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Research suggests that the mind can be trained like a muscle

Published March 21. 2011 05:00PM

We live at fast pace and seem to like it that way.

We multitask as much out of want as out of need.

Teens text message, listen to music, and surf the Internet while they do homework. Mothers watch television, wash laundry, and wash dishes while they cook a week's worth of suppers. Fathers answer e-mails, check sports scores, and make business calls while keeping one eye on the little league game.

Suggesting meditation in such a society is a hard sell.

Meditation is nothing more than a 15- or 20-minute period during the day where you free your body and mind of stress by thinking about nothing in the past or the future and simply on one thing in the present.

It may be the flame of the candle. It may be the inhalation and exhalation of your breath. It may be a saying repeated over and over again. The key is to focus on that and only that and to direct your mind back to the sight or the sensation or the saying every time a stray thought enters it.

In his now-famous lectures decades ago, Alan Watts used to say that dancing is like meditation because both have no discernible end result. Dancers do not dance to get faster or stronger or to get from one side of the room to the other.

They dance because it makes them feel good.

And the reason dancing makes them feel good is because when you are fully engaged in dancing, you're not thinking about paying the mortgage, mowing the lawn, or the hurtful thing your spouse said. You are focused only on the beat and movement which really is its own sort of meditation.

And science has known for years that any type of meditation relieves stress.

But until a study was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) whose results appeared in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, most felt that the relief from stress was simply and solely because meditation temporarily took people out of the messy maelstrom we've come to call "the daily grind" and allowed them to relax.

That's no longer so. With this study meditation has been shown to physically alter the brain.

The researchers had 16 subjects learn meditation by taking an 8-week course at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. While doing so, the subjects also meditated on their own and tabulated the time they did so.

Two weeks after the study's conclusion, these 16 subjects who meditated on an average of 27 minutes a day were given brain scans, and these scans were noticeably different than the ones taken before the study began. Specifically, the subjects had more grey matter in the regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

This is a major finding, one that Britta Holzel, PhD, lead author of the paper, and research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany called "fascinating." That's because, for the first time ever, we know that "by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and increase our well-being and our quality of life."

In other words, meditation is to the brain as weightlifting is to the muscles: a way of training to improve athletic performance and daily function.

And for those doubters out there, take note. Each time the brain scans were performed on the 16 subjects who learned meditation, a control group was also given brain scans.

None in the control group had more grey matter on the second scan than the first, proving that the changes present in the 16 new meditators were not a product of the passage of time.

While I've already called arguing the merits of meditation a hard sell, here's why I think it's worth a try.

If you would buy into this article and begin meditating, you get something besides a way to cope with stress, improved health, increased creativity, and a reduction in aging the benefits Alan Wagener cites in the article "Introduction to Meditation" at the Green web site. You also get something I value dearly.


Too many people see the feelings brought on by emotions as intractable, as if they are part of a unyielding mathematical problem: ignorant comment by rude customer = an equally rude response + increased blood pressure + a migraine later in the day.

The beauty of mediation on a regular basis is that you realize that you are not only more than your emotions but also that you are ultimately in control of them. As a result, you learn to see an ignorant comment by a rude customer as nothing more than that.

And that the ignorant comment can not hurt you, but that what can hurt you is your emotional response to those words.

And learning how to control that response something that evolves as you get deeper into meditation is certainly worth 27 minutes of your time each day.

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