Updated: May 23, 2021
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “meditation”? Perhaps you imagine a bunch of hippies laying around with their legs crossed, wasting their youth in a state of unappealing stagnancy. Alternatively, you may conceptualize it as a cure for The Human Condition, that constant battle with our egos and worrying over things that are ultimately out of our control. These two dichotomies about meditation are the general defaults – an all-or-nothing attitude of it being the most overhyped pseudoscience of the century or the key to unlocking boundless potential.
These preconceived notions push us away from giving mediation a shot or sticking with it when we don’t feel magical effects within 2-3 business days. When we meditate, we are teaching our minds to step away from the soundtrack that we all have on repeat in the back of our minds. Whether we are aware of it or not, within each of us lies an unrelenting narrative about the world around us and about ourselves. While this story often seems logical, it isn’t always necessarily an accurate depiction of reality. So, what does this look like in our daily lives, and how does it take a toll on our sense of clarity and wellbeing overtime? Let’s take a look.
It’s Friday night, and Sarah is scrolling through her Instagram. She sees that all her friends have gotten together, without her, and she feels that familiar pang in her chest, one that she’s felt many times. Sarah knows this pang all too well - it was there when she would get picked last in gym class, it was there when she was the only one out of her friends to not have a prom date and it was there when her mother would put more effort and enthusiasm into her step-siblings’ birthday parties than she ever did for hers. This pang is always automatic, and so are the thoughts that follow of never being valued or considered. Logically, Sarah retreats from what she perceives to be the source of her suffering, alienating her friend group who have no idea what they'd done wrong.
Her automatic response is a result of being confined to a limited set of beliefs that skew her perception and ability to see alternate possibilities. She never communicated her feelings of exclusion, and never had the opportunity to discover that her friends thought she still had piano lessons on Fridays or that an invitation text didn’t deliver. Instead, she reaffirmed her sense of never fitting in anywhere and ended up not only hurting herself, but her friends in the process.
Meditation reduces activity in the default network mode (DMN) of the brain, a set of regions that represent subconscious processes such as daydreaming and thinking about ourselves. For a lot of us, the DMN seems to specialize in rumination, interfering with our ability to live in the present moment. When the DMN is left to its own devices, the result is often a highly reactive person prone to projecting past insecurities and failures onto otherwise innocuous circumstances. When minor inconveniences and misunderstandings are blown up in our subjective reality, the response is often one that makes things objectively worse, too. This vicious cycle reinforces trauma in our minds, strengthening our beliefs that we are not good enough or that the world is not a safe place with each and every turn.
The next time this situation occurs, Sarah has been practicing meditation at the recommendation of her therapist two months ago. On top of taming her DMN, she has taught her parietal lobe to evoke feelings of social connectedness, her corpus callosum to facilitate holistic thinking, and her prefrontal cortex to make better decisions. She can put herself in other’s shoes and communicate more effectively due to changes in her anterior insula and temporoparietal junction, not to mention a far less reactive amygdala. The result is someone who can pause before deciding on the most appropriate reaction; someone who is more compassionate with both herself and others after having fine-tuned a vast array of brain functions to operate smoothly and efficiently. This time, she is better equipped to handle her immediate reaction and manages to successfully navigate it relatively unscathed.
When we sit with our minds for just 10-20 minutes each day, simply focusing on our breath, we are doing so much more than nothing, and improving our wellbeing so much more realistically than the magic cure meditation is often portrayed as. Meditation does not miraculously transform our minds into blank slates free of any traces of negativity or suffering, nor does it give us superhuman abilities overnight. What it does do is shockingly simple: it trains our brains in the invaluable skill of regulating our emotions and attention, allowing us to be more in tune with the present moment, ourselves, and others. Like the old saying goes, if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. We all struggle, on some level, to feel at peace with our lives. While there are no clear-cut instructions on how to deal with being human, the ancient practice of meditation is arguably the best mentor we can get. The beauty is that it is always with us waiting to teach us powerful lessons – provided we make the choice to set aside time each day to do nothing but sit and listen.
YMHA Content Creator