Once dismissed as a pastime for hippies, meditation is taking a more mainstream place in the home, office and occasionally in the park on a sunny day. As we have learnt more about the health risks of stress, medics and scientists have looked closely at meditation and how it can help heal our minds and our bodies. As a result, a new dialogue is emerging, legitimising meditation and other Eastern wellness traditions.
Much of recent research has focused on the brain and how meditation can rewire the neural pathways, influencing our ability to deal with stress as well as its impact on our health.
Recent research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology from Carnegie Mellon University in the US shows that brief mindfulness meditation practice – for example, 25 minutes for three consecutive days – alleviates psychological stress. Another 2014 study, a meta-analysis of almost 50 trials with more than 3500 participants, by researchers at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, determined that meditation can result in moderate reduction in psychological stress and so should be considered by practitioners as a therapeutic option.
Findings such as these have helped validate meditation, a practice considered by some as, at best, too spiritual. Meditation teacher Jonni Pollard says our advances in science have been critical in shifting meditation from mysticism to mainstream. “Science has played a very big role in providing social and cultural permission to explore the value of meditation in these ancient practices,” he explains. Pollard’s team, based in Melbourne, has created the 1 Giant Mind app to make the practice more accessible.
A formula for oneness
However, in our efforts to measure meditation against scientific standards we might be missing a key point. Meditation works, in part, because we abandon the rational and delve into the intuitive. Or does it? Researchers are now investigating whether we can create “a formula” for oneness – some might even describe it as transcendence.
Physicists use quantum mechanics in an attempt to explain and predict how fundamental energy forces – such as dark matter – work.
One of the most exciting and studied areas is string theory, a framework that unifies all the forces of nature. It proposes that everything in the universe is actually composed of incredibly tiny oscillating “strings”, which, depending on their resonance, manifest themselves as different particles – electrons, photons or gravitons. According to the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, “String theory promises nothing less than a complete unified description of all forces and all matter particles.” It’s a mathematical theory of everything.
It also bears a startling resemblance to the philosophy of the Vedas, considered to be the oldest sacred texts in the world. The Vedic tradition explains all diversity in nature as emerging from a unified field of consciousness.
The Vedas and string theory both describe the universe in terms of waves, fields, and geometrically ordered vibrations. Quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger regularly quoted the Vedas in his work in the 1920s. Continuing the theme, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner wrote in 1967, “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”
Modern thinkers continue to grapple with the idea of connectedness. Philosophy professor David Chalmers summed it up neatly in his 2014 TED talk, saying, “What physics is ultimately doing is describing the flux of consciousness.”
Yet many quantum physicists scorn comparisons to spirituality. Our rational brains crave data, yet we feel an intuitive sense of belonging. “We are experiencing – culturally, collectively, globally – a yearning for connection,” explains Pollard.
Uniting spiritual and practical
The movement to fulfill that yearning through meditation is also global. Andy Puddicombe of the popular mindfulness app Headspace and Jesse Israel, organiser of The Big Quiet mass meditation events in New York City, are working to resolve the gap between Eastern philosophy and Western desire for facts.
The definitive equation for unity and continuity is yet to come. Until then, quantifying the ways meditation is good for us continues. After reading a new study on anxiety relief, perhaps a person will take up meditation. Maybe they will experience a fundamentally deeper consciousness. Maybe they will just feel less anxious. Either way, it’s working
So you Think you can’t meditate?
Meditation teacher Jonni Pollard has simple suggestions to overcome your concerns about adding meditation to your routine.
I don’t have time…
Fifteen minutes a day is just one per cent of the time you are awake. Do you really not have one per cent of your time to invest into the most important asset you own, your mind? The return on investment is greater than anything else you will spend time, effort or money on.
I can’t quiet
Good – stop trying to control your thoughts. Let them be. We don’t want to stop thinking, we want to change the quality of our thinking. Good mediation technique allows thoughts to be there and your awareness to naturally go beyond them.
I tried it and
it didn’t work…
The chances are it worked well and you didn’t have the right guidance to provide insight about the experience you had. The truth is that every meditation is different from the next. There is no such thing as a bad meditation, only ungratifying ones. This doesn’t mean it didn’t work.
A Little Help from Technology
A support community
Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace app is a simple 10-day introduction to meditation, which takes up only 10 minutes of your time each day. The introductory sessions are free, after which users need to subscribe to access other material such as a tracking tool and community support. Visit headspace.com.
It only takes a dozen 15-minute sessions to complete the 1 Giant Mind 12-Step Course, which aims to get you hooked on the benefits of meditation. Once you’ve done the course, you can take on the 30-Day Challenge to help meditation become a daily habit. Free at either iTunes or Google Play. Visit 1giantmind.org.
Remember to breathe
The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation suggests you take moments in your workday to centre yourself. You can programme a bell of mindfulness on your computer to sound at intervals as a reminder to take a break. This can be as simple as breathing in and out three times. The Insight Timer is free from iTunes and Google Play.