Neuroscience Of Meditation: How To Make Your Mind Awesome
So is meditation just another fad that pops up from time to time like bell-bottom jeans? Nope. Research shows it really helps you be healthier, happier and even improves your relationships.
From The Mindful Brain:
The MBSR program brought the ancient practice of mindfulness to individuals with a wide range of chronic medical conditions from back pain to psoriasis. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues, including his collaborator Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, were ultimately able to demonstrate that MBSR training could help reduce subjective states of suffering and improve immune function, accelerate rates of healing, and nurture interpersonal relationships and an overall sense of well-being (Davidson et al., 2003).
And it’s not some magical mumbo-jumbo at odds with the science of psychology. In fact, it is psychology. William James, one of the fathers of modern psych, once said this…
While lecturing at Harvard in the early 1900s, James suddenly stopped when he recognized a visiting Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka in his audience. “Take my chair,” he is reported to have said. “You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I. This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now.”
Last week I posted about the neuroscience of mindfulness. Long story short (and grossly oversimplified): the right side of your brain sees things literally. The left side interprets the data and makes it into stories.
But Lefty screws up sometimes. His stories aren’t always accurate. As the old saying goes, “the map is not the territory.” When you listen too much to Lefty’s stories and not enough to the raw data from the right brain, you can experience a lot of negative emotions. A big chunk of mindfulness is keeping Lefty under control. (For the full story, click here.)
But where does meditation fit into all this? What does sitting cross-legged and focusing on your breath have to do with Lefty, the brain and eternal happiness?
And how the heck do you meditate properly? Maybe you’ve tried it and only ended up taking an unexpected nap, or getting horribly bored, or feeling like your brain is noisier than the front row of a death metal concert.
Let’s look at the science and cut out the magic and flowery language. We’ll hit the subject with Occam’s Chainsaw and get down to brass tacks about what meditation really is, why it works, and how to do it right.
Time to put your thinking cap on…
What The Heck Is Meditation?
A good quick way to see it from a neuroscience perspective is as “attention training.” (You know, attention. That thing none of us has anymore.)
But what the heck does attention have to do with happiness, stress relief and all the other wonderful things meditation is supposed to bring you?
Paul Dolan teaches at the London School of Economics and was a visiting scholar at Princeton where he worked with Nobel-Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Dolan says this:
Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention. What you attend to drives your behavior and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together… The scarcity of attentional resources means that you must consider how you can make and facilitate better decisions about what to pay attention to and in what ways.
And Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, did research showing that “a wandering mind is not a happy mind.” We want to focus on what the right side of the brain is giving us and get free from Lefty’s endless commentary.
When Lefty gets going with his ruminating, he’s much more likely to end up feeding you negative stories than positive ones. You’re happier when your attention is more focused on the concrete info your right brain is feeding you: the “here and now.” That’s all that “being in the moment” stuff you hear about.
So improving your attention is like dog obedience training for Lefty. When you can keep your attention on the right brain data and learn to disengage from Lefty’s running commentary you stress less, worry less and get less angry.
Is meditation powerful enough to overcome that often critical, cranky voice in your head? Yeah. It was even able to improve attention skills in people with ADD.
From The Mindful Brain:
At the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, we recently conducted an eight-week pilot study that demonstrated that teaching meditation to people, including adults and adolescents with genetically loaded conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, could markedly reduce their level of distraction and impulsivity.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, so meditation helps you focus on good things and let go of the bad, which can help you be happier and less stressed. Makes sense. So how do you do it right?
How To Meditate
Focus your attention on your breath going in and out. Your mind will wander. Gently return your attention to your breath. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat…
That’s it. Really. That’s all you have to do. Here’s how fancy neuroscience explains what’s going on…
From The Mindful Brain:
If in mindfulness practice our mind is filled with word-based left-sided chatter at that moment, we could propose that there is a fundamental neural competition between right (body sense) and left (word-thoughts) for the limited resources of attentional focus at that moment. Shifting within mindful awareness to a focus on the body may involve a functional shift away from linguistic conceptual facts toward the nonverbal imagery and somatic sensations of the right hemisphere.
Translation: the more you pay attention to the concrete info your right brain is giving you about your breathing, the less attention you have for Lefty’s interpretations, evaluations and stories.
You’re building yourself a knob that turns down the volume on Lefty’s criticisms and ramblings.
But the process is slow. Lefty will start talking again and you need to keep returning to the breath. Over and over and over. Sound like a waste of time? Nope. Here’s that father of modern psychology again, William James…
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will… An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.
(To learn about the neuroscience of mindfulness, click here.)
Simple, right? Actually, I’m hesitant to call meditation “simple.” It is simple, as in “not complex.” Those instructions would fit on an index card with room for your grocery list.
But that doesn’t mean meditation is easy… You know why?
Lefty Fights Back
You try to focus on your breath and banish Lefty but he keeps storming back into the room banging a tympani drum and clashing cymbals together. He won’t shut up.
Even without any input except breathing he still keeps finding things to talk about. And he jumps from one idea to the next. You try to dismiss him but it’s like mental whack-a-mole.
This is where most people give up. Don’t. Your head is not broken and you’re not clinically insane. Buddhists have known about this problem for over a thousand years. They call it “monkey mind.”
Like the undeveloped mind, the metaphorical monkey is always in motion, jumping from one attempt at self-satisfaction to another, from one thought to another. “Monkey mind” is something that people who begin to meditate have an immediate understanding of as they begin to tune into the restless nature of their own psyches, to the incessant and mostly unproductive chatter of their thoughts.
Lefty is like a puppy locked in the house by himself, tearing up the furniture until you come home from work and pay attention to him. But there’s actually a valuable lesson here…
Lefty’s ideas seem so important. But then he’s on to talking about something else. And that seems so important. But then that idea flits away and it’s replaced by another one. And then that idea evaporates and is replaced…
Remember, Lefty isn’t you. He’s merely part of you, doing his job. Your heart beats, and Lefty generates thoughts. But those thoughts — which seem so important in the moment — drift away if you don’t entertain them.
And when it comes to the bad thoughts you have, and the bad feelings those generate, this is crucial and wonderful. You can just let them slide away.
But you’re tempted to take Lefty’s hand and go down the rabbit hole wondering if you should stop meditating because maybe you left the stove on, or if now wouldn’t be a great time to watch TV or finally debate the meaning of life…
Don’t. Turn your attention back to the breath.
And Lefty will say things that worry you or make you sad. And he knows just what will get under your skin. After all, he’s in your head. He’ll play “Lefty’s Greatest Hits” which never fail to get you all worked up. Don’t take the bait.
Your normal reaction is to grab your phone, check Instagram, check email, turn on the TV or do anything to distract yourself.
But that’s how you got into this problem in the first place. You need to sit here where it’s all quiet and build that attention muscle. No Instagram. Return your attention to your breath. Again and again, despite Lefty’s wailing.
Now you can’t shove Lefty away. He’s like the world’s worst internet troll — but with psychic powers. If you engage him, you just make it worse. Thoughts don’t float away if you wrestle with them. It’s like that finger trap puzzle you played with as a kid. The more you struggle to get out of it, the tighter it gets.
Just gently turn your attention back to the breath. Yes: over and over. Build that muscle.
Or maybe Lefty isn’t fighting you at all. Maybe you’re just skull-crushingly bored by this whole meditation thing. But the truth is, you’re not bored…
Lefty is. He’s tricked you again. The voice saying, “God, this sucks. Let’s watch TV.”? That’s not you. That’s him.
What is it when you call something boring? Is it concrete data from the right brain? No. It’s an evaluation. That’s Lefty talking.
Writer and neuroscience PhD Sam Harris explains that boredom is just a lack of attention.
One of the first things one learns in practicing meditation is that nothing is intrinsically boring— indeed, boredom is simply a lack of attention.
When Lefty says he’s bored that means you need more meditation — not less. Train that attention span and shut Lefty up.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you successful and happy, click here.)
Whether he’s banging pots and pans or trying to trick you into thinking “you” are bored, Lefty won’t shut up. How do you get him to pipe down?
The answer is quite fun. Because we’re going to get Lefty to work against himself…
Don’t Fight. Label.
Ronald Siegel, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, writes this about the brain: “What we resist persists.” Arguing with Lefty just keeps him talking. You cannot “force” him to shut up.
So what’s the answer? Acknowledge Lefty. And, for a second, step away from focusing on the concrete and “label” what he is saying:
Lefty: “We keep meditating and we might be late for dinner. Better stop now.”
You: “Worrying.” (returns to focusing on the breath)
Lefty: “I wonder if we got any new emails…”
You: “Thinking.” (returns to focusing on the breath)
This uses Lefty against Lefty. When you use the left brain to put a label on its own concerns, it’s like writing something down on a to-do list. Now you can dismiss it because it’s been noted for later.
From a neuroscience perspective, it dampens Lefty’s yapping and frees you to return your attention to your breath.
Via The Upward Spiral:
…in one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.
In fact, labeling affects the brain so powerfully it works with other people too. Labeling emotions is one of the primary tools used by FBI hostage negotiators to get bad guys to calm down.
(To learn how meditation can make you 10% happier, click here.)
Okay, so you know how to meditate and how to overcome the biggest problem people face when doing it — Lefty’s protests. But how does meditation lead to mindfulness?
Meditation Skills + Life = Mindfulness
Daniel Siegel of UCLA’s School of Medicine says that when you practice meditation consistently it actually becomes a personality trait.
You gradually start to take that attention-focusing and Lefty-labeling and apply it during your day-to-day life.
From The Mindful Brain:
Mindful awareness over time may become a way of being or a trait of the individual, not just a practice initiating a temporary state of mind with certain approaches such as meditation, yoga, or centering prayer. We would see this movement from states to traits in the form of more long-term capabilities of the individual. From the research perspective, such a transition would be seen as a shift from being effortful and in awareness to effortless and at times perhaps not initiated with awareness.
But you can accelerate this process if you actively try to perform it. If you’re frustrated in traffic, you can focus your attention on the beautiful, sunny day outside.
When Lefty cries, “Why does this always happen to us!” you can label his statement as “frustrated.” That’ll cool down your amygdala and put your prefrontal cortex back in charge.
You can return your attention to the sunny day around you and let his complaints slide away as they always do — if you don’t turn them into a finger trap.
Lefty gets quieter and quieter. You focus more on the good things in the world around you.
And this is how you become mindful.
(To learn more about how to practice mindfulness from the top experts in the field, click here.)
Okay, newbie meditator, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and see how mindfulness can lead to the most powerful form of happiness…
Here’s how to meditate:
- Get comfortable. But not so comfortable you’re gonna fall asleep. This ain’t naptime.
- Focus on your breath. You can think “in” as your breath goes in and “out” as your breath goes out if it helps you focus.
- Label Lefty. When Lefty brings the circus to town in your head, use a word to label his chatter and dampen it.
- Return to the breath. Over and over. Consistency is more important than duration. Doing 2 minutes every day beats an hour once a month.
What makes us happier than almost anything else? The research is pretty clear: relationships.
But winning the war with Lefty is so internal, right? It’s all about you. (And him, I guess… But he is you… So it’s still about you.) Does that mean meditation and mindfulness are hopelessly selfish and self-absorbed?
Nope. What’s one of the biggest complaints we hear from those we love — especially in the age of smartphones? “You don’t pay enough attention to me.”
And here’s where that meditation-honed attention muscle pays off. You can give them the focus they deserve. When you don’t have to spend most of the day hearing that chatterbox in your head, you can truly listen to the people you care about.
Daniel Siegel explains that those attention skills can powerfully improve relationships with those you love by an increased ability to empathize.
From The Mindful Brain:
Our relationships with others are also improved perhaps because the ability to perceive the nonverbal emotional signals from others may be enhanced and our ability to sense the internal worlds of others may be augmented… In these ways we come to compassionately experience others’ feelings and empathize with them as we understand another person’s point of view.
Spend a little time focusing on your breath every day and you can replace Lefty’s voice with the voice of those you love.
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