Meditation comes in a lot of different flavors: guided, transcendental, zen, vipassana, insight, just to name a few. I’ve practiced off and on for about 7 years and I’ve tried several different methods. I’ve meditated alone and with others. I’ve focused on my breath, worked to control my breath, recited things like The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and focused on solving visual math problems like how to construct polygons with just a compass and straightedge (I actually did figure it out, in my head, for a hexagon). But what does mediation do for you? What are the physical, psychological, and physiological effects of meditation?
The reason I recited the sutras of Patañjali is because these aphorisms are an ancient answer to our question — what does mediation do? According to the sutras, meditation:
- allows us to attain habitual inward-mindedness and overcome sickness, languor, doubt, heedlessness, sloth, dissipation, false vision, pain, and depression
- gives us a state of utmost lucidity and clarity of the inner-being
- results in our acquisition of great vitality, gladness, unexcelled joy, perfection of the body, contact with the deity, the relaxation of tension, and the fitness of the mind for concentration
In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom Rick Hanson describes what meditation does in terms of brain structure and neuroscience. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the gateway into all the other major systems of your body — endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, and nervous. Mental activity can directly influence the ANS to a greater degree than any other system. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a part of the ANS. Stimulating the PNS calms, soothes, and heals your body, brain, and mind. From a physiological and psychological point of view, meditation has the following affects on the body:
- increases gray matter in the brain and improves attention, compassion, and empathy
- lifts mood to offset depression
- strengthens the immune system
- helps physical ailments including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, PMS, and chronic pain
- helps psychological conditions including insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders
Of course, these benefits are not quickly realized. Meditation is by no means a “quick fix.” The sutras, themselves, state that the meditation practice must be “cultivated properly and for a long time uninterruptedly.” But you must agree that the benefits are worthy of our time and effort. Like eating right and exercising, I don’t know why I can’t always find the time to meditate. It’s not always easy to calm my mind but when I can, even a little, the feeling is amazing. Perhaps that’s part of the “problem.” I love being in the meditative state so much that I don’t want to come out of it and get back to the external world.
But, like exercise, meditation is one of those things that needs to be done even when nothing seems to be gained by it. It’s the long-term practice that pays. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience and make up many times over the time spent. Let’s get some time “on the cushion” and reap the rewards, shall we?