Basic Health Habit No.10: Meditation

The mind is everything. What you think you become.

Your unconscious mind processes all of the information you receive, drives 95% of your beliefs and behaviours, and selects what you consciously recognize, react to, and process. Traditionally, meditation unites the conscious, subconscious, and the unconscious; in reality they are not divided, and makes the unconscious, knowable.
Meditation is not so much a particular delimited experience, but is rather a way of seeing through experience, always eluding any attempt to pin it down conceptually. Therefore, no attempt to discuss meditation psychologically could ever be a substitute for the personal understanding of meditation derived from actually practicing it.  
John Welwood, Meditation and The Unconscious, A New Perspective
Beyond renewing one's powers of concentration, meditation can  train attention - this has been observed repeatedly in studies on meditation. 

Older, long-time meditators outperform their peers and younger test participants on tests of mental acuity. Meditation appears to increase the volume and density of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is absolutely crucial for memory; it thickens regions of the frontal cortex that we rely on to rein in our emotions; and it thwarts the typical wilting of brain areas responsible for sustaining attention as we get older.  

Over time, expert meditators may also develop a more intricately wrinkled cortex - the brain’s outer layer, which is necessary for many of our most sophisticated mental abilities, like abstract thought and introspection.

Meditation is a beneficial strategy to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression.

Studies indicate that meditating daily is ultimately more important than the total hours of meditation, benefits increase with practice, and persist beyond the time-period of active practice.

Meditation Benefits:
  • Anti-Viral: Meditation has been shown to have preventive effects on incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory infection (ARI) illness.
  • Anti-Inflammatory: Mindfulness meditation (the most studied type of meditation) training, functionally couples the Default Mode Network (DMN) with a region known to be important in top-down executive control, in resting state (rs), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), which, in turn, is associated with lasting improvements (lower blood levels) in interleukin-6 (IL-6), a biomarker of inflammatory disease.
  • Chronic Stress Relief: Relieves the symptoms of many mental (stress, anxiety, depression, addictions, psychosis, eating disorders) and physical disorders (pain, inflammation). Decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes (RIPK2 and COX2) and histones is associated with a faster cortisol recovery to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST).
  • Relief From Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Pain, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Recovery: A medical review of 47 randomized clinical trials with active controls for placebo effects showed evidence of moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress, including anxiety, depression, pain, and the customary accompanying loss of attention; comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant, but without the associated toxicities. Approaching emotions in an adaptive way relates to mindful emotion regulation, which aims to decrease avoidance or suppression of emotions, as well as decreasing over-arousal in emotional reactivity in response to events. Meditation can reduce the negative dimensions of psychological stress, with improvement in mental health–related qualities of life: positive mood, attention, cognitive performance, substance use, eating habits, sleep, pain, and weight.
  • According to a new study in Psychoneuroendocrinology, just a little mindfulness training goes a long way, at least when it comes to quieting the mind in stressful situations. The stress-relieving benefits continue to increase and expand with repeated mindfulness meditation practice, and persist beyond the time-period of active practice.
  • Chronic Pain Relief: In Canada, the prevalence of chronic pain for adults older than 18 years of age is 18.9% of the population, or more than 7 million people. Approximately one-half of those with chronic pain reported suffering for more than 10 years. Approximately one-third of those reporting chronic pain rated the intensity in the very severe range. With epidemic numbers, and narcotic pain medication addiction rampant and expensive, meditation offers much-needed relief. By activating and reinforcing some areas of the brain used in pain processing, meditation has the overall effect of helping to reduce pain intensity in patients. Other theories on how meditation helps pain exist, including that it decreases stress, and inflammation, which in turn decreases pain. It was also observed that the pain reduction happened quickly and easily - it worked for beginners. 
  • Anti-Depressant: A recent study found a significant cortical thickness increase in individuals who underwent a brief 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program and that this increase was coupled with a significant reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, anxiety, and depression.
  • Mindfulness and Healthy Habit Formation: Mindfulness de-automatizes habits, and shines a light on habit triggers. It allows us to observe how a habit operates. Mindfulness allows us to take a step back from the influence of stress and is an antidote to stress; giving us the room needed to change our responses, choices, and finally, we can replace the dysfunctional habit with something that works better for us.

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  • Addiction Recovery: Another study describes how mindfulness based interventions target neurocognitive mechanisms of addiction at the attention-appraisal-emotion interface.
  • Self Esteem and Integrity: Mindfulness meditation contributes to a more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity, when considering aspects such as sense of responsibility, authenticity, compassion, self-acceptance and character.
  • Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: Using an intent-to-treat analysis, participants in the mindful awareness practices (MAPs) group showed significant improvement relative to those in the sleep hygiene education (SHE) group on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). The MAPs group showed significant improvement relative to the SHE group on secondary health outcomes of insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity. The lead author of the study, David S. Black, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, said mindfulness meditation probably helped settle the brain’s arousal systems. And unlike widely used sleep drugs, it does not have potentially severe side effects. As compared to attempting mindfulness practice for the first time on your own, he said, you are likely to gain the most benefit from a standardized course with an experienced teacher.
  • Structural Brain Changes: Researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in grey matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased grey matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of grey matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. 
  • Reduced Blood Pressure: Established coronary artery disease, high-risk patients who meditated cut their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from all causes roughly in half compared with a group of similar patients who were given more conventional education about healthy diet and lifestyle. In another study, stressed University students who were at risk of hypertension who practiced meditation reduced systolic blood pressure by 6.3 millimetres of mercury and their diastolic pressure by 4 millimetres of mercury on average.
  • Trains Attention: Meditation leads to a profound shift in how the brain allocates attention. One study - exploited a brain phenomenon called the attentional blink. For example, pictures of a St. Bernard and a Scottish terrier are flashed before one’s eyes half a second apart, embedded in a series of 20 pictures of cats. In that sequence, most people fail to see the second dog. Their brains have blinked. Scientists explain this blindness as a misallocation of attention. Attention is a flexible, trainable skill.
  • Anti-Aging: Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology after she discovered a repeating DNA motif on chromosome tips that acts as a protective cap. They shield the ends of our chromosomes each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied, but they wear down with each division. Blackburn also discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time. And when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognized as a key process in aging. 
In the study: Accelerated Telomere Shortening in Response to Life Stress,  published in 2004, psychiatry and biochemistry worked together to show the damaging affects of stress on telomeres. Until this study, genes were seen as by far the most important factor determining telomere length, and the idea that it would be possible to measure environmental influences, let alone psychological ones, was highly controversial. 

There is also progress towards a mechanism. Lab studies show that the stress hormone cortisol reduces the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation - the physiological fallout of neglected basic health habits and psychological stress - appear to erode telomeres directly. This has devastating consequences for our health. Age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to short telomeres.

The best way to protect genes from the damaging affects of stress is the same as for any other physical structure and physiological function - to supply the basic needs required for structural integrity and physiological function, which creates and maintains health. 
  • Meditation, a basic health habit, is particularly beneficial for protecting telomere damage, capable of slowing the erosion of telomeres - and, evident in multiple studies, lengthening them again.
Conventional medical tests give us our risk of particular conditions – high cholesterol warns of impending heart disease, for example, while high blood sugar predicts diabetes. Telomere length, by contrast, gives an overall reading of how healthy we are; our biological age.
  • Compassion: One of the keys to feeling compassion in response to another person’s suffering is the ability to relate to our emotions in a healthy way - and this is a skill meditation helps to build. Meditation teaches us not to get hijacked by worry, or to try to impose oppressive control over our thoughts and feelings. Meditation enables us to coast through these impulses when confronted with another person’s pain, which frees up biological resources so that caregiving instincts can surface to guide behaviour. Along with a heightened awareness of self, surroundings, and an enhanced ability to take the perspective of other people, this may be why meditation makes us more compassionate. Prior research has shown that when some bystanders to a problem fail to respond, that strongly influences the people around them to remain passive as well. The compassionate effects of meditation are so strong they have the ability to overcome this bystander effect, and to extend well beyond this ability to also include situations when compassion is discouraged.
  • Brain Waves: Meditation’s effect on the brain is divided into two categories: state changes happen when alterations in brain activities occur during the act of meditating, and trait changes are the outcome of long-term practice. 
Electroencephalography (EEG) records and measures the frequency and location of electrical brain activity, generated by voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain. During meditation, slower theta waves were most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain. Alpha waves, characteristic of wakeful rest, were more abundant in the posterior parts of the brain during meditation than during simple relaxation. Delta waves are characteristic of sleep. There was little delta during the relaxing and meditative tasks, confirming that meditation is different from sleep. Beta waves occur when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue. EEG showed few beta waves during meditation and resting. Studies have reported an increase in the specific frequencies expressed in the alpha range, increased alpha band power, and an overall slowing (reduction in frequency) in EEG activity in experienced meditators versus less experienced meditators while meditating. The alpha blocking phenomena, observed as a state change in brain function, was investigated as a possible trait change as well. More research is needed. Expert meditators can also self induce a state of increased transcortical gamma activity.
  • Physiological Healing and Restorative Function: Tibetan monks who have been meditating for decades can reach this in an alert, wakened phase, but most of us reach this final state during deep, dreamless sleep when your body can heal and restore itself.
  • Gene Regulation: Alterations in protein enzymes (histones), chromatin modularity, and pro-inflammatory genetic expression, observed as a result of a day of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation; affecting cellular activity and disease formation, may prove beneficial in the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.

With all that happens in just one day of modern life, it would take something like a week of hanging out next to a stream to process. Simplicity is not an efficient enough process; it cleans too slowly. We were not designed by evolution to have that much stuff to clear out. Input is greater than the processing available.  
This is where meditation comes in. Meditation was invented during the founding of the Axial religions, around 500 BCE. Before that, I suspect that people had little need for it. Life had been simple enough and still natural enough to allow the brain the downtime it needed. But with the construction of massive city states, civilizations, new technologies, and highly interconnected modern societies, people's ability to cope with the novelty overload they were experiencing began to break down.  

Siddhartha Gautama (the historical person now known by his title, the Buddha) said that suffering was caused by tanha which is usually translated as desire, but which could easily be alternatively translated as seeking. Seeking causes suffering. Constantly on the lookout for novelty, you cannot rest. You get caught in a hyperactive feedback loop that eventually rags you out. To combat this affliction of modernity, the Buddha prescribed meditation.  
It is essentially getting out of the way, and allowing the brain eventually to revert to its natural state. The state your brain evolved to be in most of the time. A kind of alert, relaxed openness. Not thinking about anything in particular, but not striving to remove thinking either. Not seeking, in other words. Michael Taft 

Practical Guide
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Brainwaves, or neural oscillations, share the fundamental constituents with acoustic and optical wave forms, including frequency, amplitude, and periodicity. Neural oscillations are rhythmic or repetitive electrochemical activity in the brain and central nervous system, characterized by their frequency, amplitude and phase. Neural tissue can generate oscillatory activity driven by mechanisms within individual cortical neurons, as well as by interactions of cultured ensembles. They may also adjust frequency to synchronize with the periodic vibration of external acoustic or visual stimuli.

The fluctuating frequency of oscillations generated by the synchronous activity of cortical neurons, measurable with an electroencephalogram (EEG), via electrodes attached to the scalp, are conveniently categorized into general bands, in order of decreasing frequency, measured in Hertz (HZ) as follows:

• Gamma, 30 to 50 Hz, This is the state of hyperactivity and active learning. Gamma state is the most opportune time to retain information. 
• Beta, 14 to 30 Hz, Where we function for most of the day, Beta State is associated with the alert mind state of the prefrontal cortex. This is a state of the working or thinking mind: analytical, planning, assessing and categorizing.
• Alpha, 8 to 14 Hz, Brain waves start to slow down out of thinking mind. We feel more calm, peaceful and grounded. We often find ourselves in an alpha state after a yoga class, a walk in the woods, or during any activity that helps relax the body and mind. We are lucid, reflective, have a slightly diffused awareness. The hemispheres of the brain are more balanced (neural integration).
• Theta, 4 to 8 Hz, We're able to begin meditation. This is the point where the verbal/thinking mind transitions to the meditative/visual mind. We begin to move from the planning mind to a deeper state of awareness (often felt as drowsy), with stronger intuition, more capacity for wholeness and complicated problem solving. The Theta state is associated with visualization.
• Delta, 0.1 to 4 Hz, Tibetan monks who have been meditating for decades can reach this in an alert, wakened phase, but most of us reach this final state during deep, dreamless sleep when the body can engage in healing and restorative functions necessary for physiological health.

In addition, three further wave forms are often delineated in electroencephalographic studies:

• Mu, 8 to 12 Hz
• Sigma (sleep spindle), 12 to 14 Hz
• Sensorimotor rhythm (SMR), 12.5 to 15.5 Hz

Entrainment is a term originally derived from complex systems theory, and denotes the way that two or more independent, autonomous oscillators with differing rhythms or frequencies, when situated in a context and at a proximity where they can interact for long enough, influence each other mutually, to a degree dependent on coupling force, such that they adjust until both oscillate with the same frequency.

Human subjects rarely hear frequencies below 20 Hz, which is exactly the range of Delta, Theta, Alpha, and low to mid Beta brainwaves.

Brainwave Entrainment Technology: Insight CD

Ten methods to define and measure the results of mindfulness by the Mindfulness Research Guide:
  • Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS)
  • Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory
  • Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills
  • Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale
  • Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire
  • Applied Mindfulness Process Scale
  • Child and Adolescent Mindfulness Measure
  • Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale
  • State Mindfulness Scale
  • Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention Adherence Scale
The research on the outcomes of mindfulness falls into two main categories: stress reduction and positive-state elevation.

Feature Art: Rob Gonsalves

Quote: Siddhartha Gautama