Today the study of meditation has entered research labs throughout the U.S. and the world. Scientists are exploring the brain states (using brain imaging tools such as fMRI and EEG) associated with meditation practice as well as changes in other body physiology (e.g. immune response, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.). The science is still relatively small, but findings are intriguing, including evidence that meditation influences brain structure and function, immune response, stress response, attention and emotional regulation. Overall, adding meditation to one's life appears to improve an overall state of well-being (happiness, if you will), reduce anxiety, and foster healthy relationships.
A geneticist I know describes Buddhist meditation techniques as a "technology with some 2,000 years of research and development." But, what does it mean to meditate? Do I need to sit on a cushion in a cross-legged position for a lengthy period of time to understand the nature of the mind? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, it depends on you and what works best for your investigation and discovery. Meditation is a tool of introspection and reflection, of discovery of the origin of individual thoughts, feelings, and experience.
Many scientists are studying a type of meditation called mindfulness: the practice of applying a moment-to-moment attention to experiences - as they arise (whether the experiences are of the senses, such as sound or taste, or experiences of the mind, such as thoughts or feelings). Science is revealing that this the simple practice of being more mindful promotes health and well-being, and it is entering mainstream medicine and wellness programs around the country (See Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn).
At UCLA our mindfulness classes and workshops have been overwhelmingly well-attended. Why this great interest? I believe it is because we are a society under stress, immersed in technology, immersed in information, rushing, rushing, and rushing in life, struggling daily to find balance between home, work, and family. We have invested exorbitant time, money and energy into technology at the expense of attending to our abilities to attune to ourselves, other people, and the planet and to discover and reflect on our true nature - our values, virtues, and purpose in life. Attention to one's inner world requires tools, time, and creativity, just like a healthy body requires water, nutritious food, and exercise.
Meditation and mindfulness are tools for use by anyone requiring only a willingness and intent to practice. You can teach yourself, learn from a book, or attend a class. You can use the breath to practice, hone your attention and develop a more mindful stance in life. It is in the repetition of observing the breath (breathing in, breathing out), catching your attention as it drifts away, and returning it (with kindness) to the breath that awareness begins.
As a moment of silence is filled with thoughts of distraction, desire for noise, company, or movement, you begin to discover how your mind works. The hum of a clock elicits a cycle of thoughts and feelings of movement, again you begin to understand how your mind works. Over time and practice, you may gain patience, first a tolerance, then an embrace of a deeper understanding of your self and your relationship to the world. The repetitive pattern of 'discovery' can arise in everything you do, and you may discover that introspection and reflection have created a space between experience and your reactions to them, a space in which you can choose your response. Practicing over and over while sitting, while walking, or doing daily activities are part of learning to be more mindful. Everyday objects can replace the breath in practice. For example, you can eat mindfully, observing the texture, smell, and taste of each bite of food, giving it your full attention. In this way, mindfulness can be integrated into daily life, when talking, walking, listening, or relating to others, the planet, or yourself.
Perhaps mindfulness, meditation, and other mind-body practices (such as yoga and tai chi) are increasing in popularity in the West because they let us experience internal investigation, without it being so verbal in nature. They provide us with an awareness of the chatter within and around us, they provide us with a gift of listening, they provide us with great insight into our very nature. It is a misperception to think that meditation means silencing the mind, silencing thoughts or feelings; it is a process of learning about the mind, full of the complexity it holds.
As a scientist, I love the challenge of understanding my mind, from the inside, while learning what science tells us from the outside. The merging of these two approaches will yield knowledge far greater than either can alone.
To download free guided meditations, go to www.marc.ucla.edu.
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