Meditation Produces Big Changes in Your Brain
The benefits of meditation can’t be called new. For decades the practice has been endorsed, even by mainstream medicine, as a proven means to reduce stress and produce relaxation. In fact, if it were not for “the relaxation response,” a sanitized version of Eastern meditation that was popularized thirty years ago, it is doubtful that a secular society could be persuaded that meditation is real. Until recently, code words like “peacefulness” and “serenity” went about as far as anyone could go without seeming to bring religion in through the back door.
Now a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital has made headlines by showing that as little as eight weeks of meditation produces changes in various areas of the brain associated, not simply with feeling calmer, but with improved sense of self, empathy, and memory. Again this isn’t exactly new. Since the Seventies a change in brain waves, particularly alpha waves, was associated with the regular practice of meditation. Today, with far more sophisticated brain imaging, researchers can pinpoint where these changes are taking place with remarkable precision.
The short period of time needed to produce benefits surprised everyone. Brain scans of Buddhist monks had already shown dramatic alteration of gamma waves in the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with higher cognitive responses as well as moral feelings like compassion. But learning that a life-long meditator produced gamma waves at 80 cycles per second instead of the usual 40, although fascinating to neuroscientists, still kept meditation far out of reach of busy, secular Westerners. Now we can say, without fear of seeming “too Eastern,” that meditation sharpens the mind and produces benefits everyone would want. The old bugaboo that navel gazing makes you passive and “too peaceful” can be banished once and for all.
If you back away and look at the bigger picture, what you see is startling. There is a direct path that begins in the mind — with meditation, mindfulness, or more basic things like beliefs and emotions — and then the path leads to the genes, where signals are sent that modify the brain cell, which in turn sends its own signals in the form of neurotransmitters to every cell in the body. The reason that eight weeks is enough to cause significant changes in the brain is that the underlying circuitry that connects mind, genes, and brain operates every second of our lives. Ultimately, I’m confident that the results will spread even farther. We will discover that a person’s awareness balances and controls almost any bodily process you can name. The old phrase, “biology is destiny,” will have to be seriously re-examined. A good replacement would be “consciousness is destiny,” which is the guiding reason that meditation arose in the first place. I foresee enormous opportunities for personal freedom here. Instead of being dictated to by your genes and chemical processes in the brain, it may turn out that you are the author of your own life, capable of change, healing, creativity, and personal transformation. Who wouldn’t want to be free to write the program that runs brain and body? Such has been the spiritual promise for thousands of years. It’s time that modern society woke up and realized that the promise still holds good.
Meditation Timer with Soothing Chime
Although meditation can be done in almost any context, practitioners usually employ a quiet, tranquil space, a meditation cushion or bench, and some kind of timing device to time the meditation session. Ideally, the more these accoutrements can be integrated the better. Thus, it is conducive to a satisfying meditation practice to have a timer or clock that is tranquil and beautiful. Using a kitchen timer or beeper watch is less than ideal. And it was with these considerations in mind that we designed our digital Zen Alarm Clock and practice timer. This unique “Zen Clock” features a long-resonating acoustic chime that brings the meditation session to a gradual close, preserving the environment of stillness while also acting as an effective time signal. The Digital Zen Clock can be programmed to chime at the end of the meditation session or periodically throughout the session as a kind of sonic yantra. The beauty and functionality of the Zen Clock/Timer makes it a meditation tool that can actually help you “make time” for meditation in your life.
adapted from San Francisco Chronicle by Deepak Chopra – the author of over 60 books on health, success, relationships and spirituality, including “The Soul of Leadership.” Feb. 2011
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