Mental Health, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology

On Meditation…

Upon reading the title of this article, you may be imagining a serene and tranquil environment where calm-appearing people clad in white apparel are seated with their legs crossed and backs straight on a mat, while gently breathing in and then out in synchrony. This is also exactly what may come into your minds every other time you hear the word ‘meditation’ and you are partly correct – this is one form of it, not really the sole definition. But that’s just half the story.

The term itself is probably one of the few positive sounding words out there in our everyday lingo. When people tell you that they meditate, you may automatically assume that they may be doing something constructive and healthy. To be fair, that is what it actually is, most of the time for many people – meditation is a positive thing to do.

But what concerns me is the apparent skewed understanding of this mental exercise, tipping mostly towards the narrative set by the rapidly growing wellness industry. And seeing how things work in the global economy, such a skew is oftentimes an expected affair. We often assume that the practice of meditation is something extra-corporeal and so we tend to see it through this presupposed net of airy mysticism. Now I’m not trying to belittle people’s perception of this art form through this blog, as I’m fully aware that attaching such mystic themes may sometimes be helpful to the some people who want that. What I’m trying to reveal is a well-known yet widely understated fact – meditation is a purely down-to-earth affair and there’s nothing magical about it. But this also doesn’t mean that we’ve fully understood it’s neurological significance and workings.

Subjective perceptions apart, let’s come to the interesting part. First and foremost, let’s talk about what exactly meditation means, regardless of the various forms. What does it mean to meditate? What are the common grounds between the various choices -contemporary or ancient?

Above all, one thing is fairly certain and is agreed upon by people from all sectors concerned: meditation is about attaining deep focus and psychological equilibrium. We do not know how exactly this is achieved, but evidence is mounting that it has mostly to do with our biological brains. It’s hypothesized that since every form of meditation somewhat deals with focusing on the fewest possible things for the longest possible time, and on diverting our conscious awareness to reflect upon our thoughts, personalities and behaviors – it may help strengthen our ability to better understand ourselves and thus others. What I assume on a personal level, being fully aware that I may be mistaken, is that training to meditate may actually help us train this area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. Perhaps the mechanism could be explained by more neural connections being formed in this region, or maybe by the strengthening of existing ones (or maybe even both). I’m not throwing out airy assumptions, just making some educated speculation based on the basics of neuroscience. But people who know better than me are conducting research into this and it may be better to look them up instead for more information.

Making at least this much clear, I’d like to move on to what the various forms of meditation can be. We usually assume that meditations have mostly to do with ancient eastern philosophies such as Buddhism or Hinduism, owing to their popularity. But as I’ve said before, this is a human practice (or should I say art form) and much like how human nature is universal, meditation is too. To put this into perspective for instance, we can’t rightly say that the art form of painting is a western construct can we? So the same argument applies for meditation.

History has documented many instances of human cultures that have come up with their own forms of meditation. From Epicurean subsistence communes in antiquity Greece and Vipasana or Yoga in ancient India, to Christian Monasteries of medieval Europe and Sufi dance schools during the Mughal era. These are all forms of meditation established by different human cultures, independently or under influence.

But what many of us may not grasp is the fact that it doesn’t always have to be limited to a certain ancient discipline or spiritual schools of thought. Any hobby of your liking that you pursue solely for your own pleasure can prove to be an equally effective form of meditation. Painting, composing music, playing musical instruments, writing stories, trekking or hiking, sports, photography, exercise, dance or martial art, you name it. These being the intuitive ones, other less intuitive and unconventional forms of meditations could be even found in computer programming, digital art, video gaming, or for some, maybe even You-tubing. Any act that involves deep focus and is enjoyable especially for ourselves in one way or the other could be said to be a form of meditation. And I assume even in this direction, my earlier thesis – of meditative actions strengthening our prefrontal cortex and thus helping us focus more efficiently – stands. Of course, the common sense notion of moderation being key will still apply.

It will be interesting to see what actual science will tell us in the coming years, since research into meditative practices such as basic mindfulness is currently ongoing. Where I do have some doubts about them, they may lie in the fact of such practices having mostly subjective outcomes through the individuals being tested – which makes it very hard for any known scientific method to empirically document the effects. But as newer brain imaging and electroencephalographic modalities are being developed as I write, it may only be a matter of time before we start uncovering the enigma associated with meditative practices and their widely stated benefits on our brains. The only thing to look out for then, I assume, would be for people’s range of acceptance of the hard facts.

Featured Image: JJ Studios Designer Abstract Painting