Mindfulness meditation has been known to provide some wonderful health benefits by the people who practice meditation regularly. Mindfulness meditation is easier, and probably somewhat different, than you initially think. As you read through this article, try to create an absolute awareness of your body and the world around it.
Move each of your toes, flex your foot, feel the pressure you exert on your shoes and on the Earth, the weight of each foot as it touches the ground. Focus entirely on what it feels like, in every sense, to be alive right now.
Researchers have been discovering some interesting effects this type of meditation has on people who practice it regularly. The best part? It only takes a few hours of reflection each week for one to start seeing results.
Here are few things that mindful meditators will experience after embracing their practice:
Lack of Fear
One part of the human brain that gets changed the most is our amygdala, which controls the “fight or flight” system (fear and emotion). After an eight-week course practicing mindfulness, subjects showed a decrease in size of the amygdala, and an increase in the thickness of the pre-frontal cortex, the region of the brain linked to awareness, concentration, and decision-making.
“Functional connectivity” between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex (or, how often they activate together) changes as well. The brain’s connections to the amygdala get weaker as connections to areas of attention and concentration grow stronger.
Which basically means that our responses to stress (fear) become less and less as the brain’s ties to the amygdala grow weaker.
Feeling Less Pain
Studying long time mindful meditators has revealed that many of them feel significantly less pain when compared to non-meditators. Oddly enough, however, scanning their brains found that the region of the brain tied to pain actually showed a little bit more activity than the non-meditators.
“It doesn’t fit any of the classic models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas,” says Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.
“It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it – by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” says Grant. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”
So, it’s not that meditators do not feel pain, they do, they simply choose to ignore any thought processes that actually make their experience of pain exist.
One of the coolest parts of this study is that even though expert meditators were the subjects being tested, they did not have to be in a meditative state to receive these brain-altering benefits. Rather, their meditation had literally changed their perception, and the functioning of their brain.
“We asked them specifically not to meditate,” says Grant. “There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different.”
Numerous studies on long time meditators (those with around 40,000 hours of meditation completed), have found that a meditator’s resting brain state looks almost identical to that of a normal person’s brain when they are engaged in a meditative practice. Which suggests that after a certain time, a meditative brain state eventually becomes the default setting.
“I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” says Adrienne Taren, a University of Pittsburgh researcher. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”
As more and more research continues to discover the benefits of mindfulness, who knows? Maybe we’ll see a shift in our culture as more people start to make mindfulness meditation a regular part of their day, like personal hygiene and basic fitness.