We humans are fascinated by doing things that change the state of their mind. And many of the techniques we use have questionable results… (SFX: partying)
But the one answer that recurs consistently through both ancient wisdom and scientific research is meditation.
Meditation is a discipline: an active training of the mind to increase awareness. It’s a tool, something you can train – but it’s also a shift in perspective, a change in the way you see the world.
It’s an ancient practice – and its potential power is still being uncovered by the trailblazers of neuroscience. Depression and anxiety. Stress. High blood pressure, chronic pain, insomnia and addiction. All are positively affected by a meditation practice. In clinical trials, meditation had the same effect size (0.3) as anti-depressants. That’s huge!
Meditation could be as old as humanity itself, with the possible meditative capacities of Neanderthals. That’s potentially 200,000 years. Ancient keepers of knowledge from across Asia are our earliest meditation experts.
There are wall paintings in India that are 7000 years old, depicting people in seated postures, eyes half closed in deep meditation. And you can find examples of meditative practices across different cultures and religions. The deep contemplation of prayer has plenty in common with the experience of meditation.
Today, meditation is embraced across the world – passing from Asia to Europe and America. It is only very recently that we have developed the technology to measure its transformative power – to translate into numbers what ancient Asian wisdom has known for thousands of years.
The familiar sense of stillness that characterises meditation comes from decreased activity in the Default Mode Network – the part of the brain responsible for the feeling of a wandering, questioning mind. This encourages spiralling anxious thoughts that can be difficult to control.
It’s literally fitness for your attention span – just as running works your muscles, a meditation practice changes the structure of your brain. And unlike running, the benefits of meditation can resonate even many weeks after practicing.
Cortical thickness in the hippocampus is increased, the area of the brain that takes care of learning and memory. At the same time, brain cell volume in the amygdala – the brain’s centre for fear and risk – is actually reduced. This not only supports wellbeing, reducing stress, anxiety and depression – but helps to lower blood pressure, and encourages emotional connection.
The less time you spend in ‘fight or flight’, the better you will be able to connect with those around you. The more we are able to study the brain, the better we understand the positive effects of meditative practice.
Meditation helps us connect to our body, to our breath, and the present moment. Its history is interwoven with human history; and its transformative effects are still being uncovered now. So, next time you want to change your mind? Explore the transformative power of meditation.