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The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

EDIT: Ok yep, this post actually doesn’t dive into the science at all, although it does summarise some scientific studies. I’m gonna revisit this again and get a bit more scientific-y another time.

Meditation rocks. If you can actually be bothered to do it more days than not, or even if you do it sporadically, there’s so much to be gained from hanging out on that cushion. Let’s face it though, it’s still seen as a pretty alternative practice by those who don’t close their eyes for extended periods of time except for when they’re sleeping, and for those of us who do, it’s tempting to keep our practice a secret to colleagues and certain friends, for fear of being called that most lazy of insults, a hippie. Or maybe that’s just me.

Thankfully meditators everywhere have a new ally. Science is on our side! Recent developments in research and in neuroscience in particular have shed fascinating insights into what happens physiologically and psychologically when we meditate, validating that ancient practice and demonstrating it’s universal worth.

Of course those of us who meditate know what good it does for us without have to turn to the ‘S’ word for validation of our practice, but it’s worth recognising what this research is telling us, partly because it’s great motivation to keep meditating, or maybe approach it with renewed vigour, but also because it’s great to have some handy ammo in case that ‘H’ word ever gets aimed at us.

Humans have known about the efficacy of meditation for thousands of years, yet in the west it’s only been relatively recently that it has started to catch on. Despite an increase in awareness of meditation, it’s still likely some of your friends will think you’re a nut for doing it, so here is what you’ve always wanted – a list of some of the profound benefits of meditation, as confirmed by those rational scientists. Who can argue with that? And if you don’t meditate, this is what you’re missing…

1) The mindfulness cultivated by meditation lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, of which high levels are associated with stress

2) The practice of meditation produces a relaxation response, even in new meditators, leaving you nice and mellow but without blunting the sharpness of your mind

3) Meditation actually causes physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the volume of grey matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, and the size of the right hippocampus. Why should we care? This is good because it’s thought larger volumes in these regions leads to the cultivation of positive responses and emotions, and increased engagement in mindful behaviour.

4) Meditation increases cortical thickness, which recent studies have associated with lowering pain sensitivity

5) Meditating strengthens the connections between brain cells, and increases ‘gyrification’ of the cortex. This enables the brain to process information faster. Furthermore, it was found the more years you meditate the greater these benefits.

6) Just ten days of intensive mindfulness training can lead to improvements in working memory, sustained attention, attention switching and depressive symptoms

7) Meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, enhancing your ability to control worried thinking

8) Meditation decreases elaborative stimulus processing, resulting in the improved ability to attend to the continuous stream of stimuli we are exposed to without getting ‘fixed’ on one particular thing

9) ‘Open’ meditation increases creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas

10) In one study, meditation reduced the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death by 48%

Who knew?! If you want to be creative, less stressed, more chilled, kinder, healthier and a better thinker, you know what to do…

Sometimes Life is Supposed to be Painful (and why Knowing this is Good)

Sometimes Life is Supposed to be Painful (and why Knowing this is Good)

Suffering sucks. Whether it’s a temporary case of the grumps or the desperate, agonising self-destructive death pangs of the suicidal mind, suffering sucks ass. Trust me, I know, and I don’t say this lightly.

But how to deal with it, when the dark seems to have extinguished the light? It sometimes helps me to remember that life is supposed to painful. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ‘life is shit and it’s always gonna suck’, but there is no rule that says existence is obliged to feel good to us all of the time. Once I realised and internalised this, my own relationship to pain changed just a little.

I’ve started to think that there are two components to our suffering (of course there are more but let’s keep it simple). There is the thing that is causing our pain, and if you look carefully for it, you might just find the belief that we should not be suffering in the first place. This second component magnifies the impact of suffering. Therefore, the mere act of recognising this can take the edge off the hurt.

It’s tempting to think that life, existence and everything is or should be inherently ‘good’. If it’s not then this causes an existential problem—we might rightly ask, ‘what’s the point in any of this at all then?’ It seems as if life is not fulfilling its part of the bargain.

The problem with thinking that everything should be good and when it’s not something has gone wrong, as though life has somehow strayed from its default ‘goodness’, is that although it aligns with our human tendency to experience stuff as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it does not accord with the way things actually are. Hence, with this perspective we are doomed to suffer.

Recognising the universe’s inherent composition of both creative and destructive processes puts our experience into perspective. It teaches us that we have no ‘right’ to feel good all the time at all, but that moving between subjectively positive or negative states is all part of life’s ebb and flow.

Take the very origins of the universe itself. This was an act of profound creation and yet huge violence. Carbon based life on earth itself is the direct result of stuff being spewed by dying stars (it’s often romantically said we are made from stardust but in truth ‘stardust’ is the product of a massively violent cosmic death). Our earth as we know it has been shaped by tumultuous and violent events, as flooding, volcanoes and earthquakes regularly demonstrate.

The nature of existence is a dance between creation and destruction, and it follows that the human experience mirrors this fundamental state. That’s not too say we should give up on attempting to feel good. That, of course, would be dumb, as feeling good rocks and positively affects everyone around us.

What I’m talking about is recognising that part of life is to feel crappy sometimes, and that it just can’t be any other way. The physical and human realms demand this of us. Therefore it is not just you who is getting the bum deal, but all of us from time to time, and this is what we signed up for by being born. Yes, I know that it’s scant consolation for the most extreme suffering, but internalising this lesson really can help us get on with things when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

I repeat, this is not a depressing recognition. To the contrary it is liberating, because it reminds us that it’s okay to feel crappy sometimes. It can take the edge of our hurt and connect us with others who we know are also participating in the grand universal oscillation between joy and pain.

As a result we are less likely to attempt counterproductive avoidance tactics when we suffer. We can try instead to embrace our pain, to really feel it, to realise it is ultimately separate from that more real part of us that never changes, and through doing so release some of its psychic grip. We can recognise the lessons it can teach us, and perhaps even grow in the process.

Yes, life is supposed to be painful.

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