Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (2016)
MEDITATION AND THE BRAIN:
Getting Still and Moving It Forward
Like many of us, over the past several years, I have been inundated by information related to the benefits of meditation on the mind and on the body. Meditation can calm you down. Meditation can pump you up. Meditation can make you happy. Meditation can help you sleep better. Meditation can make you kinder and more altruistic. There have been many studies purported to suggest all the wonderful things meditation can do for us, but what if you just can’t stick with it?
CONFESSIONS OF A YO-YO MEDITATOR
I came to meditation as a natural extension of my journey with exercise. As I have written, exercise changed my life. Mindful exercise, or exercise with purpose, created even more change and helped my brain to more fully respond to what exercise was doing. Meditation felt like the natural next step after intentional exercise, and with all the talk of the benefits, I was bent on making the practice a part of my life too. But I’ll admit it: I’m a yo-yo meditator.
Even now, after years of making meditation a part of my life, I still don’t have the kind of solid, unwavering, gotta-do-it-every-day kind of dedication that I want to have. I have never aspired to be a monk who could sit for many hours at a time in deep meditation. I was just hoping to get to a solid, reliable ten- or fifteen-minute meditation each day, but even that modest goal is easier said than done. For me (and I think for countless others), developing a regular personal meditation practice turns out to be a lot harder than I ever imagined.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. I am, in fact, a veteran of multiple meditation challenges. The first one was during my intenSati teacher training; we were asked to follow a twenty-minute YouTube video presented by Dr. Wayne Dyer called the Morning AH Meditation, every day. Dyer instructed us to meditate to the sound Ah. He explained that this sound is particularly powerful because it is included in the word for God in many different cultures: God, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Jehovah. He also believes that the Ah sound is one of pure joy. According to Dyer there is something very powerful about vocalizing this sound while directing our attention to what we want to bring about or manifest in our life. The result, according to Dyer, is that when we regularly focus our attention through an Ah meditation practice, what we wish for starts to come true.
I was already a strong believer in the use of manifesting (another word for focusing my attention on specific things I wanted in my life), and I do believe mantras (like Ah) can help focus my attention during meditation. So I was happy to pair my intentions with the chants along with Dyer to try to kick-start my meditation practice. If the manifestations came true, so much the better!
At that time, my goal was to do the Ah meditation for thirty days straight, as we had been instructed in intenSati training, because doing anything for thirty days would make it habitual. I came out of the gates with a bang, and I definitely saw changes in my ability to meditate over that first month. In the beginning, when I sat down for my daily meditation, my right foot had the annoying habit of tapping as if it (or I) were impatient to get the meditation over with. I intentionally forced my foot to stop tapping and became much less fidgety in my month-long course. I also learned to control my breath better so I could sustain the Ah sounds during the entire meditation. To be honest, I got a tiny bit competitive trying to sustain my Ah as long as Dyer did (he gives a really long Ahhhhhh in this video). This was probably not the most Zen approach to meditation, but it helped keep me coming back.
Sure, I missed a day here and there, but I was pretty consistent for those thirty days. Did I notice any effects in my life during this exercise? Absolutely! I noticed that my focus was sharper; I felt less distracted and more efficient.
I was so pleased with the results, I gave myself a few days off as a reward, and before I knew it, I never started again.
Well, there went the idea that thirty days can set up a habit. I guess you really need thirty days and more motivation than I had at that time to create a daily meditation practice.
The good news was that even if I didn’t continue with the daily meditations, they gave me a taste of what it was like to have a meditation practice, and more important, I noticed the benefits, including more focused attention and calm in my life. I knew I couldn’t give up.
HOW DO YOU SUCCESSFULLY CREATE NEW HABITS?
I am a poster child for how to unsuccessfully start a new meditation practice. I failed so many times that it’s a miracle that I ever managed to build the consistent routine that I have today. Why is it so difficult to start a new routine? Probably for the same reason that it’s hard to start running regularly or reading every night before bed or eating more leafy greens. All of these are activities that take a certain amount of time, motivation, and even struggle. Learning something new is always a challenge. When I finally began to exercise in a regular way, it took a lot of mental, emotional, and physical energy to make that change. Yes, I was catapulted by the powerful epiphany about my own lack of fitness on my adventure trip in Peru and by my ever-widening presence in pictures from the time. But, ultimately, my motivation to really stick with it came from a combination of desires and positive outcomes: I wanted to feel strong, I wanted to lose weight, I wanted to be more social, and I began to see results. This positive reinforcement got me over the hump.
Other people develop motivation to change by completely immersing themselves in the new behavior. That’s why many people go to boot camp for exercise or on meditation retreats. Immersion forces focus and regularity. It would probably have helped if I had gone to a nice long meditation retreat for which I paid someone to make me meditate every single day for many hours. That’s also the premise of The Biggest Loser show or my personal guilty TV pleasure, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. In Extreme Makeover, the producers remove the weight loss candidate from their home environment for at least three months to completely change their habits, while also transforming their home environment and filling it full of workout equipment to really make the new habits stick once the person gets back home. I didn’t have either a major epiphany or the luxury of an immersive experience with meditation.
So what are you supposed to do if you don’t have outside help? One useful strategy is to start much, much smaller than I did. For starters, a twenty-minutes-a-day commitment was just too long and resulted in immediate abandonment of the habit as soon as I finished my thirty days.
Instead, I would recommend starting with just thirty seconds a day, repeating one of your positive goals. BJ Fogg, a social psychologist at Stanford University and creator of a program called Tiny Habits, would add that you could pair your very short or “tiny” new habit with something that you already do every day. For example, pair your recitation of your intention with brushing your teeth in the morning. Just standing right there in the bathroom, close your eyes and recite the intention when you’ve finished brushing. Once you tackle this, you can build up to saying a mantra or doing a breathing meditation.
This idea was actually the inspiration for the four-minute Brain Hacks found throughout this book. You can easily turn your favorite Brain Hacks into a long-lasting habit by pairing them with your own personal daily anchor.
BRAIN HACKS: MEDITATION
Meditation is simple. It does not take long, it can be done anywhere, and it has a powerful effect on your brain–body connection. Try these quick tips.
• At the beginning of your day, take four minutes to recite one goal or intention for your life.
• Go to a quiet place outside and just sit silently for four minutes while focusing on the natural world around you and nothing else.
• Use a mantra like Om or Ah in a four-minute meditation.
• Before you go to bed, sit quietly for four minutes focusing on your breath.
• Find a meditation buddy and make a pact to do a partnered four-minute session together at least three times a week.
• Following the instructions given later in this chapter, do a four-minute loving kindness meditation just to start to get the hang of it. Rotate between breath meditations and loving kindness meditations to see which one you like best.
THE DALAI LAMA, AMBASSADOR OF MEDITATION AND NEUROSCIENCE
You might not know this but His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not only a global ambassador for meditation but also a powerful advocate for the neuroscientific study of the effects of meditation on the brain. I had the privilege of hearing the Dalai Lama speak on this topic in November 2005 at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. I was one of more than thirty thousand attendees at this meeting, and so I made sure to be at the session early enough to get a good seat. Miraculously, I was able to sit in the actual room where the Dalai Lama was speaking (many others were in satellite rooms with a video beamed in). The most striking thing about the Dalai Lama to me was his boyish charm. Maybe it was because he started his remarks by confessing, with a little giggle, that he had experienced stress in preparing his remarks for us neuroscientists. I just wanted to go up and pinch his cheeks. The Dalai Lama has an undeniable mix of joyful charm and profound presence, and both were on display that day in Washington, D.C.
He made the argument that there are many commonalities between Buddhism and the study of neuroscience. He said that the Buddhist tradition of exploring nature and testing ideas explicitly rather than relying solely on scriptures or unproven beliefs is consistent with scientific effort. Another interesting parallel between Buddhism and neuroscience is that the Buddhist tradition believes strongly in the potential for transforming the human mind. In fact, one of the major reasons meditative practices were developed as part of Buddhism was to help people change mentally, developing both deeper compassion and more profound wisdom. I was hooked.
In addition to being a worldwide ambassador for meditation, the Dalai Lama walks his talk; he meditates for four hours each morning. I can only assume that his rigorous practice came about through immersion because he was identified as a young child as the Dalai Lama and, therefore, started practicing meditation regularly and intensely at an early age. But I don’t think you can explain his entire spiritual practice by the way he was raised. I believe there is something special about him. You can feel him as soon as you enter a room in which he is present—even one as big as a football field like the one I was in with him. He is a deeply spiritual and powerful presence.
The most surprising (and my favorite) part of the talk in Washington was when the Dalai Lama admitted that he finds meditation difficult. If the Dalai Lama can confess this, the rest of us should feel just a little bit better, right? He then challenged us neuroscientists: If we found a method for achieving the brain benefits of meditation without requiring four hours of practice each morning, he would happily use it.
BRAIN WAVES, THE BINDING PROBLEM, AND WHAT HAPPENS IN YOUR BRAIN WHEN YOU MEDITATE
Inspired in part by the Dalai Lama, in part by their own innate scientific curiosity, and in part by the growing interest in meditation’s beneficial effects on a wide range of neurological states like depression and other affective disorders, neuroscientists have started to examine exactly what happens to our brains when we meditate. Is there a brain “signature” of meditation? And if neural activity actually changes in response to meditation, what does that suggest about our ability to control our minds?
One area of intense interest examines the patterns of rhythmic and synchronous brain activity, often called brain waves (the technical term is neural oscillations) that occur during meditation. These brain waves originate from the electrical signals of widespread networks of brain cells firing synchronously. The patterns of these waves of electrical activity can happen at different speeds from very slow, one to three times per second, for example, to very fast. Relative to meditation, some neuroscientists have been particularly interested in one of the fastest rhythms studied in the brain—the gamma wave, or gamma oscillation, which happens very fast, at about forty times each second. You can imagine the gamma oscillations like ocean waves of synchronous electrical activity that sweep over large swaths of the brain forty times per second and coordinate activity across these large brain areas. Neuroscientists have been particularly interested in gamma oscillations because previous studies have reported increases in gamma activity in different brain areas during a range of tasks of higher cognitive functions, like visual attention, working memory, learning, and conscious perception.
One well-known problem that gamma waves have been applied to is called the binding problem. The binding problem addresses the question of how the brain comes up with a coherent representation of individual items when so many different and widespread parts of the brain are involved in processing information from vision to emotion to smell to memory. But, as we all know, we don’t see and feel the world in distinct snapshots, with vision separate from emotion separate from memory. Instead, our perceptions, thoughts, and actions are seamlessly integrated. To achieve this kind of seamless integration, neuroscientists have proposed that we need a master orchestrator to coordinate the perceptions, actions, emotions, and memories we process and that gamma waves could be just this kind of orchestrator. Scientists are currently testing the idea that gamma waves might help bind the activity of all the different brain areas responding to a particular stimulus (visual, olfactory, emotional), allowing our brain to create a coherent and integrated representation.
Because meditation was thought to change widespread brain states and improve attentional focus (remember attention had already been shown to be associated with increased gamma activity), it made sense to examine gamma wave activation during meditation. That’s exactly what one group did. Their strategy was to examine the brain activity of expert meditators and see what might be different between their brains and the brains of control subjects who had undergone just a week of basic meditation training. The expert meditators were eight Tibetan Buddhist monks who had accumulated between ten thousand and fifty thousand hours of meditation training over the course of fifteen to forty years. So they were truly experts when it came to meditating. The main experiment compared the pattern of brain waves, including gamma oscillations, as the monks and the novices performed an advanced form of meditation called the loving kindness meditation.
The neuroscientists wanted to see if there was any difference between the patterns of brain waves in the monks compared to those in the controls as both groups did the same meditation. The difference, it turned out, was like night and day. Of course, there were more gamma waves present in the brains of the monks relative to the novice meditators. In fact, the level of gamma activity was off the charts—the monks exhibited the most powerful gamma waves that had ever been seen in normal, nonpathological humans. This finding showed that there was indeed a dramatic difference between the brains of expert and novice meditators. These findings suggested that the extensive amount of training and meditation that the monks did resulted in the development of prominent gamma waves, which may reflect the monks’ higher levels of awareness and mindfulness. But another possibility is that the monks were born with a propensity for more gamma waves that predisposed them to deep meditation, which in turn drove them to become monks. In other words, the brain waves of these monks might have started out different from birth. While this widely referenced study could not differentiate between these possibilities, other randomized control studies that compared the effects of meditation to no meditation in two equivalent groups of subjects have confirmed that the practice does cause a number of different kinds of brain changes.
OBJECT-BASED VERSUS OPEN MONITORING MEDITATION
It turns out that while there are many different kinds of meditation, the practice can generally be separated into two broad categories. The first category is often called focused attention meditation, which, as the name suggests, centers on the act of directing and sustaining your attention on a particular object. This is a very common form of meditation, often used in yoga classes when the instructor asks you to focus on your breath while pushing all other wandering thoughts away.
The second form of meditation is considered more advanced and is called open monitoring meditation. This practice can start with a focused attention meditation to calm the mind, but then the focus of attention moves from an object (that is, your breath) to a particular state, in the case of this study, to the state of loving kindness and compassion.
To start a loving kindness meditation, you first picture someone in your mind who you know and love or have known and loved in the past. It can work with an adult, but I find it works particularly well to picture a baby. Now, just savor the feeling of joy and totally uninhibited love that you feel toward that baby. If a human baby or a loved person in your life is not working for you, then puppies, kittens, or other baby animals might do the trick.
Once you have a feeling of loving kindness and compassion flowing through you, try to develop that same feeling toward others. You can start with the easy targets, your closest friends and family members. Then you practice directing feelings of loving kindness toward a stranger, like the person sitting next to you on a flight or the waiter who serves your meal. Then the hard part comes. You direct loving kindness toward someone you are having difficulty with or even hate. Of course, this last step could take months, years, or even a lifetime to master. That is okay.
A mantra that accompanies the loving kindness meditation is: “May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering. May you experience joy and ease.”
You can offer these words to everyone in your focus during the loving kindness meditation. Good luck on this journey!
WHAT DOES MEDITATION REALLY DO FOR OUR BRAINS?
Although the gamma wave differences between the monks and the novice meditators are striking, this study did not provide specific information about the brain areas that might change with meditation. Gamma wave studies don’t provide precise information about the brain areas sending the signals. fMRI studies have been done to help identify the areas and specific functions that change with meditation. One study compared brain activation in a group of meditators with at least three years of practice (not as expert as the Tibetan monks, but still pretty good) to nonmeditators. This study asked if there were differences in brain activity as subjects were performing a task of selective attention in which they had to quickly switch their focus from one thing to another. The surprising finding was that there was less activation in the frontal lobes during this task for the meditators than for the control group. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but it actually makes sense. If expert meditators have better control over their attention, they require less effort and, therefore, less activation to move their focus to different objects quickly.
But as I asked before, what if all these differences between the expert meditators and the novices were due to the fact that people who become expert meditators have brains that are wired differently from the rest of us (this is the same question that came up with the London cab drivers way back in Chapter 1)? To address this question, one study examined the effects of an intense meditation training (five hours a day for months) versus no such training in a group of volunteers between twenty-one and seventy years old who were all familiar with intensive meditation practice. These people were clearly not novice meditators, but it was a well-designed randomized control study nonetheless. Researchers randomly assigned the participants to either intense meditation or not to determine if the intense practice would improve attention and visual discrimination. This study clearly showed that the people in the intense meditation group had improved in both tasks relative to the control group. Another study with a similar randomized control design examined brain activity using fMRI as subjects focused on their breath, a very common meditation practice. In fact, the insula, located deep in the lateral (side) part of the brain, is known to be involved in attention toward internal bodily functions (for example, respiration or digestion). This study showed that meditation practice increased activation of the insular cortex relative to nonmeditators during a breathing practice. These are two examples of a growing body of studies suggesting that meditation training can change the brain activity of a random sample of people relative to no meditation training. But we will need many more similar studies to fully characterize the changes that occur with both short- and long-term meditation training.
Other studies focused on meditation alone have examined the effect of the practice not only on patterns of brain activation using fMRI but, just like the studies on exercise, also on brain size. For example, a number of studies have reported that different kinds of meditations result in increases in cortical volume (brain size increases). One study focused on people who had been practicing loving kindness meditation for at least five years. Researchers reported bigger volumes in the right angular gyrus and the posterior parahippocampal gyrus, brain areas associated with empathy, anxiety, and mood. Another study comparing expert meditators and nonmeditators found larger brain volumes in the right anterior insula, in the left inferotemporal gyrus, and in the right hippocampus.
Another study examined the effects of eight weeks of meditation in inexperienced meditators and found that, compared to before the program, participants showed increases in gray matter in the left hippocampus and posterior cingulate cortex.
You might wonder why all these studies are reporting different brain changes with meditation. One important note is that the studies used different forms of meditation, which makes direct comparisons across the research difficult to do. There are so many different kinds of meditation, and each kind could have its own set of unique brain effects. We have to be systematic about the kind of meditation that we study to start to sort this question out.
These challenges are similar to the impact of different forms of exercise. What is the difference between Nordic walking versus treadmill running versus spinning class on the results of scientific studies? Findings suggest that, although evidence shows that both exercise and meditation ultimately produce positive brain changes, there is still much work to do on specifying all the brain effects of the many different forms of exercise and meditation out there. We have our work cut out for us.
Taken together, all this research on the neurobiology of meditation tells us something quite extraordinary about the brain. We already know that aerobic exercise that changes so many physiological functions in our body—from heart rate to respiration to body temperature to muscle activity to the level of constriction and dilation of the blood vessels—can change the brain in striking ways. What the studies reviewed in this chapter show is that you don’t have to move one finger to see brain plasticity at work. In fact all you have to do is sit very still and focus your mind, which results in significant changes in electrical activity, anatomy, and behavioral function. In a sense, that’s even more surprising and more powerful than the changes seen with exercise. For me this is probably the most profound example of the great degree of plasticity that the brain is capable of.
AN EXERCISE–MEDITATION SMACKDOWN
I am often asked whether exercise or meditation is better for your brain. What happens if you pit the raw physical power of aerobic exercise against the steely calm of meditation in a head-to-head, no-holds-barred, good old-fashioned smackdown? In fact, that was the question I kept asking myself. I had a strong exercise regimen and a growing meditation practice. I felt great, and I wanted to know why. What parts of my brain were changing because of exercise and what parts were benefiting from meditation? Was there one that was better for my brain?
The first important thing to note is that while we can study the effects of aerobic exercise on brain function in both animals and people, we don’t have the luxury of studying meditation in animals—they don’t meditate! Because of this fact, more is known about the detailed cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying exercise. Of course, in meditation’s favor is the fact that it is a practice that has been around for thousands of years, and there is currently significant interest in this field.
Several recent studies out of Stanford have already compared the effects of exercise and meditation. One study compared a form of meditation called mindfulness-based stress reduction to aerobic exercise for improving mood in patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD), which is a common condition characterized by intense fear of evaluation and avoidance of social or performance situations. Using a randomized control design, the experiment showed that both meditation and exercise groups showed significantly fewer symptoms of SAD and better measures of well-being relative to the untreated control group. In other words, after both exercise and meditation, the subjects in these groups rated themselves higher in measures of well-being than did the people in the control group. In this study, both exercise and meditation appear to have similar effects on mood and well-being in subjects with SAD.
Although previous studies have shown that exercise improves attention function in elderly adults, a follow-up study showed that for people suffering from SAD mindfulness-based meditation may be more effective at improving attention than is exercise. In this study, researchers compared the effects of mindfulness-based meditation to aerobic exercise using fMRI to determine which parts of the brain became activated when participants tried to regulate their emotional responses about their own negative self-beliefs. The purposes of the study were (1) to determine which intervention (exercise or meditation) decreased participants’ reactivity to statements of negative self-beliefs and (2) to observe the pattern of brain activity as participants responded to these negative statements. The researchers found that people with SAD who engaged in the mindfulness-based meditation showed less negative emotional response (as judged by themselves) while they were trying to regulate their reactions to their own negative self-beliefs than did the exercise group. In addition, the scientists noticed that the meditation group showed more brain activation of the parietal lobes (important for attentional regulation) than did the exercise group. The results suggest that meditation might enhance the attentional regions of the brain, allowing the individuals with SAD to better regulate their emotions toward negative self-beliefs. Although the participants in this study had SAD, all of us can benefit from the ability to better regulate our attention, particularly in emotional situations. We will need further studies to determine if the same benefit is also seen in normal control subjects who undergo meditation training.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
So who wins this exercise–meditation smackdown? Based on the data in humans that we have at the moment, it’s a draw. There is evidence that both activities provide clear brain benefits. Both provide striking mood enhancement for both patient population groups and healthy control populations. Both can increase the size of various brain structures, and both have positive effects on attention.
I often ask myself what the best ways are to optimize the positive effects of exercise and meditation. Clearly, you want to be including both aerobic activity and mindful practice into your workout regime, which is exactly what I do. Maybe twice a week I’ll take a Vinyasa yoga class, and another two or three times a week I’ll go sweat it out in a spin, kickboxing, or dance class.
What does this all mean?
How many times a week should you do yoga? How many times a week should you meditate? How many times should you work out to get your heart rate up? What is the right number for optimal results? Is there a best time to practice? How long should each session last so that I can give both my body and my brain a chance to improve? These are the questions I ask myself.
We still don’t know the final answers to these questions, but the neuroscience evidence shows us that both exercise and meditation have positive effects on the brain. For me, I feel best when I sprinkle all three throughout my week. I also pay close attention to how I’m feeling. You can experiment with your own concoction of exercises to try to find the perfect recipe for you. Yes, science should be able to make this all easy for us, and we are heading in that direction. In the meantime, the good news is that whatever combination and style and frequency of exercise and meditation that makes you feel the best is the one that works for you.
CONFESSIONS OF A YO-YO MEDITATOR, ROUND TWO: MEDITATION WITH PETER
About a year after my Ah meditation experiment, I was ready to try again. I signed up for Deepak Chopra’s twenty-one-day meditation challenge. This is a free online program that sounded like a great way to reinvigorate my meditation practice. I jumped right in. I also told all my friends and the students in my weekly exercise class that I was doing the challenge, so they could help motivate me. Despite all this support, I floundered pretty quickly, and I basically gave up on day three. I just didn’t enjoy listening to what the leaders had to say, and there was someone new every day, so I couldn’t get used to anyone either. I had failed Chopra’s challenge.
Six or eight months later, I gave it another go. This time, I chose a different twenty-one-day meditation challenge, once again designed by Chopra, called “Manifesting Abundance.” That title really appealed to me, and I signed on. Finally, something clicked. Maybe it was because for this challenge, Chopra had done all the meditations himself, and I just loved the sound of his soothing voice. I enjoyed listening to his stories too. Each meditation also had its own mantra, a Sanskrit word used to help focus our concentration. Chopra told us the meaning of each word and had us repeat the word throughout the meditation. One of my favorite of these mantras is “Sat chit ananda,” which means “existence, consciousness, bliss.” Another favorite, “Om varunam namah” means “My life is in harmony with cosmic law.”
I think I was particularly drawn to these two mantras because of the sounds of the foreign words that I found beautiful to the ear and because of their meaning. Their sound and their meaning were both soothing and comforting, and I found myself able to focus on these mantras particularly well. It reminded me of when I discovered the intenSati class in the gym that really energized my physical workout. In the same way these particular mantras energized my meditation practice because I connected with them. So it seemed that mantras could actually work for me. I was thrilled when I completed the full twenty-one-day challenge! This was a first for me. I knew meditation had really clicked for me when I found myself going back to the beginning and starting over again. I was still a long way away from monk status, but I had definitely made a step in the right direction.
To tell the truth, the intention that I was focused on at this point was specific. I wanted to meet the man of my dreams, a partner with whom I could share my life. I had the exciting job, the great social life, and after recovering from the breakup with Michael, I was happy again. It was time to see what life would bring me next.
I knew I needed an intelligent, fit, social, energetic man who shared at least some of my love for food and travel and exploring New York. I also knew by then that I needed a man with a spiritual side, something that Michael had shown no interest in. As my meditation practice slowly grew stronger, I continued to keep that clear intention for a romantic partner in mind. And then, a curious thing happened. I met a man who liked to meditate! And he was really hot too!
One day, on a whim, I decided to try the online dating sites again for the first time since Michael. After many weeks of perusing the sites with little luck, I finally saw someone who looked really interesting. He had a charming profile; he seemed very intelligent and was clearly an athlete. And he loved to dance—double gold stars in my book because I love to dance and have never gone out with anyone who could really dance. I learned his name was Peter, and we arranged to meet for a drink at one of my favorite Italian wine bars in the city.
The first thing I noticed about him was that he looked just like his online picture: very handsome! The second thing I noticed about him was his very calming presence. I soon also learned that he had a strong meditation practice that he had developed over many years. We also discovered we had something else in common: We both spent a formative year in France, he as a high school student and me as a junior in college. We both spoke French fluently, but needed someone to speak with. By that point, my French was quite rusty, and speaking French with Peter that night forced me to dig deep to find that French vocabulary hidden somewhere in the recesses of my brain. In addition to speaking French beautifully, Peter was also musical; he liked to sing and fool around on the guitar. I think I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for musicians ever since François, so here was another thing in Peter’s favor.
But of all the interests we had in common, the one I was most excited about was his meditation practice. Maybe it was because he had such a deep and calming presence. I wanted to learn more about him and his practice and bask in the glow of that presence as much as I possibly could.
Peter and I had a whirlwind romance. After that first date at the wine bar, he invited me out to dinner and dancing with live music. It was one of the most fun dates that I’ve ever had. We followed that date with one that included a dance performance and a group of my friends, then more causal dinners and evenings playing music and singing (well, he did most of the singing while I kind of hummed along).
Peter told me that he had started his spiritual journey when he went to a yoga retreat and found a teacher who really spoke to him. The teacher described spirituality as a way of life and not a religion, and Peter really responded to that. He had been following this teacher for years by the time we met, going to retreats with him, reading his books, and using his teachings in his everyday life as much as he could.
These discussions forced me to think about and then articulate my views on my own spiritual practice—and this was new to me. I had never been religious growing up, and as an adult who happened to have a job as a neuroscientist, it felt awkward to even consider any kind of spiritual practice. Meditation as an exercise in attention was just fine, but a common opinion of many of the quantitative and empirical minds around me during my science education and career was the harsh view that religion and spirituality were for the weak and feebleminded. Eventually, however, as I got deeper and deeper into my own meditation practice, I was clearly drawn to the spiritual side. In most organized meditation sessions, tapes, or other presentations, including yoga classes, references to the spirit or the universe or simply energy were always present. Consistent with this idea, I found there was a power in the act of meditation. For me, that power came from going within and the feeling that I was tapping into a kind of universal energy that linked me to all others. For me, this experience felt spiritual in nature. I would say that at this point, my spiritual practice is still in its early stages. I’m still learning and exploring. Because of these conversations with Peter, however, I had started to think more about how my spiritual practice relates to my life as a neuroscientist. No, I didn’t have empirical evidence that there was a spirit or any special energy source linking us in the universe. I’m not sure if we actually have the ability to even do the kind of experiment to prove or disprove this idea. But what I did know was that I was committed to continue exploring the spirituality through meditation and see where it took me.
The Dalai Lama said that Buddhism shared with science the goal of exploring nature. I feel that my meditation practice is an exploration of both spirituality and my own true nature. I may not be able to prove the existence or inner workings of a larger universal energy, but I’m still interested in exploring how it works in my life. In a way, this is exactly how I approach the science questions that I’m tackling. I don’t know exactly how exercise is affecting brain function, but I can develop my own hypotheses and take steps to test these hypotheses or ideas systematically. Similarly, I am developing my own hypotheses about how spirituality works in my own life, and while I’m not doing large-scale experiments to test these ideas in a randomized controlled fashion, I can and do test them in my own personal spiritual practice. At their heart, my pursuit of the understanding of how exercise affects the brain and my pursuit of an understanding of meditation and spirituality in my life share my own curiosity about the nature of life and experience.
After all this talk of meditation, Peter and I eventually started meditating together. While I enjoyed my solitary morning meditation practice, I also loved meditation in a big group too, like what happens at the end of a yoga class or at a meditation retreat. When I meditated with Peter, it didn’t feel exactly as if I was in a whole roomful of meditators, but it was very different from meditating alone; he made the meditation somehow feel deeper just because he was there. It was also clear that nothing was going to interrupt his practice when he started meditating, and that focus transferred to me.
A couple of weeks after we started dating, Peter and I decided to play hooky, just because we could. We went skiing in Colorado. He was a beautiful skier, and despite a bout with severe altitude sickness that hit me in the middle of the first day, I bounced back and had more fun skiing with him than I had had in many years.
Our relationship was going so well. He was handsome, athletic, intelligent, spiritual, and a great dancer. What more could I ask for? We just got along in so many ways.
But there were ways that we didn’t get along. His monklike demeanor was fantastic for a good meditation, but he could be very independent, maybe even verging on distant. Sometimes, we would have fantastic and fascinating conversations and other times it felt hard to find things to talk about at all. Not because he was not interesting but because he didn’t always want to interact at the same level that I did. These instances left me feeling lonely and wanting more.
But more important, I realized quite quickly (after only a couple of months) that while we shared many interests and I appreciated many of his qualities, I didn’t love Peter. I just really liked him. I asked myself what it meant to be wishing that a guy were different this early in the relationship. If I didn’t really love him, and I wanted him to be different, I decided it might be time to move on.
So I told Peter exactly what I was feeling. He was very gracious. He said he was grateful for my honesty and my self-awareness.
I’m sure this was the right decision because Peter and I are still good friends today. In fact, I must admit that my breakup with Peter was the most adult breakup (yes, there is such a thing) that I have ever experienced in my life. And there is a reason for that. My meditation practice was starting to pay off. I found that meditation was beginning to shift the way I responded to the world in three very positive ways. The first was that I was becoming more self-aware and grounded. I was becoming clear on what I really valued and what I wanted out of life; to be fair, this realization was likely a combination of meditation and exercise plus life experience. But the quiet internal contemplation of meditation helped me develop this improved awareness. With this improved awareness came appreciation—appreciation of my life at all levels from awards or recognition to wonderful friends to all the things that bring me pleasure during the day, such as meditation, tea, a great workout, a walk through the city, or (one of my favorites) finding a new restaurant to try.
I had spent so much of my life using maximal effort and willpower to reach my goals. Initially it was my goal of building a great research lab and getting tenure, and then it was my goal to rebalance my life, starting with exercise. Meditation not only allowed me to finally appreciate all the benefits that all that rebalancing brought to my life but also allowed me to realize that maybe I didn’t need to use so much effort to bring these changes about. This lesson took me quite a while to learn. It went against everything I had ever learned about how the world works. My old view: Work hard and at 100 percent for what you want because no one is going to help you. My new view: Enjoy what you have, and look for the signs telling you which direction to go next. And you will have help along the way.
The second way that meditation has shifted my worldview is that it has helped me live more in the present. As I described in Chapter 7, exercise first got me to appreciate focusing on the present moment, but it was only with more regular meditation that I really started to develop this skill. I had been living so much of my life focused on a future goal and doing everything I could to get that goal that I never gave myself time to live and appreciate the present moment. I now notice when people are really in the present moment. There is a presence to them that contrasts so strongly with the distracted, smartphone-checking interactions we have with so many people. The people living in the present moment are there, they are focused, and they are taking it all in. This is part of the reason there is something so striking about the Dalai Lama. He is hyperpresent in the moment, and we are just not used to seeing, feeling, or experiencing that. I’m certainly not present all the time, but I am much more sensitive to when I am and am not, and I am on my way to increasing the amount of time that I am living in the present moment.
The third way that meditation has impacted my life is probably the most important. It has been by bringing more compassion into my life. This started with the loving kindness meditation. I admit that first I thought that the goal was send more compassion out into the world. In other words, be nice. But I have come to realize that this is not the way it works at all. Instead, I realized that I needed to first focus the loving kindness meditation on myself. I found it surprisingly difficult to do this, even more difficult than the idea of being loving and compassionate to others. I realized that I had been so hard on myself for so long, that I wasn’t working hard enough or wasn’t successful enough, that one of the most profound things that the meditation practice brought was quiet time to consider my own loving compassion to myself. With meditation, I have learned how to love and trust myself to a level that I never had before. Yes, I am more confident and much happier. This is not just because I have more friends and a more balanced life. The confidence and joy are also grounded in my own self-approval. This is huge for me, and many others, I suspect. At some point, I had to ask myself, Do I approve of me?
My answer to myself was, Am I allowed to approve of me? I had spent so much time using external measures of my own success that self-approval had somehow disappeared. The practice of meditation has allowed me to shift my practice of using only external sources to judge my self-worth and instead start using my own scale to measure how successful I am, how happy I am, and what it is I want to do next. Only when I really started loving and appreciating myself could I then turn that love and compassion to the world around me. Loving myself and others has shifted the way I see the world, which is no longer a teeming snarled snake pit to survive but a lovely garden to find my way through.
This may sound like I’m giving meditation too much credit for these personal changes, but keep in mind how many years had gone into transforming aspects of my life, from how I spent my time to how my body felt to cultivating my own mind-body connection. I was ready for the next shift that meditation brought about. I had primed my brain for plasticity, and the meditation seemed to bring it all home.
How has my behavior changed because of this new level of self-love? Focusing on loving and appreciating and trusting myself has taught me how to better love and appreciate and trust others. I know now that even something as difficult and painful as breaking up with someone can ultimately be an act of loving. That’s exactly what it was with Peter, and that act of loving has given me a friend whom I continue to love and support in my life.
This raises an even more interesting question about how we study meditation. If you have noticed, these kinds of transformations of self-worth or self-love were not mentioned once in the neurobiological studies of meditation. Those studies focused on brain waves or anatomical changes associated with meditation. From a neuroscience perspective, those are fine measures to start with, but my own experience with meditation suggests that there are much deeper and much more complex issues that one can examine with respect to the brain and meditation. All the changes that I experienced were examples of brain plasticity and seem to have some neurobiological basis. What is the network associated with enhanced self-love and acceptance? What happens when we shift our personal judgment system from an external-based model to an internal-based one? Also, I used a mixed bag of different kinds of meditation from Wayne Dyers’s AH Meditation to Deepak Chopra’s meditation challenges to loving kindness meditations. Which kind of meditation was doing what? By the way, my own mixed bag of meditation styles reflects the styles that have been used in published studies of meditation, making it difficult to compare across different practices. All this is to say that there is both an enormous potential for our understanding of the effects of meditation on brain function and an enormously challenging job ahead.
You might be asking yourself about what happens when someone uses meditation to start living in the present and gains more love and appreciation for themselves. The answer is it heightens that person’s awareness. And sometimes that leads to a beautiful example of closure.
This story starts with my desire to learn more about feng shui. Because I was trying to clear out all the stale old energy from the previous relationships in my life to make way for a wonderful new relationship, I thought this was the perfect time to give the process a try.
I had asked Inessa Freylekhman, a friend and feng shui expert, to come to my apartment. She arrived with burning sage, mantras to chant, and a set of beautiful gold bells from Bali that she used in the ceremony. She explained what each area of the house represents and identified where certain things needed to be moved or adjusted to make the energy flow better. After she evaluated the basic energy flow in my place (deemed good in that it could be improved with a few little fixes), we started walking through my apartment and she suggested that we look together at all the things that I had on my shelves and tables and ask if they represented old relationships and might need to be removed or represented good positive memories. It turned out that I had saved many mementos from those relationships in my life that had not worked out. Freylekhman suggested that I might want to find a new home for those items and refresh the energy in the rooms. I was stunned at the number of little knickknacks and reminders I had lining my walls and shelves, and I started feeling lighter as soon as we started identifying the things I could remove.
Then we got to my closet. It’s a big walk-in closet, and when I opened it up the first thing we saw was a big cello in its case that took up a huge amount of my precious closet space. It was the same cello that François had given me all those years ago in France. Freylekhman asked what it was, and I explained. She asked if I played it, and I said no. Then she asked if I wanted to keep it.
I suddenly and totally unexpectedly started to cry.
She gently asked me what was wrong.
I told her that I felt so guilty for accepting this beautiful cello all those years ago, and not playing it. I told her I felt I didn’t deserve it, and it made me feel like I was a terrible and totally unworthy recipient of this gorgeous gift. My guilt was compounded by my memory of the horrible way I broke up with François all those years ago over the phone. I have basically been dragging this guilt-riddled cello all around the country with me, not having time to play it and not having the heart to give it away. I hadn’t even thought about it for years, yet there is was, making me burst into tears in the middle of my feng shui session.
I decided there and then that I wanted to give it away so it could do some good.
Freylekhman thought that was a great idea, and we finished our tour of my apartment and she finished all the blessings and mantras around my feng shui session. I would say it was a wonderful success.
I said good-bye to all the items we had identified and even a few more I found on my own and gave them all a new home. My place did feel lighter, airier, with a brand-new energy. I loved it.
Then I got to work on the cello. I learned that a colleague’s daughter was looking for a new cello, and I enthusiastically suggested she could use mine. I loved the idea that it would be used. They got the cello evaluated by my friend’s daughter’s cello teacher, and that’s when I discovered it had a big crack in it in a very bad place. My friend’s daughter could not use it.
Then I learned that one of the students in our graduate program who is a cellist knew of a youth orchestra in need of usable cellos. That seemed like a lovely home for my instrument. They did not take broken cellos, but if I repaired it, they would be happy to take it. The student even gave me the name of his favorite cello-repair guy in the city.
I had everything I needed to implement my donation plan.
But then I did something very unlike me.
I did nothing.
I could not manage to find time to call the cello-repair guy no matter how hard I tried. Months passed until I realized what was wrong. I realized I still could not give my precious cello away—even to kids in need of instruments.
So the cello remained in the closet.
Then I went on a wine-tasting weekend with my friend Gina on the exotic North Fork of Long Island. She had heard that the wine tasting out there was surprisingly good. We both needed a break from the city, so off we went to a cute little bed-and-breakfast place for the weekend. She had big plans for a summer trip, and her friend had told her about a wonderful hotel in, of all places, Bordeaux, France. This place was on an estate with meals included, allowed access to the entire grounds, and was not very expensive. I mentioned my old boyfriend in Bordeaux with whom I had not spoken since college.
She said, wouldn’t it be nice to stay in Bordeaux, and I could visit François and say hello. I was noncommittal because this whole conversation was making me realize something very important.
Yes, I did want to talk to François again, but not on a trip to Bordeaux. I realized that I needed to call and finally thank him properly not only for the cello but for that entire year in France. I knew what I was going to do.
When we got back from that Long Island weekend, I googled “piano tuners in Bordeaux” and didn’t find much until I started looking at the images that came up and found a picture of him tuning a piano. He was looking a little older but it was definitely him. I found he worked for a recording studio and the next morning I woke up at 5:00 A.M. to call the studio to talk to him.
A man answered on the third ring, and in my rusty French, I asked if François was there.
He said, “Non.”
I said, “Oh, doesn’t he work there?”
He said, “Only when I need a piano tuner.”
So he did know François!
I explained that I was an old friend from the United States and wanted to get in touch with him and asked if he would be able to give me François’s cell phone number.
He said he had it, but it was at the shop, and he was at home at the moment. He asked me to call back in thirty minutes.
I thanked him and went back to bed for a nap.
About forty-five minutes later I called again, and there was no answer.
By this time my hopes were up that I would actually speak to François so I was crushed when the man didn’t answer the phone. But I told myself to be a little patient and I fixed myself a little breakfast and waited another thirty minutes or so.
My perseverance was rewarded because the next time I called he answered and had François’s cell phone number ready for me. The guy from the studio was very kind and repeated the numbers at least four times to be sure I got them correct. I thanked him and hung up.
Without giving myself any time to think about the fact that I hadn’t spoken to François for twenty-eight years and chicken out, I immediately called François’s number and waited.
Someone picked up on the second ring.
I asked, “C’est François?”—Is this François?
He said, “Oui c’est moi.”—Yes, it’s me.
I said (in French), “Oh! This is an old friend from the United States; this is Wendy Suzuki.”
He said (in French), “Hello!”
I said, “You don’t seem that surprised to hear from me!”
He said that his friend from the recording studio had called him to tell him that an American woman was calling for him. He said I was the only American woman he knew, so he thought it was probably me.
We both laughed, and we had a nice time catching up with our families and our lives. His family is all well and he is now married with two daughters. I gave him a brief update about my family and my life.
He asked after my cello. I happily (and with a sense of relief) told him it was doing just fine.
That was the moment I took to tell him the real reason I called. I took a breath and said that because of the cello I realized that I had never properly thanked him for such an important experience in my life. I told him how special that whole year with him was to me. I told him (with a big lump in my throat) that I was calling him to finally say, “Thank you.”
He was quiet for a moment.
All he said was, “Merci, Wendy.”
He said the breakup had been very difficult for him and that year together had meant a lot to him as well. He said he was very happy to be in contact again after such a long time. We promised to be in touch via e-mail, wished each other the best, and hung up.
It was the ultimate example of closure in my life.
That conversion with François completely eliminated a huge piece of twenty-eight-year-old relationship baggage from my life. I had to be able to thank and acknowledge François for everything that year brought to me and all the wonderful new things it opened up to me to be able to fully appreciate anyone new coming into my life. That conversation together with my newly fung shui-ed apartment filled my home with a palpable new light and energy. It has also resulted in my repairing my beautiful cello—it’s taking up a brand-new place of honor in my living room. Cello lessons are coming soon, but in the meantime I’m relearning how to tune it and play my scales, and it makes me smile every time I look at it.
Yes, I am truly ready to enjoy whatever comes next.
TAKE-AWAYS: THE EFFECTS OF MEDITATION ON BRAIN FUNCTION
• A major difference in the brain of expert meditators relative to novice meditators is a much higher level of gamma wave oscillations. Gamma wave oscillations have been linked to certain measures of consciousness.
• Expert meditators also have more efficient processing in brain areas important for attention.
• Eight weeks of meditation practice in novices has also been shown to be associated with strong EEG signals in the anterior part of the brain.
• Long-term meditation has been reported to increase the size of various brain areas.
• Meditation improves mood in subjects with social anxiety disorder (SAD).
• Meditation enhances attention during emotional situations in subjects with SAD.