Does meditation work?
Is it possible to calm your thoughts and clear your mind? Writer Patricia Pearson finds out
I think too much. Everyone says so. A boyfriend once broke up with me because, he said literally, ‘You think too much.’
I don’t actually know what it means to think too much, since I have never been anyone else. Do other people have sensations of wind, or pictures of meadows floating around in their brains?
Or is it just that they think, for instance, I’m going to make lasagna for dinner, and then: boom’let the thought go, and never revisit the subject until it’s time to make dinner, whereas I change my mind five times about dinner’and everything else?
What I do know is that the times I’ve been in a yoga class or a hypnotist’s chair and the instructor says, ‘Relax your mind,’ I have no ability to do that whatsoever. My mind goes bounding off like an unleashed border collie to chase every notion, smell and sound in the room until I’m finally allowed to get up and grab my coat.
This is why I have tended to avoid the practice of meditation like the plague. I know it comes highly recommended as a technique for reducing stress, anxiety and pain. But the only way you could get me to concentrate solely on my breath for a whole 30 minutes is if you sedated me first with narcotics.
Also, how would I sit? Experienced meditators say sitting is an important part of the practice. But most middle-aged moms can’t sit cross-legged on the ground like the Buddha with their ankles atop their knees. Or if they did, they wouldn’t be able to unpretzel themselves and would have to be carted out sideways in a wheelbarrow to the chiropractor’s office. Instead, as a calming technique I generally prefer naps, or what I like to call ‘beditation.’
Nevertheless, I recently decided to give meditation a shot after speaking with my friend Jeff, who has been diagnosed with ADD. This is not a man who can concentrate very well. The fact that he found a mindfulness meditation practice that works for him intrigued me. Now that he meditates for half an hour every morning, he has indeed grown visibly calmer.
Jeff, a science journalist, began studying his particular technique, called vipassana meditation, with a practitioner named Shinzen Young, who has a doctorate in Buddhist studies from the University of Wisconsin. Neuroscientists at that university have been conducting research on Tibetan monks’ brains for the past decade.
Using MRI scans, the researchers compare the brains of novice meditators with those of monks who are highly experienced in this practice. What they have found is a striking example of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to rewire itself. During meditation, trained monks show a dramatic increase in neuronal activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which neuroscientist Richard Davidson says points to enhanced positive emotions, such as happiness and calm.
There are, however, many different ways to approach meditation, which I hadn’t realized before. Every Thursday night, Jeff has been teaching a small group of curious friends to use the vipassana techniques to achieve two goals: clarity and equanimity. These two concepts are important if you want to get your head around the process.
The purpose here is not to simply concentrate on one word (like ohm) or one action, like breathing, and then epically fail to stay focused. The purpose is to engage in a state of highly concentrated self-awareness, or what Shinzen Young calls ‘systematic observation of the sense gates.’ Notice your breath, or your thoughts, or the emotions tangled up in your body, and as if you were an observer, step back from them a bit and achieve ‘equanimity.’ So, you’re not trying to fizz yourself down to one star of thought; you’re trying to become a calm witness to your inner being.
‘Mindfulness practice trains your nervous system to know itself better and interfere with itself less,’ Young has written. Self-knowing is the clarity piece, and self-detachment is the equanimity piece. In other words, ‘equanimity can be thought of as an attitude of gentle matter-of-factness with regard to your sensory experience.’
Here is an example. The other day I had to be in one of those 4,000-hour lineups at the department of motor vehicles. My licence had been suspended because the cheque I thought I’d mailed wound up underneath the seat of my car. So now I had to queue in order to pay the fine, plus the suspended licence fine, plus a licence reinstatement fee.
I sat there for one hour, on a hard plastic chair, unable to leave or entertain myself because they were calling out numbers so randomly you never knew when yours would come up.
I began to succumb to equal measures of rage and boredom, but Jeff had explained clarity and equanimity to me. So I closed my eyes and scanned my body to see where the fury was manifesting. (It was in my throat and in my chest.) This is called a ‘Feel In’ meditation, where the locus of your self-awareness is your physical expression of emotion. Rather than let physical sensations propel my brain into a wave of irritable thoughts, I was supposed to simply note the sensations, then let them go.
Actually, I wasn’t able to, because this business of achieving clarity and equanimity takes practice. I remained pretty furious and bored, but in taking time to note the sensations, I was one step closer to detachment.
Would I ever be able to attain a chill attitude through meditation? I decided to take five two-hour classes with Jeff to learn five precise techniques. I’ll keep you posted with Part 2 in the next issue of Best Health.
This article was originally titled "Trying meditation, Part 1" in the September 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!