WEEK ONE: HOW MEDITATION WORKS ON YOUR BRAIN
Welcome to week one of Mala Meditation: Going Deeper! If you've been practicing for a while, you may have had an array of different experiences from joyful to frustrating to feeling stuck or motivated. Everything we experience and feel is part of being human. Being open and aware to these experiences without judging or running away from them is our meditation practice in action.
Whatever is going on in your life will show up in your practice. When we come to sit, we don't just turn off all of the thoughts and stresses of our daily lives. In fact, sometimes those stresses and emotions can feel more intense when we stop moving and sit still. This is because we are no longer trying to run away or change what is going on in our lives but rather we are choosing to turn around and face it. To say, "I see you, I know you are there." But please, don't let this get you down. In fact, this is where it gets exciting! This is where we get to shift our old habitual ways of playing out our stories and reacting to the same conditions just on a different day. This is where, as the ancient sages and wise teachers say, TRANSFORMATION happens.
For most of us, this does not just happen over night or over our first 100 sits. Our mind is so clever and there will always be something for us to do to take us away from being present with what we are experiencing in the moment. That's why we have practices such as mindfulness, breath techniques, and deep relaxations. All of these practices are ways to help us retain our focus for longer periods of time, release excess tensions in the body, and find the compassion and empathy part of our heart minds.
The thing to remember about a practice like meditation is that it is an experiential process, and to better understand your experiences you must commit yourself to being consistent. The work of Rebecca Gladding, M.D. provides a very clear and simple way of understanding how the brain works and how meditation impacts the brain, which is such an interesting part of going deeper in a meditation practice.
Areas of the Brain to be Familiar With:
Lateral pre-frontal cortex: This area of the brain is seen as the logical and rational part of the brain. It is where we will find a balanced perspective and is involved in modulating emotional responses, overriding automatic behaviors/habits, and decreases the brain’s tendency to take things personally.
Medial pre-frontal cortex: This is often referred to as the “Me” center of the brain because it references all experiences you have back to your perspective on them. This can include planning thoughts, daydream thoughts, reflections on yourself and social interactions with others, as well as presumptions of another’s state of mind or feelings of empathy towards others.
Amygdala: The amygdala is the first responder in the brain, affiliated with the fight or flight response and is often referred to as the “fear center.”
Research has concluded that there is a strong connection between the medial pre-frontal cortex (the “Me” center) to the Amygdala (the body-sensing, fear center). There is a weak connection of the lateral prefrontal cortex (where we can assess a situation) to the “Me” center.
When we feel strong sensations or pain we immediately go to the worry part of our brains (where we take things too personally) and wonder if more harm is to come. When we meditate, that link between our assessment center (lateral pre-frontal cortex) and “Me” center (medial pre-frontal cortex) begins to strengthen. This allows more “space and time” for the balanced perspective to influence our responses and behaviors.
Another thing that begins to happen with consistent meditation is that the link between the “Me” center and fear center begins to break down, removing the assumption that there is something inherently “wrong” with us when we feel fear or pain.
In mindfulness meditation studies, it has been reported through imaging that the Amygdala (fear center) actually shrinks in size!
In the resource section of this site there is a link to a very interesting article about the Vagus Nerve. What happens in Vagus goes straight to your brain! Or more accurately, whatever state your organs are in is being sent back to the brain through the Vagus Nerve. It's the gut brain or that "gut reaction" we feel. This also means that the Vagus Nerve is connected to the Parasympathetic Nervous System - the rest and digest state. Like any good relationship, the organs and the brain rely on the Vagus Nerve to keep the line of communication open and move in both directions, so when your brain is feeling stressed it can send a message to the organs to slow down. Though the article goes on to state how this can backfire on you, because it's sensing life threatening danger and you may in turn psych yourself out!
WEEK 1 AUDIO PRACTICE: MINDFULNESS