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How Does Meditating Affect the Body?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

What are the benefits of meditation?

What are the benefits of meditation?

When we meditate, we should try to reflect on where we are in the default mode, or when our mind is not engaged with the outside world. Normally, we look to past and future actions and do not necessarily focus on our present state. We ideally want to transition from a default mode to more of an experiential one, with our focus being on the present. And you can do this process at any time, just note when you get off task from focusing on the present, analyze why it happened, and then keep on going as you were prior to the interruption. Don’t reject it but accept that it happened and therefore you can learn and move on (Wright 45-6).

Of course, this means you need to concentrate, something that is challenging to do as often as needs be. But once in practice, concentration meditation can bring bliss to you and can feel like you “entered another realm.” Mindfulness practices can build this up in you with such practices like breathing exercises. As time goes on, these allow the default network mode to be turned off and instead you enter a state of mindful being (47-9).

But this is all fine and dandy in theory but applying it to real life is truly challenging and not just because of the actual practice of it. Mindfulness lets us follow our true feelings as opposed to the misinterpreted ones. It also allows us to be “more attuned to beauty” by taking the time to see things as they are, but one does have to be careful when you set yourself up for this. A cleared mind can be just as easily filled with negative thoughts, too. To avoid falling into this trap, view mindfulness not as a clearing out but as a confrontation, a potential for personal growth. The presentness we receive is but a consequence of mindfulness and shouldn’t be viewed as the goal (50-3).

Mindfulness and Buddhism

One of the problems with placing consciousness to focus is the temporal non-linear nature of it. We don’t feel it age necessarily in a way we do our physical body, somehow it seems separate. We can use our own observational skills to look inward and examine it to gain insights. But in Western civilizations, we look elsewhere for clues, namely in the physical. They look for physical routes of the brain to isolate and say that is a particular function of something. This isn’t inherently faulty but with consciousness its led to no general consensus. In Buddhist psychology, “consciousness is the condition for life and that the physical body interacts with consciousness but is not the source (Kornfield 36-8).”

To help us see this, mindfulness is a path we can take to see this. IT shows us that consciousness take sin many inputs and processes and can inhibit us form seeing things as they really are, so via mindfulness we learn an openness to things which offers true insights. We regain control and go where we want to because we recognize the temporal nature of our awareness and of physical processes around us, and therefore can choose what we engage in and what we let go of. It’s easy to mix this up with detachment, which removes us from the situation. Instead, with this engagement we experience the feelings still, we let that be, but we don’t let it dominate our mind. We let it go because life continues to change, and we need to be cognizant of that (39-42).

It is because of this recognition that one can achieve true happiness. We can eventually recognize unhealthy mental states and focus to more constructive ones, especially those pertaining to the notion of the self. It has its uses, but it can also be crippling. “The less we cling to ideas of self, the freer and happier we will be” because we will not be shackled by any falsehoods that are attached to them. Our ego is a gradual accumulation over years of experience and is primarily a coping tool for reality. We use it to build up a barrier to things we want to be different by having a new reference frame (63-71).

But as Buddhism points out, more often than not these are illusions which may comfort us at times but ultimately lead to suffering as we try to understand the world. So, by seeing things the way they are we can achieve peace and recognition of the world. It is not “self-estrangement” nor a “denial of the unique essence of every individual.” We each come to the table with different backgrounds and conditionings but knowing when to let something go is crucial and mindful practices allow that (Ibid).

Mindfulness brings us to attention, essentially. But its more than that, for it’s a “non-judging and respectful awareness” of our life as we confront and accept situations, we find ourselves in. It’s a way to bring “perspective, balance, and freedom” as we avoid mental traps that leave us knotted up in negative thoughts and ultimately actions. Life has unknowns that can make us act in ways we don’t want to, but instead of running from them we should confront those fears. By following the RAIN method, one can build up their mindful approach to life (95-105).

It is though Recognition of the moment, the Acceptance that it is happening, our Investigation of it to the fullest extent, then making sure we Non-identify with it that a true perspective is achieved. That Recognition is moving out of the denial that the moment defines me and hence gain a degree of freedom. Acceptance allows us to relax and let in perspectives we may not be privy to. When we Investigate, we are allowing the full truth of what the situation is and seeing how it impacts our mind, body, and emotions. Finally, when we Non-identify we remove ourselves from the experience and prepare for the next moment. Though RAIN, we finally learn that awareness isn’t directed by experiences but is rather outside of it. Awareness directs our experiences (Ibid).

Meditating Genes?

In the field of epigenetics, changes to DNA occur not as a result of altering A, T, C or G but instead via molecular additives to block the expression of the gene. This is not an uncommon event, for many of us carry conditions that our genes don’t end up carrying out. Even if you have the gene, you may not necessarily implement it. But can we block our gene expression via mental processes? (Begley 36, 38)

In 2004, Michael Meaney (McGill University) and team ran an experiment to see. They looked at rats and their offspring, finding that babies which had motherly attention had, via epigenetics, the stress hormone reaction sites fire off at healthier levels than their unmothered compatriots. It turns out that the uncared-for rats had the stress hormone reaction gene silenced, meaning the body wasn’t receiving he signals it expected and so fired off way more than needed, resulting in neurotic rats. “Life experiences…can reach into DNA” and have a noticeable impact, showing an instance where “nurture had trumped nature.” In a 2009 follow-up, the same team looked at the brains of suicide victims and found they too had a similar lack of reactionary sites in the brain (38).

In a 2011 study, the focus was on 30 experienced mediators as they participated in a 3-month long Shanatha Project retreat. Researchers found after the event that the telomerase enzyme activity was increased. This of course is huge to anyone following reverse aging research, for the enzyme is linked to telomeres, which are behind the lifespan of cells and the protection of chromosomes, hinting at an epigenetic-based alteration (Ibid).

A similar study in 2012 looked at long term meditators and found “different patterns of DNA activation” in subjects that self-reported “higher states of consciousness” achievements. And in 2014, a study by Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) found that a decrease in inflammation as well as a decrease in gene activation occurred in 19 experienced mediators after an intense session (Ibid).

Mindfulness and Memory

Perhaps not too surprisingly, mindfulness can assist with memory issues. Sara Lazar (Harvard Medical School professor) who ran a study on this, first distinguished regular memory as such which deals with “facts and information” while working memory involves dynamic processes. Both are impacted by the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information in the brain. With an impaired working memory, our regular memory will also suffer. Lazur and her team theorized that using mindfulness, it could assist with impaired working memory functioning by training the brain to reconcile past memories from present ones (Altshal).

Essentially, make sure our regular memory isn’t trying to do what or working memory is already doing. This can case proactive interference which would then impair our ability to learn new things. In the study, 79 people were split into 2 groups, one of which took part in a 4-week web-based mindfulness course and the other took part in a creative writing class (the control group). Each class was 1 hour long, with 30 minutes spent practicing and another 30 minutes of teaching and Q&A. After the study was concluded, people who had the mindfulness had a decrease in proactive interference when compared to the control group. Their hippocampus size was also enlarged, suggesting an improvement in the memory center of the brain (Ibid).

What further advances will be made in the relations between mediation, Buddhism, and science? Come back for any future updates that may be found, but for now meditate on what you have read about…

Works Cited

Altshal, Sara. “Finding Space for Memory.” Mindful. Fall 2020. Print. 24-5.

Begley, Sharon. “Can Meditation Change Your Genes?” Mindful April. 2018. Print. 36, 38-9.

Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart. Bantam Books, New York. 2008. Print. 36-42, 63-71, 95-105.

Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2017. Print. 45-53.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Leonard Kelley