electroencephalogram (EEG) recording

A form of introspective contemplation, meditation is the act of relaxing and clearing the mind through balancing mental, physical, and emotional states, getting rid of all thoughts about the past and present and focusing on the present. This is done by shutting out the outside world and focusing within, often with the aid of sounds, words, images and/or breath.

According to H.A. Slagter of the University of Amsterdam: “Meditation is a process by which an individual controls his/her mind and induces a mode of consciousness either to achieve some benefits or for the mind to simply acknowledge is contents without being identified with the content, or just as an end in itself.” (Slagter, 2008).

Some people practice meditation for it health benefits. Others do it for spiritual reasons. It is also a valuable tool for developing self-knowledge, improving concentrate and dealing with stress. The Dalai Lama said, "The very purpose of meditation is to disciple the mind and reduce afflictive emotions." Others call it a form of mindfulness that emphasizes paying attention to the present moment. For centuries Buddhists and Hindus have used meditation as a tool to focus their energy inward to explore the mental state of joy, get rid of negative emotions and develop wisdom, compassion and improve well being on a individual and societal level.

Mindfulness is the cognitive skill, usually developed through meditation, that entails sustaining meta-awareness of the content of one's mind at the present moment. Meta-awareness, or metacognition, is an awareness of one's thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them. “Meta” means "beyond", or "on top of". Metacognition can take a variety of forms, including using particular strategies for problem-solving and reflecting on one's ways of thinking. [Source: Wikipedia]

Meditation Becomes More Mainstream

Catherine Triomphe of AFP wrote: “Practiced by millions around the world, meditation promotes mental wellbeing through concentration, breathing techniques and self-awareness. For a long time, those singing its praises were intellectuals, celebrities or people dedicated to spirituality. Its popularity in the West is owed in part to the Beatles, who promoted the practice on their return from India in the late 1960s. [Source: Catherine Triomphe, AFP, 15 October 2017 ~]

“But these days, meditation can be found in all areas of life — from hospitals exploring its benefits for patients with serious illnesses, to schools who recommend it for children and television shows. The craze is a result of many factors — waning attendance at places of worship, lives spent submerged in smartphones, not to mention neuroscientists' confirmation of the benefits. As a result, demand is spreading across American cities — perhaps a natural continuation of the yoga craze, which firmly embedded the search for nirvana in the health and wellbeing industry.” ~

Mary MacVean wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Meditation “has moved from its Asian, monastic roots to become a practice requiring no particular dogma on a path not necessarily toward nirvana but toward a more mindful everyday life. Some serious advocates worry it's becoming another feel-good commodity. The practice of mindfulness meditation has become more widespread at a time when the fastest-growing group demographic is made up of people who say they are unaffiliated with a particular denomination, said Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at USC, which has launched a university-wide effort toward mindfulness. "Every religious tradition changes when it moves to a new place," Soni said. [Source: Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2015 ]

“In the case of meditation, it's also moved full force into the academic realm. Aside from the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the UCs in San Diego, Los Angeles and Berkeley are among universities that also have meditation programs. Hundreds of research papers have been published. At Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., students can earn a master's degree in mindfulness studies. "It's mind-blowing," said Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and one of the people who brought Buddhist meditation to the United States in the 1970s. "It fits a lot about the American spirit," she said. "You don't have to join anything. It's very private. It's a very direct answer to an awful lot of stress and confusion."

Can Mice Meditate?

a wood mouse

In a study an published in PNAS in February 2017, researchers from the University of Oregon in Eugene reported that mice produced some of the same brain patterns exhibited by human meditators, with experiments showing that the “meditating mice” were more relaxed and less stressed than those with no rodent meditation training. [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, Feb 20, 2017]

Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The team’s first step in this quest was to create a mouse model that could replicate a human meditator’s brain. They called it, jokingly, the mouse meditation project. Training mice to focus on the breath, or spend 20 minutes on a body scan was obviously not an option, but the scientists had another plan up their sleeves. The authors knew they couldn’t get mice to meditate in a traditional way, but they wondered if they could make the mouse’s ACC oscillate in the same rhythm as human meditators.

“To do this, they genetically engineered mice that have a special protein in their brains that causes neurons to fire when they are exposed to light. The researchers were able to put the genetic code for these proteins exclusively in the neurons of the ACC. Next they connected a light source to the mice’s brains so they could expose these proteins to different patterns of light. By flashing the light, they were able to make the ACC neurons fire at the same pace that they saw in human meditators. “We are not necessarily making the mice meditate, but we are changing the pattern of activity in the brain region,” Niell said.

“Tests revealed that mice that were exposed to the same patterns exhibited by human meditators were more relaxed than those that did not get the “meditation” treatment. When placed in a box that had a dark side and a light side, the meditating mice were more likely to explore the light side, and to rear up on their little hind legs and look around than other mice. Both these behaviors indicate a de-stressed mouse and suggest that the behavioral effects of meditation in humans can be recreated in mice.

“The authors also experimented with getting the ACC to oscillate at different frequencies, but they saw the most calming effects when the mouse brain was set to oscillate at the same pace as a human meditator’s brain — about eight times per second. Niell said the work is significant because it gives researchers a scientific tool to study how meditation works in the brain, and it suggests that periodic stimulation could be used to affect change in the brains of people who don’t want to meditate.”

Meditation and Health

Monks and yogis have been able to lower their heart beats and body temperatures and stress markers like perspiration through meditation. Abhudharma describes a tradition of Buddhist scholarship in which inquiries of the mind and its connections and relations to the body. Central to this tradition is the belief that the mind and emotions can be changed through meditation.

Studies suggest that stress-related illnesses like cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure can be helped by meditation. Doctors in the United States have used Buddhist-influenced “mindfulness meditation” and “nonjudgmental” awareness to reduce stress. Studies have shown that psoriasis sufferers who meditate heal four times faster than psoriasis sufferers who don’t; cancer patients who meditate have a more positive mental outlook than ones who don’t; and patients with chronic pain who meditated suffered less than with the same afflictions who didn't meditate. Some Buddhist centers are oriented towards helping Type-A personalities find inner calm. At some places like this there are bans on talking so participants won't be distracted.

Deborah Netburn wrote in Los Angeles Times, “Research has shown that just one month of mindful meditation can have a significant impact on humans both physically and psychologically. It reduces self-reported anxiety and decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. Imaging studies of meditators’ brains also have detected increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. This area of the brain is involved in a wide variety of functions, including emotional regulation and cognitive control. Scientists also have seen an increase in white matter around the ACC of meditators. That’s important because white matter serves as a kind of insulator, enabling electrical impulses to move more easily between neurons.” [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, Feb 20, 2017]

Cortical areas of the brain thicker in people that meditate

Research on Meditation and Health

Since the 1970s, clinical psychologists and psychiatrist have employed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness to mitigate depression, stress, anxiety, and treat drug addiction. Programs based on mindfulness models have been adopted within schools, prisons, and hospitals and also used for weight management and enhancement of athletic performances.

Among the scholars who are doing research on the impact of meditation on the long term health of brain and body are Richard Davidson, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin;Matthieu Ricardo, a French-born monk with a Ph.D. in molecular biology; Dr. Jon abat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical school; Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco; and Stephen Kossylyn of Harvard University.

Michael Posner, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, showed meditation could change the rhythms of the brain. Specifically, he found that particular oscillations near the ACC became “louder” after a meditation session. “Everyone has these oscillations in their ACC, but they are stronger and more powerful in people after they do meditation,” said Aldis Weible, a researcher at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Neuroscience. [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, Feb 20, 2017] Although scientists have observed positive physical effects of meditation on the human brain, they still don’t know what causes them. “We think of meditation as a human thing, a high-level thing, but we want to examine the low level biology of it,” said Cris Niell, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, told the Los Angeles Times. [Ibid]

Research on Meditation and Health by Matthieu Ricard

According to the BBC: “Matthieu Ricard is officially the “happiest person in the world”. Neuroscientists in the US have declared Ricard, the French translator of the Dalai Lama, to be the happiest man they have ever tested. As a young man he gave up a privileged life in Paris and the promise of a distinguished career as a genetic scientist to train as a Buddhist Monk in India. He has now brought the scientific rigour of his early life to collaborating in research into how the brain can function better through meditation and happiness. [Source: BBC] Ricardo has wired Buddhist monks to 256-electrode electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure brain activity and scanned their hands scanned by magnetic resonance imaging machines while when they were meditating and found that senior monks asked tomeditate on compassion had intense activity in their left prefrontal cortex — an area associated with positive temperaments (the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative temperaments).

meditation and conciousness-latering techniquesand blood pressure

Another study by Ricardo found that mindfulness meditation can increase prefrontal cortex activity and boost the immune system of normal Americans. Non-Buddhist subjects who received eight weeks of meditation training displayed more activity in the “happy” left cortex and showed a healthier immune response to flu shots than subjects who did not receive meditation training.

Meditation, a Powerful Tool Against Pain

Meditation can ave powerful pain-relieving effects to the brain with even just 80 minutes' training for a beginner in an exercise called focused attention, a study released in the Journal of Neuroscience reported. "This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation," said Fadel Zeidan, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. "We found a big effect — about a 40-percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57-percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent," he added. [Source: AFP, April 2011 \=]

AFP reported: “Researchers looked at 15 fit volunteers who had never meditated. The subjects each took four 20-minute sessions to learn how to control their breathing and put aside their emotions and thoughts. Before and after sessions, subjects' brain activity was monitored with a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Called "arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging" (ASL MRI), it is able to give readings on longer duration brain processes, such as meditation, better than a standard MRI scan of brain function. \=\

“When ASL MRIs were being taken, a pain-inducing heat device was put on participants' right legs. It heated a small area of their skin to 120° Fahrenheit, which most people would find painful, for five minutes. Scans taken after meditation training showed that all of the volunteers' pain ratings were reduced, with drops from 11 to 93 percent, Zeidan said.”

“Meanwhile meditation also reduced brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that is involved in creating the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is. Scans done before meditation training showed activity in this area was very high; but when participants were meditating during scans, activity in this important pain-processing region could not be detected. "One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing," Zeidan added.”

bunch of Westerners at a Navratri event in Bangalore

Meditation in the Modern High-Stress America

MacVean wrote: Meditation “has gone viral. The unrelenting siege on our attention can take a good share of the credit; stress has bombarded people from executives on 24/7 schedules to kids who feel the pressure to succeed even before puberty. Meditation has been lauded as a way to reduce stress, ease physical ailments like headaches and increase compassion and productivity. [Source: Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2015 ]

“Religious practitioners have long claimed that, adopted by enough people, meditation could bring us world peace. Now we hear that from Chade-Meng Tan, a Google executive charged with making the company more mindful. You needn't even put down your phone, with apps like Insight Timer, which has guided meditations and ways to track your stillness.”

Suze Yalof Schwartz, the owner of the Unplug meditation studio in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times: "We're all over-stimulated. It doesn't matter whether you are 3 or 93. People are not going to the bathroom without their iPhones, and if they tell you they are, they're lying. We need a place to take a time out."

“Olivia Rosewood, a teacher at Unplug who said she learned to meditate from former Beatle George Harrison when they happened to meet in Fiji, pointed to other 21st century stresses. "There is an acceleration of a level of suffering and an acceleration of the violence in the world. And I don't think anyone is untouched," she said. "That intensity increases the value of any experience that brings you to your own inner peace."

“A sign outside Unplug calls passersby to find that peace: "Hurry up and slow down." It's advice Jason Garner eventually took. A child of poverty who grew up in the Arizona desert, he rose to become CEO of global music at the concert promoter Live Nation and on Forbes list of Top 40 Earners Under 40. Through all that, he never felt "good enough." He was unhappy, married and divorced twice, more wrapped up in quarterly results than in his true self.

"In the business world, we were just so bombarded with work all the time. The mobile devices - you're expected to be on call at the movie theater, at your children's recital, even in bed. I was just looking for a way to find peace," said Garner, now 42, sitting cross-legged in the cushion-filled meditation room of his Manhattan Beach home one gray afternoon with his wife, Christy, and Salzberg, who has become a friend.

In his book " And I Breathed," he chronicled his journey, including time with monks at the Shaolin Temple in China, to a more mindful life - not a checked-out life. These days, he consults people in the entertainment, sports and business worlds using "the blend of my experiences from the executive desk to the meditation cushion to share with them on their journeys," he said. Garner noted, with a touch of wonder, that the interconnectivity that has made so many people stressed out also can offer them a solution. "The Beatles and Sharon went to India. They took a plane to far-out places," he said. "Now you can just go to YouTube."”

Mahashivatri crowd

Meditation Business

AFP’s Triomphe wrote: Lodro Rinzler, the 34-year-old "chief spiritual officer," of a meditation business called Mndfl “opened his first studio in Greenwich Village at the end of 2015, and now owns two others in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Elsewhere in the US, studios can be found in Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and Boston. Introduced to meditation as a child by his parents, who converted to Buddhism in the 1970s, he says business "is going well." "The people who come here are really a cross section of all New Yorkers," he explains. "If the common denominator is, 'I am really stressed out, I need to know how to deal with my mind' — that's basically everyone." [Source: Catherine Triomphe, AFP, 15 October 2017 ~]

“Rinzler refuses to talk money, revealing only that classes are often full — and the 75 numbered pads in his studios have been reserved online 70,000 times in just 18 months.The reason for success? A model offering a well-rounded introduction to this ancient practice for a reasonable price. For years, Rinzler explains, Buddhist centers only offered long introductions — sessions of several hours, or even seminars lasting a number of days and costing up to several thousand dollars. With classes priced at just $10 for half an hour, and options for unlimited subscriptions, new studios in New York or Los Angeles hope to capture a wider audience. Their model is similar to gyms, but with "zen" in abundance — including dimmed lights, plant walls, and unlimited organic tea. Another aspect of the industry gaining traction is meditation apps. One of the most popular, Headspace, had already been downloaded more than 11 million times in the spring — and boasts over 400,000 paying users. ~

“Companies are also reaping meditation's benefits. More and more organizations in Silicon Valley and other sectors are introducing employees to the practice, convinced of the long-term benefits for the workforce. Emily Fletcher, an ex-actress who has taught meditation since 2012, launched a special program for companies 18 months ago. Starting from 150 students in the first year, she now has over 7,000 — and hopes to reach tens of thousands more with online courses, including in medium-sized cities such as Cleveland, Ohio or Tallahassee, Florida. "The most common way that I find myself teaching at companies is I teach the CEOs to meditate, and they start to benefit and they bring me on to do a talk with the company," Fletcher, CEO of Ziva Meditation, says. ~

“Employees take part on a voluntary basis, mostly "for some selfish reasons," the 38-year-old explains. "Either they want to speak better, please their boss, want to make more money or have better sex..." But Fletcher insists she has no issue with people starting out of self-interest. "If you actually practice you will start enjoying your life more, your brain will function better, your body will feel better, you get sick less often," she says. "Those altruistic things will happen as a result of the practice anyway."” ~

“ “But meditation's newfound popularity is of such high intensity, neither Rinzler nor Fletcher is concerned about competing studios popping up over time. "I am sure they are going to be exactly like yoga studios, you are going to find them on every block..." Rinzler predicts. "If you look at it as a business, there is competition," Fletcher reflects, adding, "if you see it as a mission, there are colleagues." "There are not too many teachers when it comes to teaching four billion people in my lifetime!"” ~

Meditation for Executives and Bankers

Reporting from New York, AFP’s Triomphe wrote: “It is 5 pm, otherwise known as rush hour in Manhattan. Julia Lyons, 31, finishes work and heads straight for her daily dose of peace and quiet — half an hour at meditation studio "Mndfl." Since April 2016, when she discovered the then-brand new studio, the investment bank employee has abandoned yoga and embraced meditation. "I have been meditating pretty regularly — probably five times a week, 30-minute sessions," says Lyons, sipping a cup of tea on the studio's sofa. "I just need a moment to chill out. This city — you are always running place to place and there are not a lot of quiet spaces," she explains. "I think it's made me a lot happier and also just helped me make better decisions, more thoughtful decisions." [Source: Catherine Triomphe, AFP, 15 October 2017]

Reporting from Los Angeles, MacVean wrote: “One hundred fifty people sat in the big meeting room, hands on laps, eyes closed, feet flat on the floor. "Bring your attention to this moment," Janice Marturano instructed. "Be open to sensations of warmth or coolness, sensations of fullness from breakfast, or perhaps hunger." Minutes later, the meditation ended with the traditional strikes of little hand cymbals...Buddhists? Old hippies? New Agers?... Nope. The room was full of hospital executives and managers in lab coats and scrubs, jeans and sports coats at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. And the teacher was Marturano, once a top executive at General Mills. [Source: Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2015]

“The founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, Marturano is about as far from woo-woo as the spectrum allows - and a sign that meditation has snaked its way into every sector of our lives. The hospital employees were learning a practice shared by millions these days: college students, parents and prisoners; soldiers, the overweight and the lovelorn; the Seattle Seahawks, public school kids and members of Congress; Oprah, Chopra and Arianna.

Marturano was one of those modern jugglers: a spouse, mother to school-age children, daughter to aging parents, president of an arts board in the Twin Cities and a top executive at General Mills. "Every day I juggled faster and faster, and on most days, most of the time, most of the balls stayed in the air," she told the hospital group...She was put in charge of a protracted buyout of Pillsbury by General Mills; failure would have meant 10,000 layoffs (as she put it, 10,000 families losing an income, some of them people she knew). Then, within months, both of her parents died.

“Marturano was depleted; a friend suggested a spa — not really her thing. Her friend insisted, and what finally lured Marturano was that it was an "intensive" retreat to study mindfulness. She figured, if it was intensive, then it might be OK. And so she found herself at a spa in Arizona, studying with Jon Kabat-Zinn, pioneer in bringing meditation to a secular audience. She was hooked. When she returned to General Mills, she was for a time a "closet meditator." Slowly, she shared what she'd learned and her thinking on about using mindfulness as a leader. The company now has dedicated meditation rooms, and Marturano left in 2010 to found her institute. "You do not have to chant, shave your head or wear a robe," she told the Long Beach group. "Being mindful or meditating does not mean that thoughts don't intrude, that the mind doesn't wander. It does," she said. "Mindfulness occurs at the moment you are aware of the distraction. Then, escort the mind back to the breath."

When Suze Yalof Schwartz opened her pristine, white-walled West L.A. meditation studio nearly a year ago, she kept in mind just the sort of people Marturano knows well. Unplug aims to be a place where "my husband, who's a venture capitalist and has zero tolerance for woo-woo things, won't walk out." There are no zafu cushions or incense sticks. Instead, meditators come into the studio and take a sleek black folding floor chair - no sitting cross-legged required. The lighting is a pink-violet, inspired by the artist James Turrell. Unplug appeals to the meditation skeptics, to "the people who don't want to meditate but their shrinks told them they should," said Schwartz, who calls herself a spiritual entrepreneur. The formula for classes is simple, she said: Tell people what the point is, show them how to do it.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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