For decades, scientists believed that once we reached adulthood, our brain was incapable of any change beyond than the negative alterations associated with disease and aging. We now know that the brain is incredibly dynamic, with a potentially unlimited ability to change throughout our entire lifespan. At any age, new neural pathways can be created and refined, and our gray matter can actually be thickened. The brain’s plasticity is an infinitely precious quality that we can harness to move from habitual negative feelings states, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD – to an expanded experience of emotional wellbeing and happiness in our daily lives.
Meditation is one of the most powerful yet simple tools for altering the brain in many positive ways. There are numerous studies about the benefits of meditation in relieving stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and nurturing deep states of calm. Almost every week, new scientific studies are coming out showing more neurological benefits of meditation.
Here are just a few recent discoveries:
- A study led by scientists at UCSF found that schoolteachers who underwent a short, intensive meditation program were less depressed, anxious, and stressed, while also experiencing greater compassion and awareness of others’ feelings. The study was published in the April issue of Emotion.
- In study released in March, researchers at UCLA found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (folding) of the brain’s cortex, specifically in the area of the insula – an area of the brain whose many vital roles include emotional awareness, attention, self-recognition, decision making, and sensing. The researchers found a direct correlation between the number of years study participants had practiced meditation and the amount of brain change, offering further possible evidence of the brain’s plasticity.
- A groundbreaking study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2011 found that as little as eight weeks of meditation not only helped people experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm; it also produced growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.
What happens in the brain during meditation?
The emotional effects of sitting quieting and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals has been linked to different aspects of happiness:
- Dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure, feel rewarded, and maintain focus.
- Serotonin has a calming effect. It eases tension and helps us feel less stressed and more relaxed and focused. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been linked to migraines, anxiety, bipolar disorder, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and insomnia.
- Oxytocin (the same chemical whose levels rise during sexual arousal and breastfeeding), is a pleasure hormone. It creates feelings of calm, contentment, and security, while reducing fear and anxiety.
- Endorphins are the chemicals that create the exhilaration commonly labeled “the runner’s high.” These neurotransmitters play many roles related to wellbeing, including decreasing feelings of pain and reducing the side effects of stress.
Releasing Emotional Toxicity
While the ancient Vedic sages weren’t able to study the brain at the cellular level, they knew that meditation is a powerful practice for regaining inner calm and equilibrium. Ayurveda teaches that just as physical toxins, known as “ama,” can build up in our cells, we can also accumulate mental toxicity in the form of unresolved anger, fear, doubt, cravings, compulsiveness, and emotional upset.
In meditation, we go beyond the domain of negative thought patterns and “stuck” emotions, into the domain of pure awareness. We enter the silence in the mind that is not imprisoned in the past or fearful about the future. This silence is the birthplace of happiness. It’s the eternal now where all possibilities for creativity, love, and joy exist. And when you practice meditation on a regular basis, this present moment awareness expands into all your daily activities, allowing you to be a still point and remain centered even when life tries to intrude with all its inevitable ups and downs.
How to Receive the Full Benefits of Meditation
In our experience at the Chopra Center, learning meditation from a qualified teacher is the best way to ensure that you get the most from your practice. A teacher will help you understand what you’re experiencing, move past common roadblocks, and create a nourishing daily practice. We have a global network of certified Primordial Sound Meditation teachers throughout the world. Click here to find a certified instructor in your area. In addition, because we believe that meditation is a primary tool for health, wellbeing, and happiness, we offer instruction in Primordial Sound Meditation at every event and program.
Seduction of Spirit Meditation Retreat
If you are new to meditation or want to deepen your practice, we invite you to join us for Seduction of Spirit, led by Deepak Chopra. This is one of our most popular events, which has continued to evolve and transform for more than a decade. Learn more here >>
If you enjoy guided meditations, the Chopra center’s 21-Day Meditation Experience™ is an opportunity for you to experience three full weeks of daily meditations from the comfort of your own home.
So Hum Meditation
Here is a simple yet powerful practice you can try right now:
- Choose a place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit in a chair or on the floor, using blankets and pillows to make yourself as comfortable as possible.
- Close your eyes and for a few minutes and observe the inflow and outflow of your breath.
- Now take a slow, deep breath through your nose, while thinking or silently repeating the word So.
- Then slowly exhale through your nose while silently repeating the word Hum. Continue to allow your breath to flow easily, silently repeating So . . . Hum . . . with each inflow and outflow of the breath. Whenever your attention drifts to thoughts in your mind, sounds in the environment, or sensations in your body, gently return to your breath, silently repeating So . . . Hum.
- Do this process for two to five minutes. Just breathe easily and effortlessly, without trying to concentrate. When the time is up, sit with your eyes closed for a few moments.
When you try this exercise, you probably will notice that just by focusing on the sounds So Hum, you sink deeper into relaxation as your mind quiets. You may also experience a few moments of complete silence.