From meditation, wisdom arises;
Without meditation, wisdom wanes.
Knowing this twofold path of gain and loss,
Let one conduct oneself so that wisdom increases.
—The Buddha (Dhammapada 282)
Numerous research studies in the past ten years, especially in the field of neuroscience, have confirmed the positive impact of mindfulness. Many of these research findings are based on advances in brain imaging, such as functional MRI (fMRI), which is used to monitor brain activity during meditation.
One of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience is that of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to physically reorganize itself by developing new neural connections, even in the elderly. This means that actual physical changes in brain structure may underlie some of the benefits of mindfulness meditation. According to Richard Davidson, Director at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, University of Winconsin-Madison, “The brain is an organ which is designed to change in response to experience and training.” This means that we can use mindfulness to rewire our brains and prevent or minimize degeneration of brain tissue associated with old age.
Another positive effect of mindfulness practice is whole-brain integration. According to Dr Shanida Nataraja who studied meditation and presented her findings in her book, The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation, we use the left half of our brains too much. Both left and right sides of the brain have different ways of thinking and perceiving. The left brain is associated with verbal, analytical, abstract, rational and logical reasoning while the right hemisphere is associated with non-verbal awareness, intuitive reasoning, holistic perception and the expression and modulation of emotions.
With the use of galvanic skin response meters (which detect emotional changes through the skin) and electroencephalograms (which measure brain electric activity), Dr Nataraja found that entering a meditative state causes a shift into right-brain mode and increased alpha brain wave activity. Alpha brain waves typically occur when we are relaxed and calm.
Mindfulness meditation triggers a switch to right-brain mode because paying attention is a right-brained activity. However, brain signals during meditation eventually spreads to the left brain too, and so, the whole brain works more synchronously. Dr Nataraja says that regular meditation improves balanced activity on both sides of the brain. “First we let go of our thoughts, but as the process deepens, the thoughts return, but they are driven by left- and right-brained processes.”
Mindfulness also helps us to deal effectively with harmful stress. Regular meditation practice is shown to boost immunity, improve medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, type II diabetes, and chronic pain. It also improves psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, phobias and eating disorders.
Mindfulness practice is especially useful for writers and artists because it not only improves the ability to focus our attention but also enhances our creativity, intuition, and holistic thinking.
Mini-Mindfulness Exercise: Count five breaths
Close your eyes.
Pay attention to your incoming and outgoing breath.
If necessary, take three slightly deep breaths (but not deep enough to make a noise).
Now count your breath every time you breathe out.
The first time you breathe out, count one.
The second time you breathe out, count two, and so on.
After counting five breaths, open your eyes.
Do this exercise right now.
It takes less than 30 seconds.
You will be tempted to do this later.
Understand this tendency and overcome it, right now.
Don’t do anything else until you do the above exercise.
You have just practiced mindfulness meditation.
Did you do it?
Let us know in the comments below.
(26 March 2014)
Rohi Shetty is a freelance writer who riffs about the importance of humor, mindful mojo, and creative entrepreneurship at http://rohishetty.com. He is also a star student of Danny Iny’s Audience Business Masterclass. You can connect with him on Twitter at @rohishetty.