Sue McGreevey - Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. In a study that will appear in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain's grey matter.
"Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day," says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study's senior author. "This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing."
Previous studies from Lazar's group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced mediation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.
For the current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation – which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind – participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.
Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time....
via Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks.
Tip: Don't meditate with your eyes closed.
How to Meditate
by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche,
... Often we think about meditation as some kind of unusual, holy or spiritual activity. As we practice that is one of the basic beliefs we try to overcome. The point is that meditation is completely normal: it is the mindful quality present in everything we do.
The main thing the Buddha discovered was that he could be himself —one hundred percent, completely. He did not invent meditation; there was nothing particularly to invent. The Buddha, the awakened one, woke up and realized that he did not have to try to be something other than what he was. So the complete teaching of Buddhism is how to rediscover who we are. ...
When we sit, we sit with some kind of pride and dignity. Our legs are crossed, shoulders relaxed. We have a sense of what is above, a sense that something is pulling us up the same time we have a sense of ground. The arms should rest comfortably on the thighs. Those who cannot sit down on a cushion can sit in a chair. The main point is to be somewhat comfortable.
The chin is tucked slightly in, the gaze is softly focusing downward about four to six feet in front, and the mouth should be open a little. The basic feeling is one of comfort, dignity and confidence. If you feel you need to move, you should just move, just change your posture a little bit. So that is how we relate with the body.
And then the next part —actually the simple part— is relating with the mind. The basic technique is that we begin to notice our breath, we have a sense of our breath. The breath is what we're using as the basis of our mindfulness technique; it brings us back to the moment, back to the present situation. The breath is something that is constant —otherwise it's too late.
We put the emphasis on the outbreath. We don't accentuate or alter the breath at all, just notice it. So we notice our breath going out, and when we breathe in there is just a momentary gap, a space. There are all kinds of meditation techniques and this is actually a more advanced one. We're learning how to focus on our breath, while at the same time giving some kind of space to the technique.
Then we realize that, even though what we're doing is quite simple, we have a tremendous number of ideas, thoughts and concepts —about life and about the practice itself. And the way we deal with all these thoughts is simply by labeling them. We just note to ourselves that we're thinking, and return to following the breath.
So if we wonder what we're going to do for the rest of our life, we simply label it thinking. If we wonder what we're going to have for lunch, simply label it thinking. Anything that comes up, we gently acknowledge it and let it go.
There are no exceptions to this technique; there are no good thoughts and no bad thoughts. If you're thinking how wonderful meditation is, then that is still thinking. How great the Buddha was, that's still thinking. If you feel like killing the person next to you, just label it thinking. No matter what extreme you go to, it's just thinking, and come back to the breath.