What you should expect when meditating
Although there are a variety of sensations that you can experience during meditation, in reality, only four things can happen during meditation: You have awareness of your mantra or the focus of your meditation. You experience thoughts or sensations. You fall asleep. You enter the stillness between thoughts, commonly referred to as “the gap.” You can be reassured that meditation is always healing and that your body takes exactly what it needs from your practice. When you notice that your attention has drifted from your mantra to a thought in your mind or to a sensation in your body, gently return your attention to the repetition of your mantra. If you fall asleep, it’s because you were tired and needed to rest. If it happens a lot, you’re probably overtired and need to get more sleep at night. When you enter the silence between thoughts, you won’t actually realize it until after you have drifted back out of the gap. There are no thoughts in the gap – just pure consciousness or restful awareness, so you can only have the realization that you were in the gap once you are leaving it. This gentle drifting between thought and silence is a natural part of the meditation process. We don’t try to get rid of thoughts or do anything with them, for that only creates more mental turbulence. Instead, you just keep returning your attention to the mantra. As you meditate on a regular basis, cultivating inner quiet, the time you spend in the gap during meditation will increase.
How does meditating help?
Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular practice of meditation.
The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we're actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack. When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally.
Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. A study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy).
One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a means of transforming the mind. Meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things. By engaging with a particular meditation practice you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new, more positive ways of being. With regular work and patience these nourishing, focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energized states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life.