It is important to begin by noting that no culture throughout time owns meditation. It has manifested in many forms in most devotional populations throughout time. The aspect of meditation that is most different in our current day is that it is no longer reserved solely for the mystics. Modern science has slowly begun to catch up with ancient traditions, revealing the truly healing and therapeutic powers of meditation. Once dismissed as “navel-gazing,” meditation is now a hot topic across the Western world, from CEOs and MDs to your local business owner, all using meditation to cope with stress and/or improve mental clarity. As a result of these changing cultural tides, meditation is being rebranded. For so long, it was the practice with the expectation, “Empty your mind.” Neurologically speaking, there is no such thing as an empty mind, so why is that the first instruction so often?
While a meditator may experience a quieter mind, this daunting tagline ultimately alienates many beginners. Meditation’s new found position in boardrooms and operating rooms has enabled a rebrand that is both grounded in science and less intimidating to the novice. I define meditation as the practice of infinitely returning to center. I like this definition because it grounds meditation in a practical reality, and makes the practice more accessible.
Center is the focal point of your meditation; what you continuously bring your attention back to in order to maintain your meditative state.
With the view of meditation as the practice of infinitely returning to center, two conditions are established for the practice; choosing a center point, and constantly returning to your center when you begin to find yourself straying. Center is the focal point of your meditation; what you continuously bring your attention back to in order to maintain your meditative state. It can be the breath, a mantra, a point in space, a place in your body, or the sound of the teacher’s voice if it’s a guided meditation. Whatever you pick must be steady and continuous, like a reliable friend. It is important to note that you don’t have to use the same focal point for every meditation; however, whatever is chosen for a given practice sticks for the duration of the practice. Breathing is such a wonderful center point because there are so many subtleties to focus on within the breath. For instance, you might focus on the feeling of breath in/on your nostrils, or maybe the sensation of stretch in your belly, or even the counts and rhythm of your breath. Perhaps you have focused your mind on a mantra; even a simple mantra such as, “Inhale, I am inhaling. Exhale, I am exhaling,” can be effective when it is moving along with the breath. The options are limitless, but keep in mind that no matter what you decide to utilize for your practice, you have taken your attention and wrapped it around thoughts that are present-moment, non-judgmental, and body-oriented. Thus, center is not simply a focal point just for the sake of it, but it is a transformative place, that brings you deeper into yourself, whether you are already there or attempting to return.
Center is not an object to be attained and kept as though it were your property to own. Center is a destination that you can only reside in momentarily and the necessary task is the act of bringing yourself back to center time-and-time-again.
Center is not an object to be attained and kept as though it were your property to own. Center is a destination that you can only reside in momentarily and the necessary task is the act of bringing yourself back to center time-and-time-again. Research indicates that the difference between advanced and novice practitioners of meditation is not their grip on center, but instead the effort required to return to it. Our brains have largely two oscillating attentional networks. The default mode network (DMN) is responsible for stimulus independent thought and mind wandering. The task-positive network is responsible for attention-demanding tasks and focus. It is more nuanced than this in reality, but this simplification serves for explanatory purposes. One group of researchers performed an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study on meditators to explore their attentional networks during practice. The participants had been practicing for at least a year, thus were familiar with the fluctuating cognitive states. They were asked to press a button both when they noticed their mind had wandered and when their focus had returned to the breath. The experiment was constructed around these intervals: mind wandering (baseline), awareness of mind wandering, shift of attention, and sustained attention. It is important to note that mind-wandering was considered baseline for this study, to further emphasize the normalcy that is a wandering mind. It was confirmed that the two oscillating attentional networks alternate in this process of meditation. The task positive network was recruited when they caught themselves thinking, and it was sustained during the focus period. The default mode network was recruited during the mind-wandering phase, shifting upon awareness. It was observed that those with more practice time required less activity to bring themselves back to focus. This means that when compared to new meditators, advanced practitioners did not lose focus less often that the novice practitioners; however, it was easier for them to regain their focus and return to their center. Less experienced meditators were more likely to judge themselves for losing their focus, feeling as though they were failing or doing something wrong. This is what would create the spike in activation that was not observed in the advanced practitioners. There is also evidence that increased DMN activity is associated with negative mental health outcomes. Thus, neurologically speaking, meditation requires the constant disengagement of DMN activity, meaning that it contributes to an increased sense of well-being (Hasenkamp et al., 2011).
So the next time you go to meditate, remember what you’ve learned here. Your mind will wander. You will try you absolute best to focus on your center. You’ll notice, try not to comment, and then you’ll take another breath in, and another breath out. You’ll focus again. Then, your mind will wander. The cycle continues and it gets easier. Every breath is another opportunity to try again; every moment is another opportunity for you to try again; to find center — again.
Hasenkamp, W., Christine, W. D., Duncan, E., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: A fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states.NeuroImage, 59, 750–760. Retrieved from http://psychology.emory.edu/cognition/barsalou/papers/Hasenkamp_et_al-NeuroImage_2012-meditation_time_course.pdf