What Happens When We Meditate

Physiological Changes

When we meditate, many physiological changes in the nervous system and body occur. In experienced meditators, there is more gray matter (neuron cell bodies) in the prefrontal cortex (the site of executive functioning, impulse control, and goal-directed behavior) than in non-meditators. There is more activation in the prefrontal cortex and less in the amygdala (the site that is activated in fear). Mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety and depression as much as an anxiolytic and antidepressant medication, according to one study. The immune system functions better when we meditate, and markers of immune system health increase. There is also lowered blood pressure.

Experiential Changes

On the experiential side, people are more altruistic when they have a regular mindfulness meditation practice. Meditators also report feeling more kindness toward themselves and others, as well as less stress, than non-meditators. Furthermore, people who have a regular mindfulness practice report being less reactive than non-meditators to difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, and fear.

Acute Experiential Changes

On the acute experiential side (for example, before and after practicing mindfulness on a given day), we also notice differences pre- and post-meditation. As shown in the image above, before practice we may feel solid, and there may be opaque stress that seems to confound us. We may be complaining internally about how nothing is going our way, how there is nothing we can do about the changes life is throwing at us, and about how others are treating us unfairly. As we practice by noticing the sensations of the breath, we slowly begin to feel more present in the here and now. After a few minutes, we feel more grounded, stable, with inner resources such us our breath and calmness of mind that can serve us not only now, but also when we act for our own and others’ benefit. As we continue practicing, we feel the even-mindedness of equanimity, that amidst all the change, we are okay and feel the beautiful pleasantness of the equanimous mind. Just before we end our practice, we reflect on the 8 worldly winds (praise and blame, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disrepute) and feel much more at ease with our previous notion that others have treated us unfairly. We finish our practice, and the opaque stress within has cleared. Having noticed the changing nature of phenomena, we feel less solid (we may feel like an entirely different person!), yet still grounded and stable.

This is not to say that mindfulness is a cure-all, but that it is tremendously helpful for health, well-being, and happiness.

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