sitting cross-legged on a mat under a tree. Now think of a twenty-something coder sitting behind a computer all day. At lunch, he pulls out his yoga mat, and settles in for a meditation session before facing the next round of deadlines.
Meditation has been around for centuries. And in this day and age of new technological advances, meditation is new again.
Meditation is both a practice and a means to an end. Turning your attention away from the distractions of the world and toward a single point of reference, be it your breath, the chanted “om” or a mandala, meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment. It teaches us to self-regulate the body and mind.
State vs. Trait
The traditional path of meditation was an inner journey of deepening, thereby transforming and improving one’s existence. Practicing meditation allows the cultivation of concentration, moving the mind to a place where it is able to notice not just the breath, but other sensations occurring anywhere in the body. What had been ‘my body, my knee’ becomes a sea of shifting sensation — a radical shift in awareness,” write Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson in their book, Altered Traits.
Regular meditation practice can produce relatively short-term states as well as long-term changes in traits. State changes are transitory. Trait changes are long-lasting. Yogis may spend 30,000 hours meditating before their brains show trait changes. Few of us have that kind of time. Yet, both state and trait changes can be both beneficial and fulfilling.
State changes from meditation can include a deep sense of calm, a calming of our internal critics, a slowing of the mind’s continual chatter, and heightened experiences of clarity and awareness. Thoughts and feelings can be observed instead of demanding our full attention.
This inner calming and focusing can help lead us through the stressors of an increasingly complex balance of work and home life.
Trait changes can include a deepened sense of calm, increased comfort, and a shift in the relationship of thoughts to feelings, and the experience of oneself.
Repeated meditation practice leads to differences in the mind itself. For example, meditators show decreased neural activity in the post cingulate cortex (PCC), an area of the brain that regulates self-focused thought, as well as a stronger connection between the PCC and the prefrontal cortex, which further enhances feelings of compassion.
In addition, meditators not only respond with less cortisol in the face of pain and stress, but perceive stressful situations as less stressful than non-meditators. There is a kind of “de-coupling” between the stressor and the thoughts and feelings that it may generate. This is a mind undisturbed in the face of a disturbing world.
The more you practice how to generate a meditative state, the more that practice shows lasting influences beyond the session itself, leading to long-lasting changes in the body and brain, or altered traits. In essence, Increasing meditative-caused states leads to increasing meditative-caused traits.
Four Things Improved by Meditation
Resiliency to Stress
We become less reactive to stressors and are better able to recover from it when we experience it. The deadlines at work are still present but your gut may no longer churn in the face of that stress.
Increased Compassion for Others
When we practice compassion, not only are we more willing to take action to help others, but the parts of the brain that are connected to good-feelings are activated. We really do feel better and happier as a result.
Increased Capacity to Focus
Increased focus is at the core of a meditation practice, and this benefit spills out to all parts of our lives when we practice. This benefit tends to be a long lasting (trait) one.
Improvements in Health
Decreased pain, decreased inflammatory response in the face of stressors, and increased telomerase activity; these are all markers of improvements in overall health. Meditation can lessen pain without directly addressing its physiological source. It can also increase our bodies’ ability to heal itself. Increased telomerase activity is an indication of longer cell life and, therefore, longevity.
VR Meditation: One Way to Get There
Virtual reality (VR) is now a reality in meditation practice. It places you on the beach, or among the trees, or in any setting you feel will help achieve a deeper sense of calm and inner awareness. VR facilitates presence.
Imagine your lunch hour spent in peaceful meditation on a beach with the sound of the waves washing stress away until all you feel is your breath. Imagine too that you can get feedback on your meditation session in the form of your breathing activity while meditating. This is becoming the new reality that this technology affords.
There are so many ways to enjoys a meditation practice. Everything old is new again.