What’s Old Is New Again — Meditation Works

The benefits of meditation can’t be called new.  For decades the practice has been endorsed, even by mainstream medicine, as a proven means to reduce stress and produce relaxation.  In fact, if it were not for “the relaxation response,” a sanitized version of Eastern meditation that was popularized thirty years ago, it is doubtful that a secular society could be persuaded that meditation is real. Until recently, code words like “peacefulness” and “serenity” went about as far as anyone could go without seeming to bring religion in through the back door.

Now a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital has made headlines by showing that as little as eight weeks of meditation produces changes in various areas of the brain associated, not simply with feeling calmer, but with improved sense of self, empathy, and memory.  Again this isn’t exactly new. Since the Seventies a change in brain waves, particularly alpha waves, was associated with the regular practice of meditation. Today, with far more sophisticated brain imaging, researchers can pinpoint where these changes are taking place with remarkable precision.

The short period of time needed to produce benefits surprised everyone. Brain scans of  Buddhist monks had already shown dramatic alteration of gamma waves in the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with higher cognitive responses as well as moral feelings like compassion. But learning that a life-long meditator produced gamma waves at 80 cycles per second instead of the usual 40, although fascinating to neuroscientists, still kept meditation far out of reach of busy, secular Westerners.  Now we can say, without fear of seeming “too Eastern,” that meditation sharpens the mind and produces benefits everyone would want. The old bugaboo that navel gazing makes you passive and “too peaceful” can be banished once and for all.

I imagine the next step will be the discovery that meditation changes your genes. Dr. Dean Ornish, who has championed meditation, along with diet and exercise, as a proven way to reverse heart disease, recently discovered changes to more than 400 genes among those who followed his program of positive lifestyle habits. The link between the brain and genes does come as something new, and it shows promise of overturning the most basic ideas about both.  For decades it was taken as gospel in medical school that neither the brain nor our genes could be altered in any significant way (except negatively, through aging and disease), but now we know that the brain is far more dynamic and susceptible to change than anyone ever supposed. Moreover, any change inside the brain must be mediated by genetic expression. That is, a brain cell does things like grow new connections and heal itself only through the production of proteins and enzymes, and these require genetic signals — they don’t happen on their own.

If you back away and look at the bigger picture, what you see is startling. There is a direct path that begins in the mind — with meditation, mindfulness, or more basic things like beliefs and emotions — and then the path leads to the genes, where signals are sent that modify the brain cell, which in turn sends its own signals in the form of neurotransmitters to every cell in the body.   The reason that eight weeks is enough to cause significant changes in the brain is that the underlying circuitry that connects mind, genes, and brain operates every second of our lives. Ultimately, I’m confident that the results will spread even farther. We will discover that a person’s awareness balances and controls almost any bodily process you can name.   The old phrase, “biology is destiny,” will have to be seriously re-examined. A good replacement would be “consciousness is destiny,” which is the guiding reason that meditation arose in the first place. I foresee enormous opportunities for personal freedom here.  Instead of being dictated to by your genes and chemical processes in the brain, it may turn out that you are the author of your own life, capable of change, healing, creativity, and personal transformation. Who wouldn’t want to be free to write the program that runs brain and body? Such has been the spiritual promise for thousands of years. It’s time that modern society woke up and realized that the promise still  holds good.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle