Meditation—Not Just for Hippies Anymore (How New Science is Redefining an Ancient Practice)

Remember that classic scene from An Officer and a Gentleman where the
drill sergeant played by Louis Gossett, Jr. screams “Now drop and give
me thirty minutes of silent breathing!”

Okay, that didn’t happen. Not yet anyway.

I’m not talking about Richard Gere financing some digitally-altered
Buddhist version of the film. But don’t be surprised if new research
funded by the Department of Defense forces Hollywood to change one of
its most cherished movie sequences: the basic training montage. In the
future, expect to see soldiers not just marching and running through
obstacle courses, but also meditating.

According to a study in the January 2011 issue of Cognitive and
Behavioral Practice,  U.S. Marines given mindfulness meditation
training prior to deployment had lower levels of stress. The study
suggests that meditation might improve soldier readiness and serve as
early prevention against PTSD.

You can already hear two objections from rival camps in the culture
wars: “Has the military gone soft?” and “Has meditation sold out to
the Man?”

Both questions depict stereotypes of meditation, as either a feckless
act of navel-gazing, or a spiritual practice steeped in non-violence.
However, current scientific research, including over 1000 published
studies, paints a third portrait. The empirical evidence reveals
meditation to be a healing agent that improves the functionality of
brain systems. The practice is neither selfish nor self-transcending.
Instead, it is an exercise in consciousness-management that can be
employed for better results at any task.

Furthermore, because researchers have linked the effects of meditation
to brain function and structure, the source of meditation’s power is
physiological, not metaphysical. In the spirit of Occam’s Razor, if
meditation can be explained through science, there is no need to
credit spiritual intervention.

But if meditation is not a spiritual exercise, what is it? First, to
borrow a phrase from The Journal for the American Medical Association,
meditation is an “inner technology” that supports “optimal health.” In
2008, JAMA reviewed 52 exemplar studies and concluded that
“cultivating a more mindful way of being is associated with less
emotional distress, more positive states of mind, and better quality
of life,” in addition to improvements in “the brain, the autonomic
nervous system, stress hormones, the immune system, and health
behaviors, including eating, sleeping, and substance use.” In part,
meditation is a supplement from the natural store, but one that
actually works.

This meditation pill is no placebo either, at least according to
neuroimaging studies (i.e. “brain scans”) linking meditation to
positive changes in the brain. In a UCLA study from 2009, MRI data on
44 long-term meditators revealed “significantly larger gray matter
volumes” in areas of the brain “implicated in emotional regulation and
response control.”  The study concluded that this explains
“meditators’ singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive
emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.”
Other brain scan studies have documented beneficial changes to the
pre-frontal lobe, the immune system, and the Default Mode Network, a
brain function that can be responsible for distracting chatter in the
brains of patients suffering from depression and anxiety. These new
maps of the brain are hard evidence of meditation’s capacity to
refurbish the necessary structural support for a healthier brain.

The notion of meditation as a healing agent is echoed in psychological
literature as well, including a 2010 meta-analytic study in The
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology which reviewed available
research on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Program. The article concluded that “mindfulness-based therapy is a
promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems in
clinical populations.” In Buddhism, a main goal of meditation is
becoming one with a Buddha-nature that eludes the limited, personal
ego. But in the psychological literature, meditation is about
restoring a damaged ego. Instead of serving as a vehicle for
transcending the wheel of suffering, meditation fixes the wheel to run
more smoothly.

But meditation is not just for fixing the broken; it can also improve
the functioning of healthy brains, providing basic mental training,
perhaps making it a good fit for the military after all. By focusing
on broad-based skills (attention, emotional management, metacognition)
that underlie all human activity, meditation can make deep, positive
changes to the human brain and improve performance in a wide-range of
fields. (In other words, it is the
anti-No Child Left Behind.)

Renowned neuroscience researcher Richard Davidson has described
meditation as “process-specific learning,” the opposite of
content-based learning. His analysis undermines the depiction of
meditation as an act of indulgence, leisure, or relaxation. Instead,
meditation is exercise, self-maintenance, or an act of
consciousness-tuning. It is just as much a waste of time as running 30
minutes on a treadmill. Neither gets you anywhere in the short term,
but both might make you perform better in that afternoon meeting.

We don’t often think of meditation as contributing to real-world
performance. Perhaps because meditation is done with eyes closed, and
frequently on weekend retreats or in monasteries removed from the
world, we tend to associate it with escape from reality. But as MRI
data from a 2011 study in NeuroImage shows, meditation cuts down on
“mind-wander” and strengthens your brain’s Central Executive Network.
(How’s that for sounding practical?) The CEN lights up when we’re
focused on complex cognitive tasks, i.e. getting things done.

Far from engaging in escapism, a meditator closes his or her eyes to
stare down the distractions of the inner world and train them by
exercising attentional skills and discernment. These are skills that
can assist someone in solving equations, divvying up tasks to members
of a team, or working through difficult emotions in interpersonal
conflicts. Meditation is a proven method for clearing and organizing
your desk before starting your day.

Put crudely, meditation is not just for New Age hippies and
hermit-monks; it is for anyone interested in a better brain, whether
that brain is performing surgery, administering day care, or
negotiating a tense exchange at a military check point. And given the
growing body of scientific evidence in support of meditation, the path
to improvement need not begin or end at a monastery. If consciousness
emerges from the brain, we should look there first for explanations
about meditation. Any spiritual claims come second.

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