We all know that meditation is supposed to be good for us. And if we’ve tried it, and even if we have a long term practice, we realize meditation isn’t the simplest thing to do. Our brain is tricky, as Paul Gilbert often says!
So why bother?
Recently I read a study by a team at the University of Sienna who wanted to measure any neuroanatomical changes that resulted from meditation practices, both at the cortical and subcortical brain levels. This research was different than others in that it didn’t use long term, experienced meditators. Instead, they called their participants, “meditation-naïve.”
For this study, 48 participants were divided into two groups:
- 24 went through the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, including body scanning, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful stretching movements
- Attend 2.5 hours of in-class sessions
- Use the meditation techniques they learned to their lives
- Develop personal practice for 45 minutes daily
- Journal about their experience
- Go on a silent retreat
- 24 were not given the training
Both groups were asked to go through MRI scans and psychological testing before and after the 8 week period.
Those in the MBSR training group had an “increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex,” as well as “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression, and alexithymia” (difficulty experiencing and describing one’s emotions.” Basically, that translates to mediation enhancing the brain areas of perception and regulation of emotion.
What this and other research suggests is that even basic mediation for beginners can change our brain.
So, what is the underlying factor that creates change?
No one is saying for sure, but from all the research I’ve read there’s a common ingredient: being able to be with what goes on inside without judgment or needing it to change. Jon Kabat Zinn, who founded MBSR identifies the transformative ability of meditation. In an article in omega, Kabat-Zinn said, “Science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important; it’s the process of paying attention to them – the attending – that actually influences the organism in a while range of different ways.”
For those with trauma or attachment wounding we need another element, the capacity to focus and concentrate. We also need to cultivate our capacity for compassion (see Compassion Focused Therapy) and specifically Self-Compassion (Chris Germer & Kristin Neff). There’s one other key component I’ve been exploring since my early days that not many people talk about and it’s the practice of non-separation. That’s the ability to pay attention to two things simultaneously so that the mind can rest. Research on this practice points to its similarity to neurofeedback and biofeedback – training the brain to re-pattern itself. It’s become the practice I find the most restful, rejuvenating, and nourishing.
If this intrigues you (and I hope it does!) I decided to put together a short course on Meditation – Why Bother? It will cover both the practices and the reasons why these simple skills can change your life – and heal your trauma in the process.
What meditation have you tried? Has it helped? Not helped? Why would you want to try meditation? Hit reply to email me with your response. You know I always love hearing from you.