Meditation – science versus spirituality?

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Image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The ancient eastern tradition of contemplation has slowly but steadily infiltrated the western world.  But what is it all about and why are so many people taking it up?

There are quite a few ways to meditate. Some of them, e.g.  yogic meditation called Kirtan Kriya, involve chanting of mantras: first aloud, then in a whisper, and then silently. This is sometimes followed by breathing and relaxing visualizations, e.g. forming mental images of light. Another popular type of meditation is mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention to the immediate experience with curiosity and acceptance. Do you know the feeling when you arrived home with no recollection of the route you have just driven because you have been thinking about the past or worrying about future? Mindful presence in the moment aims to teach us more conscious ways of living, as opposed to being on the ‘auto pilot’.

Contrary to what we might think, this type of meditation does not require controlling our thoughts or emptying our minds (although that would be nice, it is not going to happen straight away!). Rather, it involves observing your own experience (sensations, emotions and thoughts), noticing the thoughts and letting them go, just as you notice clouds in the sky.

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Various forms of meditation appear to have a whole range of beneficial effects on our wellbeing. They reduce stress as well as symptoms of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety in a similar degree to medication. People suffering from chronic pain and stress-related physical illness also cope better. How exactly does meditation do that?

It seems that contemplative practice can change the functioning of our mind and body on several levels. Psychologically, switching off the automatic pilot helps us to pay more attention to our goals and values and act more in line with them.  Mindfulness also increases self-acceptance and the ability to regulate one’s mood and emotions. This in turn seems to be underpinned by beneficial changes in the brain: people who meditate have increased activity, more grey matter and better pathways connecting the areas responsible for regulating emotions and attention.

Finally, some research shows that meditation affects our body on a physiological level: it might lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol, improve the response of the immune system, and even increase the level of a substance that protects our cells from deterioration (telomerase), thus slowing down the ageing process.

This sounds very promising, but how easy is it to scientifically investigate an ancient contemplative practice concerned with spiritual growth and lifelong development?  One of the main problems is that many studies fail to use an appropriate comparison. For example, some studies compare people who have meditated for a long time with those who have no meditation experience. In such cases it is difficult to establish whether it is meditation that causes the changes in the brain and behaviour. It could be that certain personality features attract some people to meditation and could also be responsible for the differences in the brain.

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Image courtesy of Photokanok at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More and more often randomized controlled trials are used by researchers when studying meditation. In such studies a randomly chosen group of people is taught to practice meditation, and another group of people serves as a control, e.g. is taught relaxation techniques. This way we can be more confident that the differences between the groups at the end of the practice are not due to personality or factors such as relaxation. However, these studies tend to be quite short (e.g. they last a few weeks), whereas meditation is a skill developed over long periods of time.

Thus, having taken apart the skill of contemplating the present moment, science found that it can help us with stress, mental illness and pain. We can measure changes in the brain, mood and behaviour, but the more metaphysical aspects of meditation are difficult to capture. Personally I found practicing mindfulness very helpful in dealing with daily stresses. The quiet mind is an elusive goal, but meditation is about immersing in ‘being’, rather than ‘doing’. As the father of the western mindfulness Kabat-Zinn said ‘After all we are called human beings, not human doings.’

So, have you found your nearest meditation class yet?

Post By: Jadwiga Nazimek

References:

Teasdale et al. (1995) How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behav. Res. Ther. 33 (1) 25-39
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0005796794E00117

Lavretsky, H. Et al. (2013) A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Geriatric Psychiatry 28: 57-65.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3423469/

Sahdra et al., (2011) Enhanced response inhibition during intensive meditation training predicts improvements in self-reported adaptive socioemotional functioning. Emotion 11(2): 299-312.
http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/emo/11/2/299/

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