I sat in a lab at the University of California in the early 1970s, electrodes attached to my head and body. As an Ananda member I had been invited to participate in an early attempt to study what meditation does to the brain. Ever since then I’ve had an interest in these kinds of scientific studies.
Last week I read a fascinating report of a study done at the Max Planck Institute. Researchers looked at brain changes resulting from training in each of three different types of meditation, and found that the different types are linked to changes in different areas of the brain.
In the first type, “focused awareness,” participants watch the breath and internal body sensations, focusing their attention and bringing it back when it wanders. The second type of meditation involves empathy, compassion, and “loving-kindness” for others. In the third type, often called “mindfulness,” participants observe their thoughts nonjudgmentally.
Unfortunately, Kriya Yoga was not one of the methods studied, but the path given to us by Paramhansa Yogananda includes all three of these types of meditation. Focused awareness is central to techniques such as Hong-Sau and Kriya. The study found that this practice “is linked to enhanced thickness in the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which are known to be involved in attention.” The ACC generates expectations; when those expectations aren’t borne out, it reacts negatively and creates a revised anticipation. For instance, when we expect a door to open, but find it locked, there is a pulse in the ACC. This goes on constantly throughout the day in a myriad of situations, allowing us either calmly to adjust or to become upset each time the world fails to meet our expectations.
Compassionate meditation was linked to increased thickness in regions known to be involved in emotions like empathy. On our path, when we offer healing prayers, send love to others, or mentally repeat an affirmation for world peace, we are enhancing these regions.
Mindfulness changes the brain areas involved in understanding the mental states of others and ourselves. This, too, we do in meditation after our techniques, when we relax and look into the light, or feel God’s love and joy spreading outward from our center in ever-expanding circles. There is no better way to understand another person than to see him or her as our spiritual brother or sister or, even better, as a part of our own Self.
The brain doesn’t create consciousness but only expresses it—otherwise we might actually die when we “die.” Nonetheless, living as we do in this dream world, I find it interesting to see how consciousness expresses itself through the brain.
A major benefit of these studies occurred to me. So many people, including myself, tend to criticize themselves if their concentration wanders. This study shows that there are beneficial results from many different aspects of meditation. We shouldn’t lose heart: Concentration, while important, is but one aspect of this wonderful science. So also are compassion and self-acceptance.
The important thing is simply to meditate regularly. As Krishna says in the Gita, “Even a little practice of this inward religion will free you from dire fears and colossal sufferings.”
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Thank you, Jyotish. This is fascinating information. I wonder if any work has been done on the optimum sequence for the various kinds of meditation? What if some days, you feel inclined to do one of them longer than another. Does that matter? Master has been so good to me in this life that I receive these studies.
Dear Nayaswami Jyotish Ji,
Thank you for this fascinating and beautiful article :)
Thank you once again for many reasons to meditate, what a blessing Master has given us. It is nice to know that meditation does all these wonderful things for us, however, I still like it just because it makes me feel closer to Master and just feels good inside.
Hope you both are enjoying a wonderful seclusion. Nice to know that you are also doing wonderful things for your brains.
Dear Jyotish, thank you for this – delightful to learn that sciences is helping bring a new science of religion to the world.
As usual, there were subtle hints that it was Jyotish who was writing these words, not Devi. But, more seriously, the thought occurs that, having meditated for 51 years, I can share a thought that will perhaps be useful: there are no bad meditations. Even when I am meditating badly, I find that Master never misses one of my meditations. Every meditation counts – as you said, THE IMPORTANT THING is simply to meditate regularly. When I was helping the legal team I remember talking to our attorney, Nayaswami Naidhruva, about the recent all-day Christmas meditation. Naidhruva was exhausted at that point, but still she went to the meditation and stayed all day. She commented, “I was toast, so I just sat and enjoyed the silence and the vibrations.” I find often that God comes eagerly when I’m toast and find the humility and courage and heart to offer Him my toastedness.
Thank you, Jyotish! Very useful. :-)
Thank you, dear soul, for practical reminder of my/our Divine Connection and why meditation is crucial to our goal of recognizing our Divine Oneness. Namaste
Dear Nayaswami Jyotish, Another most heartfelt Thank you for this lovely post, and as always, the more I read each article, I see/understand a little bit more into it and differently in some ways which matters even more, if that makes sense?! May I also say a most heartfelt thank you to the Anonymous writer for his comment on meditation/view, SO helpful. And like Patricia’s comment, I too often ‘feel’ drawn’ to do one longer than the other and others shorter but more often. I find that I get phases when I just have to do/go with however I may feel led. A glorious thank you to God for all the Masters we are blessed with and to you Jyotish and Devi, all Nayaswamis for all your invaluable sharing with us. Blessings to all
Thank you jyotish ji, for your continuous effort to inspire us to remember God
You express things in such a motivating way. Thank you!
In Master’s Love, Paula
Often I feel my meditation stinks but I won’t stop. I have to acknowledge that life in this dream world has gotten easier since I became a daily meditator 12 years ago. I’ll keep trying to let go of the inner noise, your article was encouraging!
Respected Nayaswami Jyotish Ji
One small doubt swami ji. our life circumstances are pre determined (karma) or thoughts (free-will) oriented ? because sometimes in my life journey, lot of obstacles has come but i never thought about it. results not fulfilll my family needs, forcing me to more attached with outside things , but i know all are temporary, still mind taken over me , causes depression. need to get rid of this swamiji. also, i am a married man, with two kids, sometimes i feel get rid of all attachments being alone, but i committed to the family circle. please guide me swamiji.