Download Chapter One of The Mindful Geek, or read it below.

 

Excerpted from The Mindful Geek, by Michael W. Taft

CHAPTER ONE

The Power of Meditation

 

You’ve seen the hype. From the cover of the New York Times magazine to a 60 Minutes episode starring Anderson Cooper, mindfulness meditation is touted as the latest panacea to humanity’s ills. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t some new hyperbolic article claiming that another scientific study proves that mindfulness meditation cures cancer, collapses quantum wave functions, or will thrust you into the ranks of the ultra-rich in just one year.

With such rabid hoopla focused on a buzzword—mindfulness!—you’d be excused for wondering if there was anything substantial behind all this aggressive publicity about a simple meditation technique. Can mindfulness meditation really deliver or is all this just some New Age marketing scam? Is there any there there?

In short, the answer is a resounding Yes, mindfulness meditation can deliver on many of the reasonable benefits you’ve heard about. As far as I know, it doesn’t cure cancer, make you rich, or collapse quantum states. But assuming that you put in the time and energy that the practice requires, it’s likely that you’ll get some of the advertised benefits, such as increased concentration, creativity, and productivity, reduced stress, improved mood, better relationships, and increased health and wellbeing.

How do I know? First, from my own experience. I started meditating over 30 years ago. As a teenager in Michigan, I suffered crippling anxiety attacks, and couldn’t find any help for my situation. Eventually, I started meditating, and that brought some relief right away. I had fewer anxiety attacks, and I could cope much better with the ones that I did have. They were shorter and less intense.

After that, I was hooked, and in the decades since then I have found that meditation has drastically improved my life. It’s still life, with all its ups and downs, but I’m much better at enjoying the ups and navigating the downs than I ever could have imagined.

Secondly, there’s the experience of people I know. For the past decade, I’ve been teaching meditation to hundreds of people in homes, in classes, at various retreat centers, and at companies like Google. Over the years with these students, I’ve witnessed similar results: if they put in the time, they experience many of the benefits of mindfulness meditation for themselves.

Thirdly, for thousands of years, people from different cultures on different continents with limited communication between each other all claimed that meditation practices changed their lives for the better. You don’t have to believe them, but it would be irresponsible to reject such claims out of hand—especially given that such similar ideas come from very different sources. Anecdotes aren’t evidence, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Finally, current brain science and psychology backs up many of these claims about meditation with some fairly robust findings. In the last decade in particular, the number of serious research studies involving mindfulness has skyrocketed. Part of the reason for this scientific interest is that so much of the research hits paydirt. That is, mindfulness meditation does what it says on the box often enough that scientists have become intrigued, and the funding for such research has increased dramatically.

So what can mindfulness meditation actually do for you? Even a cursory summary of such research would take up a whole book, but here is just the briefest glance at a few of the benefits that are provably real. With guidance and a committed practice, over time, mindfulness meditation has been shown to:

Improve Your Focus — Focus is a trainable skill, and meditation systematically trains you to concentrate. This increase in concentration ability doesn’t just happen when you’re meditating, but continues all day long as you go about your business. Mindfulness’s positive effect on focus has been demonstrated in this long-term study,[1] and this study,[2] and has even been shown to make a big difference in novice meditators after only ten days.[3]

Concentration is, in fact, one of the core skills of meditation, and there are dozens or hundreds more studies that support its role in improving concentration. An important early study[4] by neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin shows that meditation makes attentional resources much more flexible, which means you can concentrate more powerfully.

Reduce Your Stress — We’ve all heard that meditation can help you to relax and become less stressed out. It’s a proven way to trigger the body’s parasympathetic response,[5] which eases you into a less tense state. When your hands are too shaky to guide yet another cup of coffee to your lips without spilling it, meditation is just what you need.

Many of these studies are done in laboratory environments, but one fascinating study with human resources personnel in a high-stress, real-world environment showed that mindfulness meditation could even make very stressful situations easier to handle.[6] It lowers your cortisol levels[7]—the main hormone implicated in the body’s stress response. A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies found that mindfulness is a useful intervention for treating anxiety[8] and mood disorders. An even more recent study[9] (2014) showed that mindfulness was just as powerful as cognitive-behavioral therapy in treating anxiety and depression.

Enhance Your Empathy — Mindfulness meditation will help you connect to other people. One practice is called compassion meditation, in which you focus on feelings of love and empathy. Experiments show that over time this can dramatically boost your empathy[10] (sense of emotional connection) with others. Medical students under intense stress report higher levels of empathy[11] when they meditate.

Freedom from Automatic Reactions How long does it take you to recover from an upsetting event? Mindfulness can reduce that time measurably,[12] and get you back on track faster after emotional upheavals.[13] Recovery from emotional upsets is a key feature of resilience, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. It also makes you able to be less of a dick to people in general, because you won’t react so fast or so mechanically to the usual triggers, but will instead have some ability to think before you react.

Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase “cognitive flexibility,”[14] which means it allows you to see the world in a new way and behave differently than you have in the past. It helps you to respond to negative or stressful situations more skillfully. This boosts creativity and innovation, allowing you to have more “aha!” experiences,[15] as well as original thinking.[16] Using the attention strategy known as “open monitoring” particularly enhances creativity and originality. We’ll look at open monitoring in the chapter called “The Brain’s Screensaver.”

Boost Your Memory The number of facts you can hold in your head at once—what scientists call “working memory”—is a crucial aspect of effectiveness in learning, problem solving, and organization. A study of military personnel under stress showed that those who practiced meditation experienced an increase in working memory[17] as well as feeling better than those who didn’t meditate. Another study showed that it not only improves memory, but boosts test scores, too.[18] Even practicing mindfulness for as little as four days may improve memory and other cognitive skills.[19]

Make You Less Sensitive to Pain Mindfulness meditation changes your physical brain structure in many ways; one is that it may actually increase the thickness of your cortex,[20] and reduce your sensitivity to pain.[21]

Give You a Better BrainMindfulness trains the prefrontal lobe area of your brain (it may actually get bigger),[22] as well as enhancing other areas which give the benefits of an entire package of related functions[23] such as self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation. While research doesn’t prove definite causation, practicing meditation predicts above-average cortical thickness, and how long subjects have been practicing meditation is directly correlated with how much above average their cortex thickness is. The pain study listed above also demonstrates that mindfulness practice does increase gray matter density in the brain. It’s also shown to “slow, stall, or even reverse age-related neurodegeneration,”[24] meaning that it’s a guard against some of the most humiliating ravages of old age.[25]

The long list above represents just a few of the positive ways mindfulness meditation has been demonstrated to improve quality of life. There are even deeper and more powerful benefits that we will examine later. But just looking at this list, it’s clear that mindfulness meditation can really make a difference in how you feel each day, how effective you are in reaching your goals, how well you get along with other people, and more.

Not bad for a practice that involves simply paying attention to your own sensory experience. Although many of the studies listed involve people doing intensive practice many hours a day, there is compelling evidence that even practicing half an hour a day can make a big difference.

If you are a card-carrying geek, however, the upside of all these possible benefits may be strongly counterbalanced by the downside of having to deal with religion, spirituality, or other things you may consider nonsense. Mindfulness meditation is mainly associated with Buddhist religion, and for that reason can seem deeply suspect to skeptical, rational people.

I’m here to lay that worry to rest. In my experience, you can get many of the benefits of meditation without joining any religion, going to church, or believing in reincarnation or karma. By treating mindfulness as a scientifically-based, psychological technique, you can keep your atheistic or agnostic secular skepticism and still maintain a powerful, regular, and deeply effective meditation practice.

Meditation is really a technology. And like any good technology, if you use it correctly, it will do the job reliably whether you believe in it or not. At its heart, meditation is a technology for hacking the human wetware in order to improve your life. And this book is a manual for how to make the most of that technology for yourself. Let’s look more deeply now at what meditation actually is.

 

 

[1] MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., & King, B. G. (2010, June 6). Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/05/11/0956797610371339.abstract

For the record, this study involves individuals practicing five hours a day for three months—a very intense level of commitment. However, there is a lot of research that shows similar if lesser effects for a smaller time commitment.

[2] Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009, March 18). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19181542

[3] Again, this study involves intensive meditation practice:
Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009, March 18). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19181542

[4] Slagter, H. A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Francis, A. D., Nieuwenhuis, S., Davis, J. M., & Davidson, R. J. (2007, May 8). PLOS Biology: Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050138

[5] Paulus, H. E., Williams HJ., M. J., Ward, J. R., & Williams, H. J. (1990, April). Analysis of improvement in individual rheumatoid arthritis patients treated with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, based on the findings in pa… – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2109613

[6] The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment. (n.d.). Graphics Interface Conference, 45-52. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/gi-12.02.pdf

[7] This is a long-term study on people doing an intensive meditation retreat. We’ll look at the ample evidence of mindfulness’s effect on acute stressors in the Stress Chapter.

Fell, A. (2013, March 27). Mindfulness from meditation associated with lower stress hormone :: UC Davis News & Information. Retrieved from http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=10538

[8] Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010, April). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/

[9] Sundquist, J., Lilja, A., Palmér, K., Ashfaque A. Memon, A. A., Wang, X., Johansson, L. M., & Sundquist, K. (2014, November). Mindfulness group therapy in primary care patients with depression, anxiety and stress and adjustment disorders: randomised controlled trial | The British Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/early/2014/11/11/bjp.bp.114.150243.abstract?sid=2ca25130-f938-4bf1-835f-4aeb534be010

[10] Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008, March 26). PLOS ONE: Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001897

[11] Davis, D. M. (2012, August). What are the benefits of mindfulness. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx

[12] Ortner, C. N., Kilner, S. J., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Mo44tivation and Emotion, 271-283. doi:10.1007/s11031-007-9076-7

[13] This study particularly refers to “compassion meditation,” which we’ll look at later in the book under the name Focus on Positive.

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008, March 26). PLOS ONE: Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

[14] Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009, March). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810008001967

[15] Ostafin, B. D., & Kassman, K. T. (2012, July 21). Stepping out of history: mindfulness improves insight problem solving. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22483682

[16] Colzato,, L. S., Ozturk,, A., & Hommel, B. (2012, April 18). Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3328799/

[17] Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the Protective Effects of Mindfulness Training on Working Memory Capacity and Affective Experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54-64. doi:10.1037/a0018438

[18] Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., & Baird, B. (2013, March 26). Brief Mindfulness Training May Boost Test Scores, Working Memory. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/brief-mindfulness-training-may-boost-test-scores-working-memory.html

[19] Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 1(1), 1-9. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014

[20] Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., & McGarvey, M. (2005, November 28). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/

[21] Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman,, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., & McGarvey, M. (2005, November 28). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20141301

[22] Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., & McGarvey, M. (2005, November 28). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/

[23] Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J. C., Vangel,, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011, January 30). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/?_escaped_fragment_=po=1.72414

[24] Gard, T., Hölzel, B. K., & Sara W. Lazar, S. W. (2014, January 13). The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review – Gard – 2014 – Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences – Wiley Online Library. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12348/abstract

[25] Newberg, A. B., Serruya, M., Wintering, N., Moss, A. S., Reibel, D., & Monti, D. A. (2013, August 7). Meditation and neurodegenerative diseases – Newberg – 2013 – Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences – Wiley Online Library. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12187/abstract