A very interesting article that fits in well with this blog, Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope was published recently in Forbes, the business magazine — an unlikely place for an article about meditation but a good sign, meaning that this kind of information is reaching the conservative mainstream business audience.
The article, by health writer Alice G. Walton, states that for millenia people have turned to different activities to cope with life’s stresses: going for a walk, taking a deep breath, eating, drinking, smoking, praying, taking drugs, running, meditating.
She adds that most people would agree that the mind’s annoying chatter is a major source of unhappiness. It’s the obsessing, worrying, drifting, fearful mind that creates feelings of unhappiness. (We meditators know it as monkey mind.)
This internal chatter and the unpleasant emotions that accompany its thoughts are really what people are trying to get away from. A Harvard study done last year confirmed that mind wandering and unhappiness are clearly connected. That study found that when people are awake, their minds are wandering about half the time.
Another study found that mind wandering is linked to a network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN for short). This network is only active when we are flitting from one life-worry to the next.
Meditation is about quieting the mind, facing, and then relinquishing those unhappy, stress-inducing thoughts.
New research from Yale has found that the DMN in experienced meditators is markedly less linked to other regions of the brain. And…when the brain’s “me centers” (areas governing thoughts about the self, such as the DMN) are activated, meditators also activated brain areas for self-monitoring and cognitive control.
They did this automatically, even when not being told to do anything in particular.
This implies that experienced meditators habitually monitor their thoughts and control them — a skill learned during meditation. When the mind wanders — when meditating and at other times — experienced meditators bring it back to the present moment.
Could this be the primary benefit of meditation, that you learn to monitor and control your thoughts, and therefore you feel happier?
The article suggests that meditators actually create a new default mode that is more present-centered and less “me”-centered.
The writer wonders whether happiness is really about shifting our tendency away from focusing on ourselves. Another study found that in praying nuns and meditating monks, brain areas for concentration and attention became activated, while areas that govern how a person relates to the world deactivated.
The author states that this suggests that the focus becomes less on the person being a distinct entity from the external world and more on the connection between the person and the external world.
Separation and oneness, away from and toward. Aha!
The article continues, stating that other tools to relieve stress like cigarettes, food, or alcohol actually end up making the users unhappier. Addictions create negative feedback loops that include craving and relief, followed by craving and relief, et cetera.
Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.