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.

The Cracking of the Mask

You know when the mask begins to crack. The mask you’ve worn for so long no longer feels comfortable. Not that it ever truly did, but now for some reason you cannot pretend it’s okay. Once the mask has cracked things cannot and will not remain the same. Though for a while you may resist, inevitably, change is coming.

The cracking of the mask occurs when it is no longer possible or desirable to conceal the true nature of who and what you are. It happens when you realise your old ways of being, thinking and doing belong in the past. It comes when you acknowledge that who you’ve been so far is a relic of your old, limited and conditioned self, and that it is time for change. To paraphrase those oft quoted words of Anaïs Nin, the day comes when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.

And when that time for change comes, you will not be able to rest easy until you’ve taken action. Though there may be those around you who do not understand the path you’ve chosen, or who are threatened by your new disregard for convention, do not be perturbed. Remember that fortune favours the brave, that on your deathbed you want to look back and know you had the conviction to follow what was right and true.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of passively accepting a lack of fulfilment in our lives. It’s the path that rarely brought anyone a deep sense of meaning, but it is what is expected of us, and it’s reinforced by the cultural narratives we are surrounded by. No one warns of it’s pitfalls. For those of us not clear enough in our minds about how we want to live, or not strong or confident enough to do anything about it, the path of mediocrity sucks us in like a black hole consumes whatever has the misfortune of straying too close.

Do not fear the cracking of the mask. Though change is afoot, what you lose you won’t miss, and what you gain will be immeasurable. Have courage, believe in your values, and remember you will not only be doing yourself a favour by embracing a new mode of being. By choosing this path of authenticity you will inspire others to do the same. You will be a more positive presence in the lives of those you know. Though challenges await, know that nothing of worth was ever gained easily.

Do not fear the cracking of the mask.

Cleansing the Inner Shmuck

The author and philosopher Alain de Botton once said ‘Whatever one does, the inner shmuck never quite goes away’. I’m afraid I have to agree. While we all have moments or perhaps even extended periods where we feel good and life flows, we can be sure it is only time that separates us from a reunion with the dragon inside.

It is hard to overestimate the strength of the conditioning of our early lives, and the capacity of our monkey minds to make miserable what should be merry. Indeed, many of us spend years, or perhaps even lives, working on ways to cleanse that inner shmuck.

That’s not to say that type of work is not necessary, admirable or indeed a worthy cause, but that there is a valuable lesson in acknowledging it may never be complete.

Realising the inner shmuck ‘never quite goes away’ need not depress us, though it may. Rather, it is an opportunity, a prompt to come up with strategies to mitigate the damage when the shmuck returns and to accept a fundamental tenet of life in this earthly realm.

Mindfulness practice and particularly meditation are such strategies, and regular practice of each, in time, develops our ability to observe the shmuck rather than react to and fall victim to it. Observing but not reacting denies negative thoughts the fuel they need to burn and consequently their fire recedes more quickly.

Knowing the inner shmuck never quite goes away teaches us to live with our foibles, and to have tolerance for the foibles of others. At times it may depress the shit out of us, but realising this universal truth of human nature is a key step on the path to accepting who we are and what we have become.

It Is Never Enough

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realise that you have enough,
you are truly rich.

~ Lau Tzu, Tao Te Ching

It is never enough. Our mind’s natural tendency to want more is strong. The gratification gained from the accumulation of ‘stuff’ is heady yet fleeting. Once the gratification passes, it leaves in it’s wake a hole. Be it a monthly salary, new clothes, new blog followers or social acceptance, more feels good, but quickly becomes the minimum that can be tolerated.

Paradoxically, knowing that ‘it is never enough’ reminds us that we always and already have exactly what we need. It allows us to remember that abundance is our natural state, and that only the play of mind prevents us from realising this consistently.

There is nothing that can make us more whole, because we already are complete. It is never enough because it is, already, enough.

Finding Meaning Beyond Absurdity

You and I live on a giant rock hurtling through space. We used to be apes, and before that we were fish. Before that, we were tiny little gooey things that you can’t even see. And before that, we were stars. Isn’t all of this just a little bit strange? Aren’t I, and you, and all of us, and the fact that we are here at all, just the weirdest thing ever?

Contemplating this mystery does funny things to me. I don’t know whether to despair at the apparent meaningless of it all, or to marvel at the evolutionary thrust towards ever more complex and ingenious ways the universe has found to realise and understand itself.

It’s the same with my personal journey through this life; simultaneously a painful, existentially agonising, pointless, lonely existence to be endured until that sweet final breath, and yet somehow profound with meaning, connection, purpose, teleology, laughter, love, friendship, kindred spirits and divinity.

It seems this paradoxical nature of existence is woven in to the fabric of everything we know. It makes me question if we can ever know anything with certainty at all, or indeed if all so called ‘knowledge’ is merely the play of the mind, which through meditation is found out to be illusory in nature; an ever-changing and endlessly morphing cacophony of thoughts that are born into existence, fleetingly occupying our attention before dissolving into the nothingness from which they arrived.

Life is a mystery. Awakening to this mystery is at once deeply profound yet simultaneously disturbing. Take this hurtling through space lark. I mean what the hell is that about? Cause for a party or a reason to despair about what any of this is for? Is meaning inherent in all of this or is it completely devoid from the nature of existence, freeing us to create our own meaning in a maelstrom of competing and destructive perspectives that eschews the notion of anything absolute that could anchor us in stability or guide us through this maze.

Our predominating societal narrative attempts to create meaning for us, imposing a patronising, insulting and superficial set of values on us which surprisingly we tend to swallow whole in a gross act of violation we somehow gain extreme pleasure from. When I feel lost, I prefer, if it’s possible at the time, to remind myself that this crazy world is the play of mind, a projection on a massive scale of our personal and collective dreams, fears and unconscious motivations and desires. It is not however, what is truly real.

When we meditate, contemplate, are moved by music or art, ingest entheogens or somehow connect with something larger and deeper than ourselves we recognise and become free of that illusory play of mind. We realise that meaning was indeed inherent in everything all along after all, and—to quote Charles Eisenstein—that ‘more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible’ is here for us now and in the future if only we begin to enact it in our lives, and to live from that premise.

So this giant rock that we’re on, as ludicrous as it is, indicates that even the most unimaginable things do happen. So always have faith in the highest values you hold, and never settle for the mediocre unless it’s what you truly deeply desire. Because if the universe was interested in being mediocre we never would have had dinosaurs, infinite time and space, black holes, amoebas that one day turned in to Nobel prize winning scientists, and mushrooms that allow you to commune with God.

Contemplating the absurdity of existence invites us to attempt the impossible. Think about it, and do something amazing.

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