How does meditation benefit its practitioners? Why should anyone spend 20 minutes or more each day, with all the exciting and stimulating things there are to do in our modern world, just listening to their breath, performing meditative movements, or chanting in some foreign language?
Recently an article on the cover of Time magazine appeared written by Kate Pickert entitled ‘The Mindful Revolution‘. In the article Pickert writes that “Scientists have been able to prove that meditation can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression. Scientific study is also showing that meditation can have an impact on the structure of the brain itself.”
So just by sitting and noticing your breath you can achieve benefits similar to that of prescription drugs at far less cost without anything but positive side effects. Sounds pretty good, eh? According to Andrew Newberg, M.D., in his book ‘How God changes your Brain’, “It (meditation), lowers the overall levels of stress while simultaneously stimulating cognitive alertness.”
I have personally practiced the path of yoga and tantra for over 15 years and still am constantly amazed by the continued depth available in exploring these scientific practices of meditation and contemplation. My personal experience with breath awareness, deep embodiment, mindfulness, and meditation has been that they have greatly improved the quality of my life on every level over the years and the seeds of my ongoing practice continue to bring me endless wealth and joy.
Meditation practices themselves are not so much ‘meditation’ really, rather they are practicing for meditation. We can create the space for meditation and create the right circumstances for it to happen, but meditation can’t be ‘done’, so much as it just is. We can however, consciously foster the situations that meditation can more easily happen in.
In the yogic tradition, in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, there is a progression from dharana, to dhyana, to samadhi, or, from concentration, to meditation, to absorption. Friar Thomas Keating mirrors this yogic thinking in speaking of his 1970’s contemplative practice, The Centering Prayer. Keating says, “It brings us into the presence of God and thus fosters the contemplative attitudes of listening and receptivity. It is not contemplation in the strict sense, which in Catholic tradition has always been regarded as a full gift from the Spirit, but rather it is a preparation for contemplation by reducing the obstacles caused by the hyperactivity of our minds and of our lives.” Both Patanjali and Keating speak to contemplative practice as preparation to receive the grace of Spirit and to feel the connection with the cosmic by creating the space of listening, receptivity, and focus/concentration.
Meditation, or contemplative practices like yoga, mantra, visualization, and breath awareness are practices that start to turn our attention inward and deepen our subtle awareness. Whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Agnostic, or Spiritual without dogma, there are contemplative practices that you can incorporate into your daily life for increased health and wellness on the physical level, as well as greater spiritual depth and connection to your vision of the divine. On the webpage for the Centering Prayer, Keating describes the practice like this, “Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.”
In his book ‘Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses” Dr. David Frawley echoes Keating’s intentions with Centering Prayer, by writing that ‘Tantra aims at a personal relationship between ourselves and cosmic reality, which is to directly experience truth in our daily lives. Tantra is concerned with providing us tools to discover truth for ourselves rather than promoting any particular dogma or ideology. Its main method is meditation.” Mantra meditation is one of the three main aspects of Tantric teachings, and Andrew Newberg, M.D., writes that when meditation includes chanting or singing (mantra), the myriad neurological benefits of the meditation increase exponentially.
But even if you don’t go in for ancient sutras and Sanskrit words or Christian ideology, contemplative practices have been shown to have positive effects on brain chemistry and to build positive neural pathways (see ‘Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama’ by Daniel Goleman for a great in depth exploration of this).
The human brain has neuroplasticity, meaning it is not fixed, but can be changed throughout our lives. New positive and constructive neural pathways can be laid down through meditation and mindfulness, healing generations of patterns of destructive thought and action. Think about it like this, when you go on autopilot sometimes when driving, you end up somewhere that you’ve gone many times before but didn’t mean to go this time. It can also happen like that in relationship, when you are having the same argument with your spouse, or the same pattern of thought in your head, and you wonder, “How did I get here again?” Meditation and mindfulness helps us to wake up and be present to what is happening now, and to create patterns and pathways that are more positive and productive when we do have those moments of slipping into space and going on autopilot again.
Meditation is immune enhancing, relaxing, and spiritually awakening. Studies show that just 15-20 minutes a day on a regular basis can have incredible benefit to memory, immune function, and basically, can make you a better person. “Religious and spiritual contemplation changes your brain in a profoundly different way because it strengthens a unique neural circuitry that specifically enhances social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions”, writes Andrew Newberg.
So get out there and get some God on your brain. (Even without contemplating in a religious or spiritual manner, mindfulness training has been proven to help with all the elements mentioned throughout this article.) Get ready to get smarter, kinder, more patient, and happier. Find a meditation or contemplative practice and make it a part of your daily rhythm today and every day
Check out my workshops page for upcoming workshops in the contemplative movement meditation The Tantric Dance of Feminine Power (TM) with Nita Rubio at the Ashtanga Yoga Shala in March and Seeds: Purification, Power, Poetry, and Devotion at the Ashtanga Yoga Shala in April with me, a class on the traditional tantric meditation practice of Tattwa Shuddhi which includes bijas (seed) mantras and devotion to the seed through poetry-as-contemplative-practice in altered states of consciousness (following Tattwa Shuddhi meditation) inspired by the writings of Vandana Shiva and Cecilia Vicuna.