The Science of Meditation

There’s a useful distinction between ‘the deep path and the wide’ when it comes to meditation. 

Most of us may not become deep meditators but even the toe we dip in the water brings benefits. Results can be seen in short meditations of five to ten minutes. The more regular one is even with these short sessions, the more it helps. The key is ongoing practice.

Mindfulness was not intended to be a cure; it has only recently been coopted into this more common, wide approach. Meditation was originally meant to be a “deep exploration of the mind toward a profound alteration of our very being.” The Dalai Lama tells the authors that “the true mark of a meditator is that he has disciplined his mind by freeing it from negative emotions.”

To that end, the book explains how meditation quietens the brain’s default mode network which is activated when we’re doing nothing, consisting of generally unpleasant thoughts and feelings, focused on ourselves. Over time, the default network has less of an ‘ability to hijack attention.’ Even equanimity is solidified with continuous practice, reducing the baseline state of the amygdala activation (our stress response) by as much as fifty percent. One of the most fascinating studies looks at how the brain evaluates and reacts to pain. In experiments with heat applied to the skin, Zen meditators’ brains broke down the sensation of ‘pain’ into ‘throbbing, heat, intensity,’ resulting in a higher pain threshold because their mind is reappraising stress. Extended practice can also prevent fraying of telomeres – the caps that the end of chromosomes – basically slowing cellular raging by reducing stress and stress arousal.

This book is about the science behind how meditation works but also the body of scientific literature on meditation. It provides an analysis of the strengths, weakness, which claims hold up, and where the nuances lie in the big headlines we see expounding on meditation as a cure-all. 

It isn’t for everyone. I found it quite dry but if you like detailed research and have struggled to step on to the path of meditation, this one may convince you to take the plunge.

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