The word mindfulness is now used so commonly that it has almost entirely lost its meaning. And yet, mindfulness lies at the core of meditation, a practice that — despite its vast promise to fix everything from our relationships to our feelings of anxiety — is wholly misunderstood.
On one side of the spectrum, those selling mind-training programs promise that meditation will change our lives entirely. On the other side of the spectrum lies a meditative practice whose benefits have been largely undiscovered, until now.
In their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, recognized experts in their fields and lifelong meditators Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson reveal the data that demonstrate just what meditation can and can’t do.
“Some of what you know about meditation may be wrong. But what is true about meditation you may not know,” write Goleman and Davidson.
The path that meditation was traditionally intended to take was deep; a transformative exploration of the self, aimed at improving one’s existence. And yet the path that meditation has taken in our modern society has been wide; applied to a broad array of discontents.
Goleman describes his own experience of meditating twice daily for twenty minutes, and then further immersing himself in ten days of continual practice, five times in a row with meditation teacher S. N. Goenka.
“Goenka’s method started with simply noting the sensations of breathing in and out — not just for twenty minutes but for hours and hours a day. This cultivation of concentration then morphed into a systematic whole-body scan of whatever sensations were occurring anywhere in the body. What had been ‘my body, my knee’ becomes a sea of shifting sensation — a radical shift in awareness,” writes Goleman.
The idea that intense and prolonged meditation can profoundly alter the core of a person’s very being has been largely unpublicized. In his time as a science writer for The New York Times, Goleman notes that of the more than 800 articles he wrote, only a handful had anything to do with meditation. Goleman’s ideas about mediation, however, were fueled by Davidson’s research on emotions and the brain (as well as other scientists’ work), and later became the premise of his bestselling, Emotional Intelligence.
“Science needs to balance skeptics with speculators — people who cast wide nets, think imaginatively, and consider, ‘what if’..If only skeptics pursued science, little innovation would occur,” write Goleman and Davidson.
Goleman and Davidson propose that the more you practice how to generate a meditative state, the more that practice shows lasting influences beyond the session itself. Much in the same way that a deaf person’s peripheral vision improves to accurately read expansive signing gestures, the repeated experience of intense meditation produces what Goleman and Davidson call, “extremely positive altered traits.”
Beyond compassion, self-acceptance, life-purpose, autonomy, mastery, and personal growth, there is a mind undisturbed.
“A mind undisturbed marks a prominent goal of meditation paths in all great spiritual traditions,” write Goleman and Davidson.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is now used successfully as a way to help alleviate chronic pain. The key point Goleman and Davidson note is that it is possible to register and then investigate and transform your relationship to whatever you are sensing at a given place in the body, even if it is highly unpleasant.
And this transformation has lasting effects. In one study, people who had never meditated previously and were randomly assigned to practice Mindful Attention Training, showed reduced amygdala activity after just eight weeks of practice.
Another example is the “functional decoupling” of the higher and lower brain regions that register pain in the brains of Zen meditators. This decoupling allows the meditators to feel pain on a sensory level, without the thoughts and emotions that typically accompany it.
Different from the cognitive reappraisal of stress commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy, Zen meditators seem to apply no appraisal of stress at all — maintaining a Zen mindset.
Meditators not only respond to stress with less cortisol, but perceive stressful situations as less stressful than non-meditators.
“Further evidence for this comes from research with (these same advanced) meditators. The meditators’ brains were scanned while they saw disturbing images of people suffering, like burn victims. The seasoned practitioners’ brains revealed a lower level of reactivity in the amygdala; they were more immune to emotional hijacking,” write Goleman and Davidson.
Meditation skills, we now know, operate in what is known as a “state by trait interaction,” in which the act of meditating itself produces lasting changes in the brain that improve the very traits that give rise to the ability to achieve a meditative state successfully.
Seasoned yogis, for example, show decreased activity in the post cingulate cortex (PCC), a key area of self-focused thought, as well as a stronger connection between the PCC and the prefrontal cortex, which further enhances feelings of compassion.
Revealing the powerful ways in which meditation changes our brains and our lives, Altered Traits also tells the story of the emergence of something deep and transformative, something that Goleman and Davidson say can change your life.
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson
Hardcover, 336 Pages