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Buddhism in the News


Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Science of Meditation.

Emory, Georgia (USA) -- For thousands of years, Buddhist meditators have claimed that the simple act of sitting down and following their breath while letting go of intrusive thoughts can free one from the entanglements of neurotic suffering. Now, scientists are using cutting-edge scanning technology to watch the meditating mind at work. They are finding that regular meditation has a measurable effect on a variety of brain structures related to attention — an example of what is known as neuroplasticity, where the brain physically changes in response to an intentional exercise. The same researchers reported last year that longtime meditators don't lose gray matter in their brains with age the way most people do, suggesting that meditation may have a neuro-protective effect.

A rash of other studies in recent years meanwhile have found, for example, that practitioners of insight meditation have noticeably thicker tissue in the prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for attention and control), and that experienced Tibetan monks practicing compassion meditation generate unusually strong and coherent gamma waves in their brains.

James: I think this is partly why so many Buddhist monks live so long. Thich Nhat Hanh for example is in his 80's but could easily pass for 60. He'll be 82 on the 11th of this month. I wrote a few posts back on how meditation and mantra meditation have helped me cope with my schizoaffective disorder. I spoke in that post solely on depersonalization but I wanted to do this post because of the results of the study that show improved attention and control.

Well It got my attention because I am very interested in the relation between science and Buddhism as many of you know and because I have as apart of my mental condition attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.) When a person has A.D.D. it means that they can't "screen out" or filter background "noise" and commotion like most people are able to do. So while it appears as though we are just not "listening" sometimes to someone talking to us or that we can't concentrate upon something it's because we are having to deal with many things at once, which makes it very difficult to focus on one thing. I kind of liken it to having to read a science or math text book to prepare for an exam while the t.v. is loudly playing, while someone is trying to talk to you and while your alarm clock is beeping. Is it any wonder then that we don't retain conversation details as well as folks who don't have A.D.D.?

However, when I meditate I find it much easier to deal with external stimuli. I think part of it is being able to close my eyes to eliminate all the visual distractions that often distract me as I'm very sensitive to colors and images. So with my eyes shut it's somewhat similar to putting a towel over a bird that escaped its cage. It panics and acts frantic flying around bumping into things and not knowing where it is but once you can throw a towel around them and cut off their vision they relax and calm down to where you can help them.

So with my eyes shut I am better able to concentrate upon my breathing and deal with the sounds from the daily routine and traffic of a busy neighborhood. Instead of trying to shut them out I let them pass through my ears and register in my mind. I focus on each sound and hold it in my mind as I breath in and then I let it fade away as I breath out. In this way I am able to deal with each sound mostly one at a time. Not unlike serving people one at a time in a line rather than all at once.

I contemplate the sound and recognize it so that my subconscious knows that I’m paying attention to it and I contemplate on what each sound means and then symbolically I kindly escorting the noise out of my mind with the exhale and I repeat the process as needed. I also find it helpful to thank my sub consciousness for keeping me informed but remind it that it doesn’t have to work so hard and that it can take a break. It seems to work. It seems like it backs off on pushing the noise over and over and louder and louder, which is exactly what I find happens when I try to ignore it.

Then I’ve noticed that once I emerge from meditation that my mind is sharper, better able to concentrate without interference and better able to hold my attention a good period of time later. After meditation it also helps me feel more patient and less overwhelmed with stimuli because I am continuing that thought processing used while meditating. Of course it never lasts all day but the more I practice the longer I can go without too much interference and stress from all the stimuli. It is much like learning a language in a way, the more you practice the more your mind rewires itself. And so no wonder the great teachers all refer to meditation as practice. Of course I'd have a hard time even getting on the meditation seat without medication but it works well with meditation. So I can attest to you that indeed this scientific study is spot on.

~Peace to all beings~

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Dhamma81 said...

A friend of mine saw a picture of Thich Nhat Hanh and couldn't believe how young he looked for his age. You are correct in that there must be something about it that slows down the aging process.

I remeember Bill Clinton after his first four years in office and how gray and old he looked. Perhaps he was dying his hair during the campaign or perhaps he was not meditating and thus aged quickly due to the stress of holding office.

Ajahn Maha Boowa is in his mid 90's and is still eating once a day out of one bowl as is customary in the more austere forest monasteries. He also still teaches as far as I know. Could his practice have given his body less stress so he hasn't aged the way others do? This is interesting to think about.

As for Thich Nhat Hanh, he must be doing something right to look as good as he does at that age. Be well now.

HealingMindN said...

I believe the experts in psychoneuroimmunology would want to try and get you away from drugs. That's what I understand from their mindfulness meditation programs.

One way you might try to completely get you off the drugs, so you can maintain self control towards meditation are emotional freedom techniques, a form of energy psychology.

Granted, your ADD is more likely the result of a chemical imbalance rather than an emotional problem, but the EFT method of accessing higher gauge symmetry of the energy meridians helps you zoom in that imbalance, then create that necessary equilibrium, so you can meditate without the neuroleptics.

Drugs shut us off from deeper meditation and a sense of well being anyway, so why not try EFT?

They call him James Ure said...


There are so many health benefits to meditation indeed and to Buddhist teachings in general. I also like that there are Buddhist Hospice centers and clinics opening up now in the west.

Healing Mind:

Well, I don't have A.D.D. alone, it's just one of a larger diagnosis, which is Schizoaffective disorder. It is Bipolar disorder (for me Bipolar disorder 1) and some symptoms of Schizophrenia.

For me it is a severe chemical imbalance and I need the medications to fight the imbalances in my brain. These medications do a good job of giving me a sense of well-being.

Yes, drugs aren't the only answer but for many they are essential to survival. My meditation skills are absolutely helpful and fit well with my regiment. Buddhism is so well suited for psychological issues.

I believe though that it is a bit dangerous to suggest alternative therapies when someone is dealing with major psychological issues.

Dhamma81 said...

If there was a Buddhist hospice around here I may wish to do some volunteer work or something. that sounds awesome. Buddhists who are dying in the West need a support network that they probably don't always get at traditional hospitals. Be well now.

Riverwolf said...

I've become a big believer in the benefits of meditation as well as yoga. For example, there's lots of stress in my life at the moment. Years ago, I wouldn't have been able to handle it without some kind of anti-anxiety medication. I can't say exactly what makes a difference, but it works. Maybe it's just that I have a different worldview now--one that says, essentially, things will be what they are rather than worrying about trying to achieve some kind of perfect life. Breaking down those illusions....

Kyle said...

James, I'm curious. Have you tried different types of meditation and see any difference? ie Vipassana, Samatha, Mantra's, ZaZen etc

Anonymous said...

I enjoy the irony of the picture. The idea of collecting quantitative data by creating a "tangle" of connections attached to the head. This tangle is supposed sense the mind "untangling" through meditation. It never ceases to amaze me, that we as humans need NUMBERS and PROOF to PROVE that meditation is effective.

Anonymous said...


They call him James Ure said...


Yeah the hospice thing is wonderful. It would be nice to be in an environment while dying where you can meditate with other patients and feed off each other's energy and strength.


Same here. I use to be so much angrier than I am now and I credit that to meditation. Of course medication has been necessary for me with the severe mental illness. But meditation is a life saver. I like how it is about connecting the body and spirit, which is hard for medicine to achieve.


It is a strange picture indeed. For me I just think it is cool to see science prove religious concepts. It's like a second source and it helps some people who are only into science realize that there are indeed some benefits to spirituality since science is their language.

It's about speaking the language that helps certain people understand.

It's difficult to communicate an idea to others if they don't speak the same language. So showing it to them via their own language is often the best way to communicate.

They call him James Ure said...


I have tried different styles. I have done visualization meditation, which is common to Tibetan Buddhism and mantra meditation as well. I have found them both beneficial as zazen but in different way.

So I think it's wonderful that there are so many ways to meditate. Some appeal to others and some don't but there is one out there for everyone. We just have to find it. It's apart of this great journey.

williams said...

Everyday people are reporting their wonderful experiences on health benefits of Yoga, the transformation of being, taking you beyond the here and now. In one wonderful session of Yoga, people get to practice a number of things, some Yoga poses (asanas) breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation and chanting. In Yoga you get to learn basic terms like Mudras, Bandhas and Chakras. Best of all, Yoga is fun and relaxing while, at the same time, being delectably challenging to beginners.Derived from the Sanskrit root “Yujir Yogey” meaning to unite, to yoke, to join, to put together, Yoga is not about mind over body. On the other hand, Yoga is about developing harmony between them. In Yoga, you use your mind to perceive (diagnose) and guide (heal) your body. Never control, let alone force it!

john said...

Yoga is a way of life, a conscious act, not a set or series of learning principles. The dexterity, grace, and poise you cultivate, as a matter of course, is the natural outcome of regular practice. You require no major effort. In fact trying hard will turn your practices into a humdrum, painful, even injurious routine and will eventually slow down your progress. Subsequently, and interestingly, the therapeutic effect of Yoga is the direct result of involving the mind totally in inspiring (breathing) the body to awaken. Yoga is probably the only form of physical activity that massages each and every one of the body’s glands and organs. This includes the prostate, a gland that seldom, if ever, gets externally stimulated in one’s whole life.

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