Mattheui Ricard is a writer and a photographer, but he is also a Buddhist Monk who has spent countless hours meditating.
He describes meditation as exercise for the mind. He says it’s similar to weight lifting, because it helps your mind expand in awareness and positivity.
In the video below, Ricard clears up some misconceptions about meditating as he is being suited up with 256 sensors that will detect his brain activity in the study.
While the sensors were in his brain, he began a “compassion meditation” and the gamma wave production went off the chart. Activity in the left prefrontal cortext also went up rapidly, relative to the right half, which indicates a large increase in happiness and unlikeliness for negativity.
These changes are generally related to improvements in learning, attention, memory and consciousness. The study also looked at other monks and they showed significant changes in their brain function.
And it wasn’t just when they were meditating. Their brain activity in a normal state of consciousness looks like a novice person meditating. They are also able to switch off negative thoughts more easily than people who don’t meditate.
This is consistent with several other studies. These results are proof that meditation offers profound benefits.
How to meditate, according to Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard
Matthieu Ricard is a 71 year old Tibetan Buddhist monk. He has been practicing meditation since he was in his 20s.
Ricard began studying Buddhism as a doctoral student at the Pasteur Institute in France, where he grew up. After graduating, he traveled back to the Himalayas to train to become a Buddhist monk.
He’s now a confidante to the Dalai Lama, viral TED speaker and a bestselling author.
Business Insider recently interviewed Ricard and asked him for his most fundamental advice for people getting started meditating.
Ricard advises to start with compassion meditation. “There’s nothing mysterious,” he said. “You don’t need to be sitting trying to empty your mind with incense around you under the mango tree.”
After this, follow these steps:
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed or unfocused.
- Breathe in and out slowly, focusing on your breath.
- As thoughts enter your mind, don’t try to ignore them. Just let them float by.
- If you find yourself distracted, bring yourself back to your breath.
- When you are feeling relaxed, think of someone who makes you happy. Focus on your feelings of altruistic love for them.
- This feeling may last for just a few seconds at a time, and that’s okay. Keep on coming back to it.
That’s it. After practicing this for some time, you’ll be experiencing compassion meditation.
If you would like to see a video where I share my own approach to meditation (based on what I learned from Alan Watts), check it out below.
7 ways meditation changes your brain, according to science
Now that you’ve been exposed to Ricard’s approach to compassion meditation, let’s go over some of the benefits of meditation to the brain.
It’s clear that meditation has some enormous neurological benefits. Here are 7 ways meditation has been to shown to change the brain.
1) Meditation helps preserve the aging brain.
Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged.
The study was titled “Forever young: Meditation might slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain, say UCLA researchers”. Here’s a summary of the study:
“The scientists looked specifically at the association between age and gray matter. They compared 50 people who had mediated for years and 50 who didn’t. People in both groups showed a loss of gray matter as they aged. But the researchers found among those who meditated, the volume of gray matter did not decline as much as it did among those who didn’t.”
The researchers were quick to say they can’t draw a direct and causal connection between meditation and preserving grey matter in the brain. There are too many other factors to account for, such as lifestyle choices personality traits and genetic brain differences.
However, the chief researcher said:
“Still, our results are promising. Hopefully they will stimulate other studies exploring the potential of meditation to better preserve our aging brains and minds. Accumulating scientific evidence that meditation has brain-altering capabilities might ultimately allow for an effective translation from research to practice, not only in the framework of healthy aging but also pathological aging.”
2) Meditation reduces activity in the brain’s “me center”.
Mindfulness has been to shown to decrease activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for daydreaming and self-referential thoughts.
Brain scans of meditators show increased activity in the frontal lobes — the rational brain — and decreased activity in the amygdala — the fear part of the brain.
According to Frontiers in Human Neuroscience:
“Meditation training may induce learning, that is not stimulus or task-specific but process specific, and thereby may result in enduring changes in mental function.”
When you reduce activity in the “me center” of the brain, you’re reducing your self-referential thoughts. This makes it easier to live in the comment and get immersed in your surroundings.
3) It’s effects rival antidepressants for depression, anxiety.
A study found that the effect of meditation for anxiety and depression was moderate at 0.3. It might sound low, but it is the same effect size as anti-depressant medication.
The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine. The research analysed thousands of earlier studies on meditation, arriving at a small number of randomized clinical trials. They found that when it comes to the treatment of depression, anxiety, and pain, the practice may be just as effective as medication.
4) Meditation may lead to volume changes in key areas of the brain.
There seems to be decreases in the amygdala in the brain which is responsible for fear and anxiety and that areas for learning and memory increases in cortical thickness.
Here’s the summary of the research study supporting these findings:
“The positive effects of mindfulness meditation on pain and working memory may result from an improved ability to regulate a crucial brain wave called the alpha rhythm. This rhythm is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation may be helping the brain deal with an often overstimulating world.”
5) Just a few days of training improves concentration and attention.
Since the strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central aims of meditation, it’s not so surprising that meditation improves our attention.
A study supporting this finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Here’s what they concluded:
“This article shows that a group randomly assigned to 5 days of meditation practice with the integrative body–mind training method shows significantly better attention and control of stress than a similarly chosen control group given relaxation training.”
6) Meditation reduces anxiety.
Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, in contrast to attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety – and that these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with those self-referential (“me-centered”) thoughts.
Julie Cross reported on these findings in the Harvard Health Blog:
“But when researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found 47 trials that addressed those issues and met their criteria for well-designed studies. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.”
7) Meditation can help with addiction.
A growing number of studies has shown that, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction.
The American Journal of Psychiatry, for example, documented correlations between meditation and successful addiction rehabilitation as far back as the 1970s. Regardless of the specific teaching, detaching from thoughts and observing and calming the self is always at the heart of every meditation philosophy.