Meditation

Silence is a great help to the seeker after truth. In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after truth, and the soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height. —Mahatma Ghandi

For a simple and practical guide to stillness, read here: http://zenhabits.net/find-stillness/

I have discovered that all of mans unhappiness derives from only one source, not being able to sit quietly in a room.– Blaise Pascal

For an erudite approach…

Techniques

Techniques of meditation can be grouped into two main categories according to their focus. In most techniques, one sits comfortably and silently, though techniques such as “walking meditation” break from the sitting posture but involve the same focusing techniques.

Concentrative meditation involves focus on a process such as breathing, repetition of a mantra, focus on a koan (a riddle-like question), or a visualization. One uses the focus as an anchor to bring one’s thoughts constantly back to the present.

The other category, mindfulness meditation, involves focus on the “here and now” with a “no effort” attitude. No thought, image, or sensation is considered an intrusion as the mind shifts freely from one perception to the next, but one avoids dwelling on, analyzing, or fantasizing about these. One acknowledges the perception and shifts awareness back to the present. From a simple perspective, this type of meditation can be thought of as simply practicing awareness of the present moment.

Purpose

Meditation is a discipline that helps one to make use of wisdom and insight. To embrace a truth wholeheartedly does not mean our actions will at once reflect the learned concept. We are creatures of habit. Our conditioned mental and physical responses, when we learn to recognize them as such, seem to be somewhat beyond our control.

A large part of the Zen perspective is a habit of meta-cognition, and meditation helps develop and refine a contemplative perspective about one’s thoughts and emotions. This helps one overcome conditioned responses, both mental and physical. For example, the Zen perspective of examining emotional responses helps one avoid acting from what psychologists refer to as affect as information, which is to interpret emotions as valid and important information about one’s experience, and then to react to a situation based on that emotional response.

Thus it enables one to live, as Plato might put it, the examined life. This doesn’t mean that one  sees emotion as a useless distraction. This doesn’t mean that a Zen practitioner values an intellectualized or prescribed response over a natural response. What it does mean is that a Zen practitioner will retain the natural responses that are harmonious with basic values within the Buddhist perspective, and having scrutinized his or her emotional and cognitive responses that are not harmonious with these values, will allow these to be acknowledged but not acted on.

Benefits

A study by Zeidana, Johnson, Diamond, David, and Goolkasian (2010) provides a detailed  overview of past studies on benefits of meditation as well as showing that some results for participants newly learning mindfulness techniques by means of a brief training format, are consistent with those that have been reported for adept meditators. This section and the next section on processes are a brief summary of their overview and findings.

People with extensive meditation training have shown improvements on cognitive performance and mood, attention, and visuospatial processes. People with 8 weeks of meditation training (mindfulness based stress reduction [MBSR] programs) have shown improvements in immune system functioning, stress, and emotional regulation.

People with 4 days, 20 minutes per day, of mindfulness meditation training also showed improvements in mood, sustained attention, and improvement on a range of cognitive tasks.

Therapeutic Mechanism

Neuroelectric and neuroimaging studies of meditation show changes in brain function, confirming what has been shown in improved mental task performance, yet the reasons for the improvement are not clearly understood. This section addresses the question of why the techniques would lead to the benefits listed in the previous section.

MBSR programs are based on teaching participants to react non-judgmentally to stressful events. In meditation practice in general, a non-judgemental attitude toward ones mental processes is encouraged. As participants cultivate these skills, “top-down control processes regulate affective appraisals that lead to a reduction in stress responses” (¶ 1). In other words, one might experience thoughts during meditation that are typically experienced as stressful or unpleasant, but these are not ruminated on and instead attention is deliberately shifted back to the intended focus, thus a physiological stress response such as muscle tension and increased heart rate would be avoided.

“Mindfulness training cultivates moment-to-moment awareness of the self and environment. To this extent, mindfulness training heightens meta-cognitive processing. Meta-cognition is the conscious awareness of cognitive control processes. Improvements in meta-cognition are related to the ability to restrict bottom-up processing of exogenously/endogenously driven, task-irrelevant information. Extensive training in mindfulness has been found to improve alerting and conflict monitoring….The ability to self-regulate emotions has been found to be a key component in enhancing cognition. It is possible that the calming effects of MM [mindfulness meditation] combined with the increased capacity to focus on the present improved cognitive performance after brief training….Research associated with the benefits of brief MM training is sparse, but available evidence suggests that the immediate effects MM are not only associated with improving mood, but also developing deeper cognitive processing skills, specifically reducing lapses of attention. Another explanation of why brief MM training improved cognition is associated with the ability to control the processing of self-referential thought. Some have provided evidence for overlapping networks between mindfulness, meta-awareness, executive functioning, and mind-wandering processes. Meta-awareness and executive functioning are independent but highly overlapping constructs. Mindfulness practice promotes a form of meta-cognitive insight, where MM practitioners learn to emotionally disengage from distracters (frustration, anxiety)”

Zeidana, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z. & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition,

19(2), 597-605. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014