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Faidra Papanikolaou, April 21 2021

Meditation - Bringing back clarity

“A life experienced only through the mind and its stories is like a black and white picture of a beautiful sunset” (Doyle, 2014, p. 11)

Humans seem constantly lost in their thoughts, listening and believing daunting stories about the future, or experiencing guilt about their past. Being in the present moment does not seem as important as paying attention to those thoughts. Psychologists define this mind wandering habit as “worry” and “rumination” which in turn can cause intense negative emotions and affect everyday functioning (Ozdemir, 2021). Mindfulness meditation is commonly defined as being attentive and aware to what is happening in the present moment, in contrast to being lost in thoughts. The well-known psychologist William James, while studying consciousness used the following quote to describe our human tendency for mind-wandering:

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake” (James, 1911, p. 217)

Thus, mindfulness is about bringing back clarity and vividness in our present experience and breaking the automatic patterns of thinking and behaving. In this way, we can also increase our resilience and coping skills such as our emotion regulation, and therefore we are more likely to experience higher levels of positive emotions and well being (Brown & Ryan, 2003). This is also supported by recent scientific studies.

The brain in meditation

Besides philosophers and psychologists, neuroscientists also find that meditation correlates with changes in the brain. Brain imaging studies show long and short term changes in our brain after practicing meditation. Thus meditation does not only affect our minds, but changes how our brain works!

The areas that seem to be more affected are areas related to emotion regulation, body awareness and emotional control. The theoretical hypothesis that meditation acts by disengaging us from “the voice in our head” and identifying more with other elements of experience is in line with decreased activity of the “mind wandering” default mode network in the brain. That network has been identified to be more active when we are “daydreaming”, “thinking”, “worrying” (Tang et al., 2015) than when we are focused on a specific task. Therefore, we see those ancient practices of meditation and mindfulness gaining more and more substantial scientific background.

Figures 1. and 2. Those figures demonstrate changes in cerebral blood flow during meditation using a single photon emission computed tomography, in eight experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators, and may reflect increased concentration and an altered sense of space (Newberg et al., 2001) 

Where to start

Practicing mindfulness is much easier than people often think. As Yongey Mingyur Riponche (Swanson & Rinpoche, 2010) often says to introduce beginners to practicing meditation:

“Are you breathing right now? If you just checked your breath and answered yes, you already know how to practice meditation? - Yongey Mingyur Riponche 

There are commonly two types of practice: 

There is no right or wrong way to meditate. By definition, the practice is getting lost, coming back, getting lost, coming back, again and again. This action of coming back is what makes us progress.

The practice of meditation can be divided into formal and informal. The difference is that formal practice entails putting aside time to practice meditation, while informal practice is being mindful while continuing everyday activities, talking with friends, being at work. Both practices support each other. 

In Sensae, we are currently working on technology to monitor the physiological signs of stress and help people acknowledge their internal body processes. Our mission is to aid people in finding suitable and healthy ways to increase body awareness as a means to improve resilience and cope with stress. 

To learn more about how we use technology to monitor and manage stress, and apply to participate in our closed beta programme,  by clicking here

Practice

Here are a few meditation several exercises you can try:

Audio exercises:

Open awareness

https://soundcloud.com/ucsdmindfulness/mpeak-5-min-open-awareness-meditation-by-pete-kirchmer

Focused awareness

Breath: https://soundcloud.com/mindfulness-meditation/01-7-minute-meditation

Sound: https://soundcloud.com/sharonsalzberg/sound-meditation

Visual: https://soundcloud.com/clare-snowdon-1/natural-object-short-meditation

References

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822

James, W. (1911). Memories and studies. Longmans, Green.

Newberg, A., Alavi, A., Baime, M., Pourdehnad, M., Santanna, J., & d’Aquili, E. (2001). The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: A preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 106(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0925-4927(01)00074-9

Ozdemir, Y. I. (2021, January 8). The global epidemic of stress and anxiety. Sensae.Co. http://sensae.co/blog/the-global-epidemic-of-stress-and-anxiety

Swanson, E., & Rinpoche, Y. M. (2010). The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness. Random House.

Tang, Y.-Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–225. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916

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Faidra Papanikolaou

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