David Paul Boaz
What are the neurobiological influences of mindfulness meditation on human behavior; how do these influences effect our sense of self-ego-I; our brain structure and function; relative human flourishing and happiness; and the ultimate happiness and freedom of enlightenment and Buddhahood?
Both Zen Masters and neuroscientists agree, “mindfulness of breathing” (focused attention meditation), and “compassion meditation” both facilitate 1) a beneficial shift of attention from obsessive, usually fraught self-referential thinking and concern for “I, Me, Mine”; which 2) bestows a sense of inner peace and self-acceptance; which 3) reduces anxiety and anger toward self and others; which 4) enhances altruistic thought, intention and action for the benefit of other beings, 5) enhancing well being and happiness. How shall we understand this contemplative process in the gloss of neurobiology?
The unfocused ruminating wandering mind, under sway of the brain’s “default mode network”—the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)—significantly increase self-referential attention—”selfing”—with its always present fear/anxiety, anger/hostility, greed/pride, and negative judgments about self, which are then projected onto others. The micro-cognitive result in the individual is stress and unhappiness. The macro-cognitive result in the human sociocultural cognosphere is alienation, despotism, and endless war. What to do?
Scientific meta-research, synthesizing data from thousands of research projects since 1970, reveal that all three of the classes of meditation—1) mindfulness focused attention (usually upon the breath); 2) open monitoring mindfulness (witnessing whatever arises in awareness without grasping or rejecting); and 3) loving-kindness compassion meditation (feeling our natural empathy for living beings)—conclusively reduced or deactivated processing in some physical structures, while enhancing activity in others.
1) Meditation reduced processing in the default mode network (PCC and MPFC) of the “selfing” wandering mind; which 2) reduced self-ego-I self-referential processing—habitual attention and concern about I-Me-Mine with its attendant anxiety, anger and ill-will mind states; 3) reduced activity in, and reduced the size of the amygdala which is responsible for fear and anger (“fight or flight”); 3) reduced stress related cortisol production by the adrenal cortex while blocking its circulation throughout the upper body upon the autonomic vagus nerve (CN X); 4) enhanced beneficial brain alpha, theta, and high amplitude gamma band oscillations (25 to 42 hertz), while reducing excessive beta activity; 5) reduced activity in the right prefrontal cortex which is active in fear, anger, and ill-will mind states; 6) greatly increased left prefrontal cortex processing which enhances feelings of altruism, compassion and forgiveness toward self and others; 7) induced increased, long term frontal cortex gyrification (neuroplasticity), which is permanent, even when contemplative practice ceases (Siegel 2013; Porges 2014; Begley 2007; Wallace 2007, 2009; Scientific American November, 2014).
The no longer surprising result of this neuroscientific meta-research is greatly reduced preoccupation with self and its obsessive narcissistic self-narrative; reduced psycho-emotional stress; induced and enhanced subjective feelings of connection, well being, good will, and subjective reports of increased happiness.
Thus does meditation train the “wild horse of the mind” in the placement of attention, and continued focus of attention upon immediate, non-conceptual, present moment to moment sensory/feeling experience, upon the mindful breath—our eternal here and now connection—while shifting attention away from chronic unfocused wandering mind with its obsessive and unhappy attachment to self-ego-I.
Meditation clearly reduces or suspends the “selfing” that causes the terrible suffering secondary to our pervasive sense of a lonely separate self. And all of this through a program of mind training in present moment, trans-conceptualfeeling awareness upon the breath—the placement and maintenance of attention upon the breath which settles the wild horse of the mind upon the very source and “nature of mind”, nondual wisdom mind Presence of That, by whatever name.
Yes, neuroscientific research demonstrates the profound value of meditation—especially shamatha calm abiding, and loving-kindness compassion meditation—in support of human flourishing and happiness. Indeed, there is a “mindfulness revolution” now abroad in the Western mind and its culture. It’s alive and well in most of our institutions—education, medicine, psychology, the social sciences, business, government, military, corrections, even organized religion which has perforce grown apart from its foundation in the contemplative mythos of our primordial wisdom tradition.
On this neurobiological view then, human happiness is very much dependent upon an awareness management skill set—where, when, and how we choose to place our attention. In short, both happiness and unhappiness are the result of present placement of attention, here and now.
Cognitive neuroscience has identified two ways of experiencing the self—two modes of self-reference: 1) narrative focus upon self, our urgent all consuming story-drama about ourselves; and 2) experiential focus, bodily proprioceptive sense experience, with direct trans-conceptual feeling experience. These two modes are hypothesized by cognitive scientists to be neurologically distinct.
Once again, volumes of research have demonstrated that in both meditators and non-meditators the experiential focus mode involving non-conceptual “mindfulness of breathing” as the Buddha called it, reduced egocentric narrative self-referential activity, in a word “selfing”, in the MPFC and PCC of the default mode network. However, for highly skilled meditators habitual fantasy-reverie self-referential thinking of the untrained mind is absent during sitting meditation, and for varying periods of time following formal sitting meditation. Here, processing activity of the default mode network is nearly quiescent (Siegel 2013). These skilled practitioners abide in a “walking meditation” mind state most of the time. And this calm state persists through some sleep states.
In short, “advanced” meditators have demonstrated in many studies (Begley 2007; Siegel 2013) the capacity to maintain such stable contemplative mind states, with their corresponding brain rhythms (theta and gamma) in “post-meditation” activities—while “hewing wood and carrying water”, and driving, and talking, and even creative thinking!
Therefore, meditation practice for established meditators seems to facilitate the choice of a fluent cognitive ambulation from conceptual self narrative mode to a peaceful, non-conceptual experiential mode, almost at will. The result is calm abiding quiescent peace of mind, and a felt sense of blissful connection and interdependence with all living things; indeed, with the unbroken whole of kosmos itself—even as inexorable adversity continues to arise.
Clearly, the neuroscientific implications of meditation for the reduction of human suffering and for human happiness are profound. Mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation offer skillful regulation of negative emotional response to life’s adversity by transforming the painful narcissistic self-narrative into quiescent, peaceful, and altruistic states of mind.
As we learn to place our present moment to moment awareness—our attention—upon our direct trans-conceptualfeeling experience we connect with an aspect of ourselves that is selfless and profound. We come to understand that we need not believe and defend our adventitious dreary and destructive negative ego-centric thoughts and feelings; stress is reduced; and human happiness is enhanced. Thoughts and feelings are inherently evanescent, ever changing, and impermanent (anitya). Perhaps we should take them less seriously, and with a bit of humor.