In recent decades, public interest in mindfulness meditation has soared. Paralleling, and perhaps feeding, the growing popular acceptance has been rising scientific attention.
In neuroscience these days, there is a lot of focus on how different brain areas do different things. These functional units of the brain, made up of grey matter, are like little modules, each doing its own special task, such as speech, memory, vision, or movement. Yet, in order for the brain to work as an integrated whole, the different brain regions need to send and receive information to and from each other. This is done through the brain’s white matter. Think of white matter as being like fibre optic cables connecting the various modules—the brain’s version of the internet.
One of the most intriguing findings that emerges from brain research is that meditation increases the amount of white matter in the brain. Unlike most skills, practicing meditation doesn’t just train a few specific brain areas. It develops the channel of communication between them.
Science shows that if we invest our effort into reprogramming our brains, it can truly guide us towards a better life.
We tend to blame our brain a great deal — for inability to remember, for making us feel bad, for being slow… — as if it was a capricious ruler whom the rest of our body needs to follow no matter what. We refuse to assume responsibility for our brain’s health and our mind’s happiness. If we did, we could experience this phenomenal organ becoming our loyal friend rather than an eternal enemy. The practice of mindfulness helps us learn to regulate aspects of our central nervous systems so that higher reasoning is available for better decision-making.
Our brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons, which are different from regular cells because they can gather and send electrochemical signals. These neurons are a part of our central nervous system and communicate with each other using neural pathways. Think of them as highways within our bodies. Nature has already equipped us with most of the pathways needed for survival. However, our brain is continuously creating new pathways based on our thoughts and actions. So, the next time you are struggling to learn a skill and find yourself getting better with time, remember that it’s merely your brain creating neural pathways. This ability of the brain to create new pathways is called neuroplasticity.
Mindfulness meditation gives us power to focus on the here and now. It increases our mental energy, allowing us to perform better and achieve more. Quite simply, mindfulness makes us more efficient in many areas of our lives.
More importantly, it puts us in control. The mind is an extremely complex labyrinth, where the subconscious can rule and throw roadblocks in our path. There are times we behave in certain ways without being consciously aware of them. Mindfulness meditation increases our awareness and opens our minds to more answers. Our senses are heightened as we enjoy the present more fully. Everyday activities, from what we eat, how we enjoy art and listen to music, and how we respond to friends and family become more vivid as mental walls crumble.
Mindfulness meditation relaxes us. With awareness, stress and unpleasant thoughts become less threatening and easier to handle. We become more relaxed and are able to let more joy and peace into our lives.
The Amygdala releases adrenaline and cortisol, also known as stress hormones. They trigger physiological responses in your body, and you prepare to fight or run away from a situation. The pre-frontal cortex deals with decision making and social behavior. If your Amygdala determines a situation is a threat, it hijacks the brain before the pre-frontal cortex can respond. Daniel Goleman terms this scenario as Amygdala hijack. The central nervous system’s fight-flight/freeze reactions are calmed when we are mindful. This allows us to access the neocortex (or rational brain) rather than responding from the more primitive parts of the brain.
Today, we live in a state of impermanence more than ever before. A hundred years ago, most people spent their lives in the town in which they were born. They knew all their neighbors. Their station in life determined their job. It may not sound ideal to us, but it certainly wasn’t stressful. These days, we live very fragmented lives. We may move regularly and barely know our neighbors. We switch jobs and friends on a regular basis.
On a basic human level, it’s natural for us to push aside unpleasant thoughts by distracting ourselves from what is really important.
Addictions to alcohol, drugs and social media are just some of the ways we avoid dealing with the present. This obviously is not helpful and merely generates greater anxiety and stress. Daily mindfulness meditation keeps us focused on the present and helps us deal with problems rather than avoiding them. Fortunately, becoming more aware is a skill that can be learned. Like playing a musical instrument or a sport, the more we practice, the better we become at it.
Much of our inner life lies below the surface, in the vast region of the subconscious. Our lives are governed by patterns set long ago, sometimes at birth. Perhaps the first words out of your parent’s mouth when you were born was, “Here my future doctor.” Growing up, much was expected of you, and your career path was clear. Good schools, perfect grades, best college, then medical school. After an appropriate period, there would be a suitable spouse, a desirable house, followed by two adorable and well-behaved children.
If this is our internal blueprint, we might never question it. We may not even be totally aware that this has been our path from birth. It’s as if we’ve moved on a kind of automatic pilot, with us just along for the ride. If, at age 30, we drift into a state of depression, we become utterly confused. We have achieved our dream. What could possibly be wrong?
Constant change has become the one permanence on which we can rely. There’s no denying that modern knowledge and conveniences have brought us untold advantages. However, at the same time, we have lost our connection to others and our surroundings. Mindfulness meditation brings back that important lost connection to what is happening inside of us and around us. It’s not an antidote to the problems of living in the 21st century, but it can provide the skills to help us cope with many of its problems.