Meditations On Meditation
It's nearly impossible for me to get through a day providing therapy without mentioning meditation. I hear an individual's negative self-talk on a loop, causing them great pain, or a couple's conflict cycle they desperately want to break, but it just won't budge. I see the center of their brains running the show, and I know centering them in their bodies is the place to go. I've operated by the notion that if I'm going to suggest it, I better try it. So I meditate most mornings and it helps exactly as the science says, which I'll get into. Knowledge, however, is often not enough for people to change patterns; most of us need the deeper, personal meaning-making that develops from experiencing. Here I'll talk about just a smidge of the hard science supporting meditation, and how we can test that knowledge through experience.
There's an overwhelming amount of great research on meditation, and in sifting through it you'll quickly realize how the discovery of the brain's default mode network (DMN) was a game changer for understanding meditation. In essence, meditation is learning to focus your attention. The DMN is the area of the brain between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system that is more active when we're not attentively focusing. Studying this area of the brain revealed disruptions in the DMN of people with Alzheimer's disease and autism spectrum disorder, further linking the DMN to empathy or how we consider others, understanding and remembering narratives in the past, and thinking about the future. These findings, among others, established the DMN as the neurological home of what we call the "self" - or the book we're always writing about ourselves. Without it we're lost. Simultaneously, the words we choose really matter.
"The Science of Meditation", an article by Hugh Delehanty, explains
...when we’re not focused on a specific mental task, the brain’s default mode network... becomes highly active, weaving together thoughts, emotions, hopes, and dreams into a cohesive self-narrative. Meditation disrupts that process, training us to notice when our mind wanders and bring it back into focus. By doing that repeatedly, researchers speculate, we strengthen the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the default mode, and that quiets down the self-obsessed mind.
In other words, when we meditate the prefrontal cortex, our logic and reasoning center, is able to partner with the DMN, allowing the self-narrative to update rather than be stuck in old scripts. This "higher mindedness" can analyze and check the veracity of statements like "I'm not loveable". Through regular, intentional practice, new narratives (i.e. "I'm worthy of love") have the opportunity to take hold and move one toward a more compassionate self-narrative.
I often talk with clients about meditation being a "baseline practice", like brushing your teeth, something done to maintain an equilibrium with health so when pain happens your attention finds empathy, and the capacity to care for yourself. This is very similar to a couple's commitment to "Rituals of Connection" - what the Gottman's discuss as small, daily interactions like sharing appreciations, a longer hug or kiss, that foster a "felt sense" of connection. Meditation is the individual's Ritual of Connection to themselves. Nurturing a kind connection to yourself cannot be underscored enough in it's impact on diminishing thought patterns that contribute to anxiety and depression, and in turn, enhancing the quality of your relationships.
Some of us have a natural awareness of a "felt sense" - a term coined by Eugene Gendlin in his book "Focusing" to describe mindfulness before that term was everywhere. There's also a concept called "interoception", a more scientific term for "felt sense". It's an internal body sense of one's needs. Without it, it is difficult to honor our needs and regulate our emotions. If you don't recognize you're hungry or cold, how do you address finding comfort? If you don't have awareness of your breath, pulse or heart beat, how do you know your becoming dysregulated with anxiety, anger or fear. You need a felt sense, mindfulness, interoception, whatever you want to call it, to grow self awareness and empathy, all of which is reinforced through meditation.
Now it's your time to get a felt sense of what I'm talking about. Consider an experiment with meditation. I've personally tested the free app Smiling Mind and really like it. If you have 5-10 minutes you can download it, then pick and choose from many brief, guided meditations. If you have 15-25 minutes, I highly recommend Kristin Neff's Guided Self-Compassion Meditations. Kristin Neff wrote the book "Self-Compassion" based of her research and experiences with meditation and it's an excellent, fun read filled with insight building questions and meditative exercises. Give it a try.
If you took a moment to meditate, what did you notice? How do you feel now in comparison to how you felt before? Try to identify one difference even if it's miniscule. Science is finding there is benefit to a meditation practice that's as brief as 5-10 minutes a day. As busy as most of us are, 5-minutes is something you may be able to find in your parked car if you're early to an appointment. Or it may be possible to develop a Ritual of Connection using meditation with your kids at the dinner table, or with a partner before bed. I personally like to get up early for my 10-20 minute practice, sitting in a quiet space as the morning light is starting to fill the room and start my day putting my DMN in check. Where do you see yourself practicing?