Meditation: Connecting to the Wisdom Within
In the foreword to Tulku Thondup’s book Boundless Healing: Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, psychologist, science journalist, and Pulitzer-Prize nominee Daniel Goleman, PhD, explains what psychologists call the state of flow: “another mode of being — one where day-to-day preoccupations or anxieties fall away, where we are somehow lifted out of our usual burdens.” Goleman continues, “the essence of that gift is a mind and heart at peace. With the flowering in recent years of scientific findings on the links between mind and body, there is growing proof (for those who need it) that entering such peak states bodes well for physical health. There is little question now that positive moods boost the immune system’s resistance to germs and viruses and lower the risk of heart disease…even as modern medicine continues to flourish, we in the West also have unprecedented access to ancient knowledge and means for healing the mind and body. Why not avail ourselves of both?”
In that foreward, Goleman sums up the good news: we now understand the importance of combining the best of what Western medicine has to offer, with the ancient, transformative practice of meditation for profound healing. You likely have heard of meditation and of its introduction into the medical world, so what impact does it have on your well-being? It’s a game-changer. It’s this simple: you hold the keys to health, happiness, and love, within. Your inner wisdom is constantly speaking to you, waiting for you to tune-in for guidance. Yes, you also need mentors, doctors, and other healers to support you with their knowledge, expertise, and reflection. Nonetheless, ultimately, the answers are inside you. Your body speaks to you all the time. For example, is your body saying “thank you for that delicious meal,” or, “I don’t feel so well, that breakfast of chocolate cake is sitting heavy in my belly”?
When you meditate, you cultivate the ability to be tuned-in all day long to your body’s messages, helping you make healthy choices moment-to-moment. The choices you make about what to think, what to eat, when to take breaks, and whom to spend time with, all affect your physical and mental health immediately and significantly.
While in meditation, you receive direct feedback about how you are feeling and what you need. One method of practice is:
focusing on an object (usually the breath)
observing thoughts and the sensations of the body, without getting caught up in resistance to the experience or creating stories about it; engaging compassionate awareness
gently returning your awareness to the focal point (usually the breath) anytime the mind wanders
incorporating restorative, relaxation techniques, mantras, and visualizations to spur on the natural processes of deep healing, at the cellular level
Over time, you create new neural pathways in the brain, making it easier to access healing states of rest, restoration, and bliss.
A common way of explaining some of the benefits of meditation is to point to its influence on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The sympathetic nervous system is activated when you perceive a threat: whether it is a real threat to your life, or an imagined threat, your SNS is engaged and your body goes into “fight-or-flight.” That’s survival mode, which is useful if your well-being actually is threatened (e.g, if you have to run across a busy street while being chased by a rabid dog); however, many of us are in consistent states of fight-or-flight (e.g., triggered by a pressing deadline at work or a traffic jam on the way to the airport), which wears the body down. Meditation alone or in conjunction with deep breathing exercises and visualizations are proven techniques for activating the PNS, engaging what is often referred to as “the relaxation response.” From this place, the mind and body are relaxed (not stressed), and Drs. Daniel Siegel and Richard Mendius in Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, list some of the ways this positively affects health:
Increases gray matter in the insula, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex of the brain; reduces cortical thinning due to aging in the prefrontal regions strengthened by meditation; improves psychological functions associated with these regions including attention; increases compassion and empathy
Increases activation of left frontal regions, which lifts mood
Helps a variety of medical conditions including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, PMS, and chronic pain
- Helps numerous conditions including insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders.
All of this science — and there is much more — supports the experiences reported by practitioners over millennia. However, the real test is, does it work for you? All the research in the world doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t work for you. Meditation, just like changing your diet and starting an exercise routine, only works with the commitment to do it and finding the method that you most enjoy. Your body wants to be vital, your heart wants to be free, your mind wants to take a break, so you can be healthy and in love with the intricacies, teachings, and synchronicities of life. When you meditate and come into the present moment again and again, you experience love, wholeness, and bliss, and the physical body responds in miraculous ways. No more pushing or striving, you can relax into the healing process moment-by-moment, breath-by-breath, with ease and peace of mind.