A group of neuroscientists wanted to figure out what goes on in the brain of a meditation master.
Led by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they connected 256 electrodes to a Tibetan monk named Matthieu Ricard, who had given up a career in science and spent decades meditating in the Himalayas.
Dr. Davidson and his colleagues were astonished by Ricard’s brain signature; they’d never seen anything like it. The activity in his left prefrontal cortex (responsible for subduing negative emotions) and abnormal gamma wave levels (suggesting signs of bliss) led them to dub him “the happiest man in the world.”
Whether or not Ricard is actually the happiest man in the world, his brain clearly shows that something unique is going on.
While traditions in the East have claimed for millennia that meditation can make you happier, these were some of the first scientific findings that suggested meditation can create lasting changes in the brain.
Training Your Mind with Meditation
This has big implications for each of us individually; it demonstrates that the mind is not a fixed entity, but is rather something we can train, like a muscle. The underlying mechanism here is called self-directed neuroplasticity, a fancy way of saying that applying your attention in particular ways leads to lasting changes in the brain’s structure and function.
But does it take decades in the Himalayas to achieve what Ricard did? Or is it somehow accessible to all of us amidst our busy lives? While lasting changes in the brain from “Olympic-level meditators” take time, we can all achieve some level of mental athleticism.
Ricard says there are three primary styles of meditation he practices: focused attention, open monitoring, and loving-kindness. These are easy enough to learn and I’ll explain each here briefly.
1. Focused Attention Meditation
Focused attention meditation involves picking a particular object of meditation, most commonly the breath. You focus all of your attention on this object and bring it back each time the mind wanders.
If you try to count 10 focused breaths in a row, paying complete attention to each, it becomes clear that this task is not as easy as it sounds.
Your mind grasps onto thoughts of planning, remembering, and fantasising, not wanting to stick with the breath. But, with practice, your mind will calm down and begin to find joy in each simple breath. (Note that nothing is inherently boring. Boredom is just the inability to pay close attention.)
2. Open Monitoring Meditation
The next technique, traditionally called vipassana, involves opening your awareness to everything happening in the present moment. As you sit with your eyes closed, you silently note thoughts, sounds, smells, and sensations as they pop into your awareness.
Again this may appear simple, but it leads to some profound changes in perception.
With training, meditators practicing open monitoring gain control over their minds as they become conscious of previously subconscious mental processes. As Ricard will attest, it also enables direct access to a part of the mind that is effortlessly tranquil.
3. Compassion Meditation
Ricard says this practice, traditionally called metta, brings him the most joy out of all three.
Don’t let the “lovey-dovey” title of this technique fool you into trivializing it. Loving-kindness has been shown by science to increase positive feelings and a sense of social connection, enhance altruistic behavior, release happiness chemicals in the brain, and decrease implicit bias (subconscious discrimination).
To practice loving-kindness you begin by cultivating a feeling of compassion for yourself.
You might repeat silently, “May I be safe, happy and healthy,” really feeling the meaning of those words. You then expand this compassionate feeling to your close relatives, friends, neighbors, strangers, and eventually even those who give you trouble.
For each group of people, you take a couple of minutes to feel compassion and repeat silently, “May they be safe, happy and healthy.” I think you’ll find that just a few minutes of thinking in this way can change the way you go about the rest of your day.
If Ricard’s brain says anything about how we find lasting happiness, reprogramming the way you feel toward others seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
If you don’t have the urge to shave your head, renounce all possessions, and move to a remote mountain cave, luckily Ricard has shown us that there are some easy practices that can begin to rewire your brain in the direction of lasting joy.
This post was written by Liam McClintock. Liam is a Certified Meditation Instructor, who is currently completing his MSc in Applied Neuroscience at King’s College London.
He is also the creator of the world’s most advanced meditation app: FitMind – which combines ancient techniques with western science to create an effective mental fitness program.
If you’re serious about starting or deepening your meditation practice, FitMind will teach you the basics as well as dozens of progressively advanced practices, including Cancel-Cancel, Finger Switching, Headless Way, Actualism, Yoga Nidra, various Mahamudra glimpse meditations, and lucid dreaming.
Most of these techniques are not taught on any other app and few people in the western world are yet aware of their existence despite their profound effects on the mind.