We’re not talking about heaven, God or Nirvana here, but how to build a happier society.
~Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
In 1987 a meeting of great minds saw the birth of The Mind and Life Dialogues, a platform designed to promote discussion between the Dalai Lama, eminent scientists, philosophers, contemplatives and scholars. They chewed on some pretty heavy subjects including neuroplasticity, altruism, physics and cosmology in an effort to create a more rounded understanding of reality as we know it, with a goal of making the world and the living experience more harmonious.
But what could those academics possibly learn from a spiritual leader? After you’ve gained a couple of PhD’s, developed drugs to treat AIDS and spotted the first naked-eye supernova since 1605, surely you feel pretty enlightened already.
I often find my more scientifically-minded friends are the most cynical towards my profession of teaching yoga and meditation, imagining me sitting for hours with my eyes rolled back, speaking in tongues and swaying to Tubular Bells.
Let Me Tell You A Secret
Sometimes I find it hard to stomach the language I hear from a few of my more esoteric chums when describing meditation. Not to discredit anyone else’s experience, but I have always felt a bit uncomfortable when people tell me their chakras are glowing or their bandhas are vibrating to the tune of the earth.
But meditation isn’t a cult, it isn’t magic and thanks to science it’s no longer a mystery.
In fact, according to the results of some studies that have been going on for the past few decades (in part thanks to this marriage between a Buddhist monk and modern science) there are some tangible and quantifiable ways to explain the experiences people have during and after meditating. This makes sceptical yogis like me very happy indeed.
Why Meditation Works
Meditation is such a more substantial reality than what we normally take to be reality.
~ Richard Gere
As scientific advances have increased our knowledge of how the human brain functions, neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in the link between meditation and physical changes in your grey matter, cognitive performance and general wellbeing as a whole. In recent years these discoveries have been refined even further by new findings in the field of genetics with biological organisms, narrowing our understanding down to the subtlest level of individual genes.
So what do we know?
5 Categories of Brain Waves – as explained by Ashley Turner
1. Gamma State: (30 – 100Hz) — This is the state of hyperactivity and active learning. Gamma state is the most opportune time to retain information. This is why educators often have audiences jumping up and down or dancing around — to increase the likelihood of permanent assimilation of information. If over stimulated, it can lead to anxiety.
2. Beta State: (13 – 30Hz) — Where we function for most of the day, beta state is associated with the alert mind state of the prefrontal cortex. This is a state of the “working” or “thinking mind” — analytical, planning, assessing and categorising.
3. Alpha State: (9 – 13Hz) — Brain waves start to slow down out of thinking mind. We feel more calm, peaceful and grounded. We often find ourselves in an “alpha state” after a yoga class, a walk in the woods, a pleasurable sexual encounter or during any activity that helps relax the body and mind. We are lucid, reflective, have a slightly diffused awareness. The hemispheres of the brain are more balanced (neural integration).
4. Theta State: (4 – 8Hz) — We are able to begin meditation. This is the point where the verbal/thinking mind transitions to the meditative/visual mind. We begin to move from the planning mind to a deeper state of awareness (often felt as drowsy), with stronger intuition, more capacity for wholeness and complicated problem solving. The theta state is associated visualisation.
5. Delta State: (1-3 Hz) — Tibetan monks that have been meditating for decades can reach this in an alert, wakened phase, but most of us reach this final state during deep, dreamless sleep.
Imaging has been taken of people meditating which shows their brains working at lower frequencies, enabling them to essentially slow down the chatter of the mind and reside in a more peaceful state of consciousness. Images taken of people following an eight-week course of meditation also showed an increase in their grey matter, proving that meditation can actually restructure the brain.
What hasn’t yet been discovered it how to bridge the gap between those who see great results and those who see none. There are so many factors that could play a part in the efficacy of practicing meditation, including differences in personality, genetics, temperament and experience.
Even if scientists still aren’t sure exactly why the results vary so much and this is very much an evolving area of discovery, one thing is for sure. Just like the National Lottery, you have to be in it to win it. If you don’t practice you definitely won’t see any results.
Whether you’re a staunch disbeliever or have fallen fully down the spiritual rabbit hole, whether you’re driven by indisputable proof or the value of experience, give your grey matter a little downtime every now and again, it deserves it.
…and maybe — just maybe — if I keep on meditating, I too will one day know how it feels to having glowing chakras and a vibrating mūla bandha.
The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.
~ Thích Nhất Hạnh