Meditation has been practiced for healing prpises since the early years of the human race. Its healing powers have long been unexplained, which is creating great curiosity about its seemingly miraculous effects on the human body and mind in the health field. Meditation first was rooted in the Buddhist tradition, but has time has gone on meditation is used in many areas and not just in the Buddhist religion. Though the benefits of meditation are individually felt, they are also backed by scientific proof. An individual may practice meditation practices such as sitting, laying down, or even in a yoga pose. If someone does ongoing meditation training it will enhance their immune system, will promote positive thinking, and will improve concentration and focus. As such, it is important to examine popular meditation practices – particularly mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation – as well as five case studies in order to clearly pinpoint the benefits of mediation in both the body and brain.
Having awareness of one’s surroundings while accepting life’s current circumstances is the essence of mindfulness-based meditation training. There are also benefits that a person obtains after regular meditative practices and this can be seen at the molecular level in the body. Additionally, an individual can mature in both attitudes, such as enthusiasm and behavior in their everyday life. When performing mindfulness meditation, the individual seeks to silence the mind and become aware of every sense of the body. External factors must not distract the individual from moving out of the pose; rather one should use the distractions as a means of creating stronger mind-set to overcome any outside disturbances.
The first thing that I saw while doing my research is that I found that the most common physiological identification in measuring the efficiency of meditation can be seen in the brain. (Bonus, Davidson, Harrington, Kabat-Zinn, Muller, Rosenkranz, Santorelli, Sheridan, Shumaker & Urbanowski, 2003). The left side of the brain is recognized to be associated with positive feelings and effects. This type of alteration in the brain’s functioning ultimately leads to a transformation. This will allow the mind to view things “outside of the box” as a result of this brain modification and this kind of change leads to greater compassion and knowledge. Long-term meditative practice should be continuous and repetitive, which then leads to the practitioner undergoing a mental transformation. MRI tests have shown that thicker cerebral cortexes are developed in the brain of individuals who have experienced the long-term practice of mindfulness-based meditation. Individuals who have undergone such long-term practice are usually those who have been practicing meditation for more than a few years (Alavia, Aman, Khalsa, Newberg, Waldman & Wintering, 2010). From my own personal experience, I found that meditation could reduce stress-related ailments. For example, I know that when I go to the doctors, I do meditation or a prayer right before I go in. In many of the studies that I looked at that was something that helps people decrease their anxiety levels. Given these findings, it is important to delve deeper into the reasons why meditation affects the brain by examining the results of five studies that investigated individuals who meditate and the psychological changes that resulted within their bodies.
These five studies that I analyzed mainly focused on parasympathetic and sympathetic activities, cardiovascular activities, and immune activities of meditation. In fact, most of the current research on this topic focuses on investigating the nervous system itself. In particular, three studies examined the effects of mindfulness meditation and the nervous system. Generally, it has been found by researchers that mediators have decreased sympathetic nervous system activity and increased parasympathetic activity (Harrison, Manocha, & Rubia, 2004). A decreased sympathetic nervous activity implies a decreased fight or flight mechanism and an increased parasympathetic activity implies greater relaxation or rest mechanisms. One study that I analyzed had mixed results about the effects of mindfulness meditation and the nervous system, because the researchers found an increase in both cardiac parasympathetic and sympathetic activity with their participants who went through a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, which is one of the readings that we discussed in class (Ditto, 2006). This was also something that we discussed in class and the analysis that we got is that the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, also called MBSR, was something created to provide individuals who are struggling with sickness, mental illness, and is even seen in companies to help employees deal stress.
Another study that I looked at measured cardiovascular changes from practicing mindfulness meditation. Specifically, it compared healthy participants to participants with asthma conditions practicing Sahaja Yoga Meditation. Sahaja Yoga Meditation is a type of meditation that endeavors to get the practitioner to evoke thoughtless awareness on a daily basis. It was found that those practicing Sahaja Yoga Meditation had a reduction in heart, respiratory, and pulse rate, implying that both healthy individuals and people with the condition of asthma benefitted from a more efficient cardiovascular system (Rubia, 2009). Another study looked at immune system changes in participants who practiced mindfulness meditation. In this study, the authors suggested that implementing mindfulness meditation is promising for patients with poor immune systems rather than relying solely on biomedical (biology and science) interventions (Bonus, Davidson, Harrington, Kabat-Zinn, Muller, Rosenkranz, Santorelli, Sheridan, Shumaker & Urbanowski, 2003). These findings help convince people that there are beneficial biological effects on the body by practicing mindfulness meditation. It is interesting to note that mindfulness meditation improves not only the mental health but also the overall health in an individual.
Next, I will look at how important it is to take into consideration how mindfulness meditation changes or does not change the brain’s function. Many studies looked at activity function differences in the brain for those who practiced mindfulness meditation. Mainly, the researchers looked at functional differences by investigating brain energy and metabolism. A handful of researchers found differences in activation of frequency waves in the brain between people who meditate and those who don’t meditate. Specifically, reoccurring results found higher power values in theta and alpha waves for meditators compared to non-meditators. High theta waves reflect creative performance and high alpha waves reflect task-specific perceptual and cognitive processes (Aftanas & Golskeykin, 2005). These results show that the theta and alpha waves mirror the benefits that are essential within mindfulness meditation because alpha waves relate to higher concentration and theta waves relate to the openness to experience.
Furthermore, the literature has found mixed results regarding hemisphere activation asymmetry between people who meditate and non-meditators. While some researchers found high activation in the left hemisphere in meditators (Rubia, 2009), other researchers found no disproportionateness in their meditators (Aftanas & Golscheykin, 2005). Though it is important to note that the type of mindfulness meditation practiced in these studies was different, so a reasonable comparison is hard to make. For example, participants in the meditation group are taught meditation which involves yoga movements (Aftanas and Golscheykin’s, 2005). Another type of mediation that we talked about in class that can be applied is Transcendental Meditation, which is different from mindfulness meditation that involves attention to control breath, body, mind or senses. Thus, while the findings are notable on their own, it is more difficult to draw conclusions when aggregating the results across the studies.
Overall, the spatial hemispheric location and the frequency of waves activated appear to be related to mindfulness meditation. Between these two indicators, the wave frequency activation and hemispheric activation, the wave frequency activation is stronger evidence than hemispheric activation regarding the effects of mindfulness meditation. Mixed evidence for hemispheric activation may be due to improper comparisons between different types of meditation, or perhaps such a short length of practice (only a few weeks) only has an impact on localized differences, such as the type of wave frequency activated rather than a broad activation of hemispheric neural nodes (brain processes).
Next, it is important to look at how mindfulness meditation creates a structural change in the brain. Three studies showed that structural thickness changes in participants who meditated compared to participants who did not. Two of these studies found structural differences in long-term meditators, which was longer than just a few weeks. One study investigated the brain changes with short-term mediators. The thing that I found most interesting about this study was that the short-term meditators had a lack of awareness and also their experience of mediation was forgotten very quickly in the brain.
Finally, to examine the long-term meditators, it is important to note how there were some structural changes in the brain. In this paragraph, I will also be talking in detail about two studies that fascinated me, which are done by Hölzel and Lazar, who clearly have the top degrees possible in their area of study. Specifically, there was an increase in gray matter in the cortex and there was also an awareness of breathing and attention that was also found (Rubia, 2009). Yet, for Lazar’s study, there was increased cortical thickness that occurred in the right middle and superior frontal cortex as well, whereas, in Hölzel’s study, there was an increased thickness that occurred for the hippocampus (which regulates emotions). Overall, I saw that Lazar’s study reflects relationships with higher order structures (frontal lobe of the brain), while Hölzel’s study reflected relationships with relatively primal structures (hippocampus). Though Lazar’s study looked at those who practiced insight/mindfulness meditation and Hölzel’s study looked at those who practiced Vipassana mindfulness meditation, these types of meditation appear to be similar given that they only focus on non-judgmental awareness of present-moment stimuli (Hölzel, 2007 & Lazar, 2005). What’s more notable is that the structural changes are convincing evidence about the effects of meditation because such structural changes are less temporary. The two studies suggest that with long daily practices of meditation, patterns become “stuck” and result in structural change. The structural change also demonstrates the relative flexibility of the human brain.
Overall, mindfulness meditation can more than likely affects many levels of perceptual and physiological experience, even the experiences and changes that we cannot see or understand presently. With the technologically-advanced, psychological instruments currently in use, we are able to now understand the range of positive effects of mindfulness meditation that positively impact the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, wave frequency activation, hemispheric activation, structural activation, and cortex thickness changes. Except for different results within the hemispheric activation and structural thickness changes in the brain area, the remainder of the results does reflect positive outcomes from practicing present-moment attention and awareness. For example, the parasympathetic (rest and relax system) is more activated, and more fluent respiratory and heart rate reflect the calmness and serenity in meditation. Even given these varied results, it is important to note that are probably more effects on our mind and body due to mindfulness meditation that we are unaware of yet. Besides just the brain function that meditation affects, the immune system will start in a higher gear with long-drawn-out mindfulness meditation. The natural killer cells, derived from the immune system, are more active when mindfulness training triggers the left side of the brain. In the study done by Bonus, the results showed individuals who performed mindfulness meditation regularly compared to those who did not had higher levels of antibody titers in the body after being injected with an influenza vaccine (Bonus, Davidson, Harrington, Kabat-Zinn, Muller, Rosenkranz, Santorelli, Sheridan, Shumaker & Urbanowski, 2003). With this research, we can tell that the influenza vaccine acted as an internal body stressor in which the antibodies reacted to.
The connection between mindfulness meditation practice and the immune system functioning embraces the accurate worth in the medical field. Chemicals connected with pleasure, enthusiasm, willpower, and joy, etc. are also released within mindfulness practice (Bonus, Davidson, Harrington, Kabat-Zinn, Muller, Rosenkranz, Santorelli, Sheridan, Shumaker & Urbanowski, 2003). When chemicals such as dopamine rise, an individual experiences feelings of increased well-being and functioning. This will then lower the chance of an individual dealing with the everyday stresses. A positive mind-set is related to a well-working system.
Individuals diagnosed with cancer usually experience strange and unfamiliar feelings of confusion. Cancer patients often times experience long-lasting psychological pain for years after their diagnosis. The inability to cope with the disease leads to further mental deterioration fueled by thoughts linked to suffering, burdening treatment plans, difficulty coping with life changes, and accepting the lack of control one has over the disease itself (Carlson, Mackenzie & Speca, 2006). Likely, in the Western culture cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and other cancer-related therapies are often tied together with complementary therapies like mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation offers cancer patients a chance to go through the healing process by themselves because of their disease. According to the study by Carlson, Mackenzie, and Speca, nine patients suffering from cancer underwent an eight-week mindfulness meditation program and continued to attend drop-in meditation classes to further the practice. It comes as no surprise that many positive themes were recognized as a gain from meditation practice (Carlson, Mackenzie & Speca, 2006). The most notable theme for cancer patients was “opening to change,” meaning that mindfulness meditation is helpful and in order to feel a change, they have to fully immerse themselves into a “new way of life.”
Cancer patients often experience initial shock and denial after learning they will be living with, battling, or succumbing to a terrible disease for the rest of their lives. This is because no one accepts that they have cancer and once they hear they do have it, their stress level increases and that is where mediation can help. The patients in this study had numerous reasons as to why they picked mindfulness meditation as a complementary practice. However, the main reasoning was that the patients were mentally tired and exhausted, which ultimately lead them to try to find a new way to approach their life-changing situations. The patients desired a new way to view cancer and yearned to learn more about the topic of mindfulness meditation. As such, because of their unfortunate health circumstances, they had to create a brand new lifestyle and a change in attitude (Carlson, Mackenzie & Speca, 2006). Therefore, patients became more conscious of self-control in all aspects of their lives.
Practicing meditation builds self-discipline within each individual living with cancer. Being able to sit silently and give all one’s attention to the present moment means that cancer patients had to look deep within themselves without giving attention to their vulnerability. This small window of opportunity encouraged personal growth and improved their ability to take control of their difficult life situations. Practicing mindfulness assisted the patients to manage stressors easier as opposed to going through an emotional meltdown under stress when not practicing meditation (Carlson, Mackenzie & Speca, 2006). Having greater self-control develops a higher sense of awareness for future outcomes. In other words, patients found it achievable to self-regulate even under the most stressful circumstances because of meditation.
Practicing meditation with a group of like-minded individuals experiencing identical diagnoses contributes to the success of meditation among cancer patients. Having a “shared experience” was a theme addressed by all of the cancer patients in the studies. Nine of the cancer patients agreed that practicing meditation with others going through the same suffrage helped alleviate some of the pain and stress (Carlson, Mackenzie & Speca, 2006). As such, practicing meditation together built a community for the patients. This leads to empowerment and the development of a social support network to help them overcome the mental burden of cancer. The collective action of the patients consists of each individual going through their own personal growth.
Meditation practice invigorates the mind and soul of high-stressed cancer patients. The cancer patients in the study were able to accept cancer(s) in their body as an event rather than a disease that defined who they were. This perception change has a different type of therapeutic benefit, in which patients transformed their outlook of life to be more positive rather than feeling trapped in a dwelling state of mind. The simplicity of the follow and also the physiological advantages of meditation motivated the patients to keep practicing. Furthermore, meditation transformed their dark and eerie beliefs about cancer into something that is motivating and encouraging (Carlson, Mackenzie & Speca, 2006). The cancer patients were able to persevere through darkness and depressing times due to mindfulness meditation.
Given these findings, it is important to examine another form of mediation called loving kindness. The benefits received from practicing loving-kindness meditation differ from mindfulness meditation. Although they are both closely related, the sole difference between mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation is that the meditator focuses heavily on expressing gratitude, affection, forgiveness, and understanding to all individuals who though meditation (Grossman, Hinton & Hofmann, 2011). Sending thoughts filled with love and joy to others is the foundation for loving-kindness meditation. An individual meditates on the thought of a loved one and embraces the feeling of sympathy. Then, the individual sends the feeling of happiness to their loved one. Once the individual has established the feeling of love in their mind and body, they are able to spread this feeling to people with whom they are unfamiliar. The powers that they obtain after this practice gave them the ability to have self-love and experience a decrease in pain and mental suffering (Grossman, Hutcherson & Seppala, 2008). Given this practice, it is important to look at the four states of mindfulness for loving-kindness that practitioners need in order for this type of meditation to be effective.