We are inspired by the living example of great teachers, who have both penetrating insight and a loving heart. "With modern neuroscience, we're now beginning to understand the brain processes that support these wonderful qualities of mind," explains Dr. Rick Hanson. With The Enlightened Brain online course, this pioneering neuropsychologist explores how you can activate these same processes inside your own brain to accelerate your own transformation.
Join Sounds True founder and publisher, Tami Simon, on a meditation retreat in 2012. Tami teaches meditation in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition under the direction of Reggie Ray, in the lineage of the great meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Tami's programs are open to the public and designed for newcomers as well as long-time practitioners. Check back often as Tami's retreat schedule will be updated regularly.
Over the last 30 years, the scientific community has become increasingly interested in the measurable effects of meditation on the physical and psychological aspects of the human being. While many long-term meditators are convinced of the benefits based on their own personal, subjective experience, there is something to be said in our modern, rationally oriented culture about having the benefits of meditation practice confirmed by the scientific method.
To date, more than 1000 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published on the effects of meditation. Until the recent revelations within the field of neuroscience, most of these studies have observed correlations between meditation and reduction in stress, anxiety, and illness of one kind or another. Current research, however, is focusing directly upon the brain and showing how meditation affects neurobiological changes in the human organism.
After several decades of experimentally rigorous research, scientists have discovered demonstrated measurable effects in several key areas:
The “Suggested Resources” section below lists a number of studies, magazine articles, and books that present this research and the various conclusions drawn by a number of the leading researchers of our time.
One particular form of meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM), has been studied at great length and has produced over 600 controlled studies at dozens of research centers around the world. TM is a mantra-based meditation practice that involves the repetition of a specially selected Sanskrit sound. The sound has no meaning, per se, and is said to quiet the mind and allow the practitioner access to deeper levels of consciousness.
The method, which was introduced in the late 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is recommended to be practiced two times per day, for twenty minutes each session. According to the vision of the Transcendental Meditation organization, it may be practiced by anyone—those following any religion as well as those espousing no interest in religion or spirituality at all.
Much of our current scientific understanding of meditation comes out of early and pioneering research done with TM. The first studies were published describing the various physiological effects of TM in the early 1970s in journals such as Science, The American Journal of Physiology, and Scientific American. This research showed that TM produced scientifically verifiable changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels; reductions in respiration, anxiety and depression; and increases in the coherence and integration of brain functioning.
For more information about TM, including a rich resource section on scientific studies published about the method, please see: tm.org/discover/research/index.html.
Another early pioneer to explore the effects of meditation was Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson began studying practitioners of the TM method and eventually expanded his research to explore practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist meditation as well as those practicing simple relaxation techniques outside of the confines of religious practice.
He coined the term “the relaxation response” in his groundbreaking book of the same title in 1975. Benson defined the relaxation response as “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress, and the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.” In his research he also explored specific “steps” to elicit the response. These steps include a quiet environment, repetition of a sound or phrase, a passive attitude, and relaxed watchful breathing. He concluded that the response is a natural reflex within the human organism that, when practiced 20 minutes a day, reduced stress and physiologically promoted relaxation.
For more information about Dr. Benson and his research, please visit the website of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital: mbmi.org.
Another major program of research on meditation continues under the direction of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Stress Reduction Clinic in the Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn's program utilizes techniques from yoga and Buddhist meditation to help in the treatment of a wide variety of physical and emotionally based medical conditions. This treatment protocol eventually became known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Under a carefully prescribed program of meditation, Kabat-Zinn found that these techniques had a direct, measurable impact on a number of conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, HIV and AIDS, as well as a myriad of disorders of stress and anxiety. Some 150 centers around the country are shaped in the mold of Kabat-Zinn's Stress Reduction Clinic, and about 150 others teach meditation with slightly different philosophies.
For more information about the work and research of Jon Kabat-Zinn, please see mindfulnesstapes.com.
Out of the caves of India and Tibet, the Dalai Lama presents a lecture at major research universities around the world entitled “The Neuroscience of Meditation.” Over the last 10 or 15 years, scientists are taking advantage of new technologies to see exactly what goes on inside the brains of experienced meditators. These neuroscientists hypothesize that regular meditation actually alters the way the brain is wired, and that these changes are directly related to meditation's ability to improve health and well-being.
Traditionally speaking, the scientific method does not have a way to study consciousness from the inside. What these researchers are suggesting, however, is that introspective, first-person reporting on what occurs during meditation is indeed compatible with the scientific method. After more than 10,000 hours in meditation, for example, some researchers believe that a meditator has received adequate training to become an expert observer of his or her own mind. As meditators report their discoveries to researchers, empirical data is generated. While many traditional scientists disagree with the value of such research, many are coming to accept it as useful and in line with current scientific thinking.
What really ignited this new wave of research was the passion and commitment of a number of traditionally trained and respected scientists and professors who had personal experience with meditation and felt called to study it through the lens of scientific inquiry. These pioneers in the field are producing fascinating research into the nature of the brain, consciousness, and the fact that we may be “hard-wired” to experience spiritual states such as love, compassion, and oneness. A few of these pioneers include:
Dr. James Austin is Clinical Professor of Neurology at the University of Missouri Health Science Center, and Emeritus Professor of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Science Center. Through two very well-researched books—Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness and Zen-Brain Reflections—Austin lays out his basic thesis that awakening, or spiritual enlightenment, can occur only when the human brain undergoes substantial changes. He reviews much of the modern research on meditation and the brain in a masterful tour of the neurobiology of enlightenment.
For more information about James Austin and his work, including an interview and sample chapter, please visit the MIT Press website: mitpress.mit.edu/books/AUSZP/austin/interview.html.
Dr. Richard Davidson holds a doctorate in biological psychology from Harvard University and currently directs the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been interested in the practice of meditation, both personally and professionally for many years and is considered by many to be the preeminent scholar in the field.
Dr. Davidson first became acquainted with advanced meditators when he traveled to Dharamsala, India, upon invitation by the Dalai Lama. There, he had the opportunity to meet with and interview a number of monks meditating under the Dalai Lama's guidance. What he discovered there so impressed him that he set the wheels in motion to bring the monks to his own laboratory for controlled study.
Studying the brains of monks who had logged more than 10,000 hours of meditation, he noted powerful gamma activity—brain waves oscillating at roughly 40 cycles per second. Gamma waves are usually very weak, and this rate of oscillation pointed to intense focus and concentration, far greater than Davidson would have expected. When he and his team measured gamma activity against a control group of college students with no meditation experience, they found that the monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times stronger than the students'.
In addition, Davidson noted synchronized oscillations in the brain and greater activity in certain portions of the brain, particularly in those responsible for so-called positive emotions such as love, kindness, empathy, and compassion. What was so remarkable about these and other related findings was the idea that an individual may actually be able to change the way their brain functions through a particular course of meditation training. This idea went clearly against the traditional view of how the brain develops.
To read a detailed interview with Dr. Davidson about some of his discoveries, please click: deerparkcenter.org/NewFiles/davidson.html.
To read a Wired magazine article entitled “Neuroscience and Meditation”— featuring research by Dr. Davidson, please see: wired.com/wired/archive/14.02/dalai.html.
For more information about the work and research of Dr. Richard Davidson, including an extensive bibliography of published studies, please see his page at the University of Wisconsin website: http://glial.psych.wisc.edu/index.php/psychsplashfacstaff/100.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is an Associate Professor of Radiology and Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an early pioneer in the newly emerging field of “neurotheology,”the study of the relationship between the brain and religious/spiritual experiences. Newberg is the author of four groundbreaking books in the field (see Suggested Resources below) and founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.
Newberg and his research team used functional brain-imaging technology to look at the brains of highly experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators and nuns praying in the Franciscan tradition. What they discovered was that intensely focused contemplative practice triggers an alteration in the activity of the brain that leads one to perceive transcendent religious experiences as solid, tangible reality. In other words, the sensation known in many traditions as “oneness” is not a delusion, or subjective psychology, or simply wishful thinking. The inescapable conclusion is that God (or the true nature of reality) seems to be hard-wired into the human brain.
For a fascinating interview with Dr. Newberg about prayer, meditation, and the brain, please see: salon.com/books/int/2006/09/20/newberg
For more information about the work and research of Andrew Newberg, please visit his website at: andrewnewberg.com
The Mind and Life Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring the relationship of science and Buddhism as methodologies in understanding the nature of reality. The Institute has affiliates including notable scientists and Buddhist practitioners, the most notable of which is Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. The Institute has sponsored a nearly annual conference since 1987 to scientifically study the effects of meditation on the human being.
The scientists who participate in Mind and Life have been intrigued by the ability of meditators to develop and sustain attention and visualizations, to work skillfully and consciously with powerful emotional states, to intentionally manipulate basic physiological processes, and to catalyze psychological and biological healing effects—all through the directed mental processes of meditation practices. How Buddhist masters attain these skills through the development of the mind is still a mystery. In 1990, Mind and Life scientists initiated research projects to investigate the neurobiological effects of meditation on long-term meditators.
For more information on The Mind and Life Institute, its members, and its ongoing work to study the effects of meditation, please visit: mindandlife.org.
Austin, James. Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness. The MIT Press, 2009.
___. Zen-Brain Reflections. The MIT Press, 2006.
___. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. The MIT Press, 1999.
Dalai Lama, The. The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. Broadway, 2006.
___. Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (with Daniel Goleman). Bantam, 2003.
Davidson, Richard and Harrington, Anne. Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Murphy, Michael; Donovan, Steven; and Taylor, Eugene. The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a Comprehensive Bibliography, 1931-1996. Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1997.
Newberg, Andrew; D'Aquili, Eugene; and Rause, Vince. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Ballantine, 2002.
Newberg, Andrew and Waldman, Mark Robert. How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. Ballantine, 2009.
___. Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs. Free Press, 2007.
___. Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth. Free Press, 2006.
Tart, Charles. Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People. Origin Press, 2000.
Various. Measuring the Immeasurable: The Scientific Case for Spirituality. Sounds True, 2008.
Wallace, B. Alan. Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Wallace, B. Alan and Hodel, Brian. Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality. Shambhala, 2008.
Studies show compassion meditation changes the brain, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Can we train ourselves to be compassionate? A new study suggests the answer is yes. Cultivating kindness and compassion through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to indicate that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or in a sport.
To read the article summarizing the research: news.wisc.edu/14944
Collaborations between monks and psychologists yield new directions in psychological research
With an eye toward understanding the inner workings of the mind and using that knowledge to reduce human suffering, psychologists and Buddhist monks may have more in common than they realize, and possibly even compatible methodology. These commonalities are driving collaborations between some psychologists and Buddhist monks.
To read this article from the American Psychological Association: apa.org/monitor/dec03/tibetan.html
The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation, Institute of Noetic Sciences
Read the Introduction and Introductory chapters of this very well-researched book published by Michael Murphy and the Institute of Noetic Sciences. An excellent summary of the first waves of scientific research on the benefits of meditation.
Meditation can lower blood pressure, study shows, Science Daily
Transcendental meditation is an effective treatment for controlling high blood pressure with the added benefit of bypassing possible side effects and hazards of anti-hypertension drugs, according to a new meta-analysis conducted at the University of Kentucky.
To read this article from Science Daily, please see: sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080314130430.htm
Meditation may lower blood pressure, CNN
Practicing meditation may play an important role in controlling certain risk factors for heart disease, according to a recent study. Published in the journal Stroke, the study indicates that Transcendental Meditation, practiced for 20 minutes twice a day, has a positive measurable effect on the buildup of fatty deposits in arteries, or atherosclerosis.
Meditation and weight loss
Meditation, when practiced correctly, can boost your body's ability to shed pounds. Relaxing upon a peaceful object or mantra for an extended period of time can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and promote a sense of inner focus in an individual. The concentration on breathing, posture, and the encouragement to delve into one's own soul is certainly mind opening and exhilarating, and the body will appreciate this sudden flow of tranquility that runs through it after being constantly abused from the pressures of day-to-day life.
To read this article exploring meditation and weight loss, please see:
Begley, Sharon. “Your Brain on Religion: Mystic Visions of Brain Circuits at Work?” Newsweek. May 7, 2001. cognitiveliberty.org/neuro/neuronewswk.htm
Biello, David. “Searching for God in the Brain.” Scientific American. October 2007. sciam.com/article.cfm?id=searching-for-god-in-the-brain.
Hall, Stephen. “Is Buddhism Good for Your Health?” The New York Times. September 14, 2003. query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940CE1DB173BF937A2575AC0A9659C8B63
Hitt, Jack. “This is Your Brain on God.” Wired. November 1999. wired.com/wired/archive/7.11/persinger.html.
Lynch, Casey. “Mind Your Brain—The Neuroscience of Meditation.” July 28, 2005. brainwaves.corante.com/archives/2005/07/28/mind_your_brain_the_neuroscience_of_meditation.php.
Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. University of Wisconsin and Emory University. brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/~lutz/Lutz_attention_regulation_monitoring_meditation_tics_2008.pdf
Health applications and clinical studies of meditation, Wikipedia