Since meditation is such a highly personal activity, there are probably as many answers to the question, “What is meditation,” as there are people who meditate. But for our purposes, let’s focus on just two: mindful, or focused, meditation and open-monitoring meditation. Mindful meditation is precisely what it sounds like – being mindful of, or focusing on, just one thing. It can be a stone, or your breathing, or the sound of waves on the beach – there’s no one right thing. The purpose of this type of meditation is to continually bring your mind back to the object of your focus. The only requirement is that, when you find other thoughts intruding into your attention, you refocus yourself on the subject of your meditation. Open-monitoring meditation, by contrast, is where you pay attention to everything happening around you. You are cognizant of it all without reacting.
But the question remains: what goes on in your brain while you are meditating? Scientists, using technology like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans, have developed a greater understanding of what goes on in our brains when we meditate. Essentially, our brains slow down. They stop processing information as dynamically as they normally would. Our beta waves, the brain waves that indicate that our brains are processing data, show a decrease, even after only 20 minutes of mediation, and even if you’ve never meditated before.
Here is an explanation of what happens in each section of the brain during meditation:
- Frontal Lobe. The most highly evolved part of our brain, the frontal lobe, or cortex, is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex actually tends to go off line. We are not bothered by all that “noise” that we generally hear in our heads.
- Parietal Lobe. The parietal lobe is the part of our brain that processes sensory information, and orients you in time and space. During meditation, all activity in the parietal lobe slows down, meaning that you are less aware of your surroundings, how much time has passed, etc.
- Thalamus. The thalamus is the concierge on behalf of the senses, and helps to center your focus and attention by syphoning some sensory data deeper into the brain and bringing other signals to a standstill. During meditation, the flow of incoming information is reduced to almost nothing, keeping distractions to a minimum.
- Reticular Formation. This structure in the brain collects inbound stimuli, and makes the brain ready to respond by putting it “on alert.” When you are meditating, regardless of how much practice you have at it, the arousal signal is noticeably reduced, giving you a feeling of peace and inner calm.
All of this is pretty amazing stuff, especially when you consider that it can be done by anyone, merely by sitting still and noticing their breathing or staring at a flame, and even if it is only for two or three minutes. While two minutes won’t make much of a difference, if you feel like that’s all you can manage at first, then do it for two minutes. Like any habit, the more you practice it, the more ingrained it will become. And soon your two minutes will be 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, onward until you find a length that makes you most comfortable.
*Featured photo by Tom Thai